Befitting characters who derive their powers from genetic mutations, the X-Men have always been a bit of an exception to the norm. They’re superheroes concerned with more than skin-tight costumes and titanic battles, things like prejudice, nuclear war, and genetics — the sorts of things you can name, with the dramatic flourish of a defence attorney revealing his client’s ironclad alibi, when your parents ask why you’re wasting your time reading this rubbish.
It was unusual too, when Bryan Singer first brought the X-Men to the big-screen that the result was a pair of films that set a standard for serious superhero drama. X-2, in particular, still holds a place alongside Chris Nolan’s Batman films and Michael Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. It was less wonderful when Singer left midway through the third film. The lunk-headed pomposity and shallow characterisations of X-3 gave way to the outright stupidity of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the sudden drop-off in quality left little doubt that the franchise was, if not quite dead, at least in a persistent vegetative state.
All of which suggests that the release of another X-Men prequel should be greeted with something between a yawn and a sigh. Surely even the most devoted mutant fanciers won’t expect anything else to be milked from this dry teat.
And yet, X-Men: First Class is wonderful. Not wonderful in the campy, guilty pleasuring way some reviewers enjoyed Thor, and not in the “That wasn’t half as painful as I expected” way others enjoyed The Incredible Hulk. No, First Class is flat-out brilliant.
Viewers paying attention will have already noticed the re-teaming of director Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman, who sprinkle some of their Kick-Ass fairy-dust over the project, as well as Singer’s return, this time with producer and story credits. The opening shot of First Class shows it’s headed in the right direction. Forgoing the CGI credits sequence and voiceover of previous installments, it returns us straight to one of the series’ emotional touchstones, young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) being dragged away from his mother by Nazi storm troopers, twisting the metal gates in a passionate rage before he is struck unconscious by the butt of a rifle. Although the scene plays out much as it did in the first X-Men movie, a final shot now reveals a sinister figure looking on from a window above.
From this appalling cruelty we are whisked to the opulent surroundings of the Xavier mansion in upstate New York, where the young Charles (Laurence Belcher) discovers an intruder in his kitchen, and begins a lifelong friendship with the character fans will recognize as Mystique (Morgan Lily). These two scenes jump-start the twin emotional engines that will drive the film: Mystique’s personal and political journey from Xavier to Magneto, and Magneto’s foundational trauma at the hands of Nazi agents.
Both these ideas develop from small, evocative suggestions in earlier installments. Mystique’s curt answer to Nightcrawler, who, in X-2, asks why she chooses to remain in her scaly blue mutant form when she could “pass” for human at will, here becomes a defining question for her adult self (Jennifer Lawrence), as she must choose from Charles Xavier’s (played as an adult by James McAvoy) loving but closeted mutant tolerance, Erik Lehnsherr’s (Michael Fassbender) elitist mutant pride, and the simple charms of “mutant-next-door,” Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult).
Meanwhile, Erik’s experience with the Nazis, merely hinted at in X-Men, gains a face in the person of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). In their scenes, the film plays its strongest card, showing the grim irony that Magneto’s mutant-supremacism has arisen out of the Nazis’ Aryan-supremacism. Yet for all that First Class foregrounds Magneto’s dubious motives, it also makes him the primary focus of our sympathy. His traumatic upbringing and driven young-adulthood contrast sharply with what we see of a spoiled, arrogant Charles Xavier, and his Bond-cool Nazi hunting escapades are the sort of guilty, giddy power fantasies for which superhero stories were created.
The period setting, which portrays the worst excesses of the Cold War as the results of the Machiavellian machinations of Shaw’s Hellfire Club, lends a sense of clear and present danger to proceedings that contrasts nicely with the buoyant exuberance of Xavier and Lehnsherr’s newly recruited team of teen mutants, including McCoy (Hoult riffs elegantly on Clark Kent), as well as Shaw’s mind-reading helper, Emma Frost (January Jones).
Still, the stars of the piece are MacAvoy and Fassbender, who perfectly evoke the powerful bond between men whom we already know are destined to become bitter enemies. This is the real trick and triumph of X-Men: First Class, or indeed of any successful prequel. When we already know how things will end, how can a film sustain interest in the way things began? While Wolverine offered ever-more elaborate action set pieces and fan-boy cameos, First Class keeps its emphasis squarely on Magneto and Xavier, their passions and foibles, their fears and hopes, their contradictions and complexities.
Too many superhero films have been hijacked by the temptation to chase after spectacle and to forget that these stories, at their core, are the fantasies of everyday people. While X-Men: First Class does deliver spectacle when it needs to, it never forgets that while we dream of being like the mutants at the centre of its story, they are dreaming of being like us.