There was plenty of initial skepticism to Fox’s announcement that director Matthew Vaughn (KICK-ASS) would be rebooting the struggling X-MEN series, taking the action back to the early days of Professor Charles Xavier, his relationship with Erik Lehnsherr and the founding of his School For The Gifted. Fans had been burned by the way the series had floundered since the departure of Bryan Singer, with THE LAST STAND and WOLVERINE both proving to be major disappointments. It appeared FIRST CLASS was being rushed into production to piggyback off the other Marvel successes, and that a reboot would only mean totally discarding Singer’s work once and for all, as well as recasting the X-Men, which had thus far proved one of the series’ greatest strengths. All fears can be put to rest, however, as Vaughn has miraculously delivered an energetic, revitalized X-Men film, free of any restraining commitment to what has come before, while simultaneously retaining Singer’s successful blend of intelligence, adventure, style and humour.
The film opens in 1944 as Erik’s impressive magnetic powers are discovered by the Nazis and he is subjected to the experiments of scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), while Charles Xavier befriends the shape-shifter Raven (later renamed Mystique) and adopts her as his surrogate sister. Years later, Charles’ (James McAvoy) studies on mutation are noticed by the CIA, while Erik (Michael Fassbender) travels to Argentina in search of his wartime tormentor. When it is discovered that a mutant named Sebastian Shaw is manipulating both the US and Soviet militaries in an effort to trigger World War III, Charles and Erik’s lives converge and they are assigned the task of assembling a mutant army of their own to defeat this unprecedented new threat.
While purists may grumble how some characters featured in X-MEN-FIRST CLASS contradict recognized continuity in the comic books, it must be conceded that nobody wanted to see younger versions of Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey and Rogue running around when the X-Men universe boasts such an impressive menagerie of mutants. No one can dispute, however, that the 60s backdrop of the Bay of Pigs Invasion was an inspired move and the film’s casting remains universally excellent. Kevin Bacon makes for a delightfully sleazy villain as the Nazi-turned-megalomaniacal playboy Shaw, while McAvoy – not normally a particularly strong screen presence – provides a delicate balance of suave sophistication, grounded leadership and cerebral wit as Professor X.
However, all pale in comparison to Michael Fassbender’s commanding performance as Magneto. Fully aware of his own powers and hell-bent on vengeance, Erik is nevertheless conflicted by the knowledge that he can still do the right thing and fight alongside his friend. It is this emotional struggle that is central to X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and the resonance and depth Fassbender brings to the part raises the film to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Singer’s first two entries. The result is probably the best summer blockbuster of 2011 so far.