Forget what they've been telling you. Turns out it's not the third time that's the charm, but the fifth. At least, that appears to be the current trend in past-their-welcome Hollywood franchises. It's already happened once this year with Fast Five (the series' only film to earn mostly positive reviews), and now it's happening again with X-Men: First Class, a prequel/origin-story/reboot of the mutant superhero franchise.
After two generally liked films, the X-Men franchise quickly took a nose dive with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). And even though there still appear to be plans for a (hopefully much better) Wolverine sequel, FOX apparently felt that it couldn't hurt to cash in on the prequel/origin trend a little further, taking us all the way back to the 40s and 60s. After an opening eerily reminiscent of 2000's X-Men, involving a young Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in a German concentration camp, we begin a fairly lengthy bit of globe trotting. In one story thread, we see Magneto become something of a Nazi hunter, while in a second, we see a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) recruited by a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) to examine the sinister Hellfire Club. Originally thought to be a Communist infiltration of America, it's actually run by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant himself, who is determined to use the Cold War to bring about the annihilation of non-mutants.
And despite a certain lack of surprises (we already know which major characters must live), Matthew Vaughn does manage to inject some style, and in turn new life, into the franchise. The 60s interior designs are richly filled out, in settings ranging from Charles' mansion, to Shaw's nuclear submarine. There's also some surprisingly good cast work. McAvoy and Fassbender are standouts among the ensemble, as two men with gradually differing opinions on what it means to be a mutant living among humans. Fassbender ultimately wins out, if only because the script eventually surrenders McAvoy's role and makes him little more than an emotional support for Fassbender's. Yet the two do have a great chemistry, and it's a shame that the film doesn't give us more of their relationship in its attempt to cover so many characters and set-up points. The way the film deals with Magneto's struggle to harness his powers produces some truly effective moments, but it's hard not to feel that there could have been a much grander, more emotional pay-off if said struggle wasn't stuck on the the end of a training montage.
And it's that montage, which comes right before the film's Cuban-set finale, where we can see some of the film's problems start to surface. First Class has a great initial stretch, up until Magneto and Charles finally meet, and a thrillingly put together final half hour. These bookends to the story effectively jump across locations and characters, establishing conflicts and executing fight scenes with a nice sense of clarity. Everything in-between, however, is not quite so consistent. Despite a golden 5 (10?) second cameo, the round-up and training of the young mutants is where everything gets a bit choppy. Not surprisingly, character struggles aren't exactly the most three dimensional. They exist for a little, and then YAY they're solved. Only those issues connecting Charles, Magneto, and Mystique have any real staying power, and despite some nifty powers among the ensemble, I wish they had taken more time to focus on this trio. For every good character interaction, there's something a little cheesy or clichéd. These usually aren't big issues, but they put some dents in the film's armor.
And as good as some smaller cast members are (Nicolas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast), others are, well, not. Case in point: January Jones as Emma Frost. As beautiful as she looks, the actress seems totally out of her league here, once again enforcing the notion that her work as Betty Draper on Mad Men is the only good performance she'll ever give. Less of a distraction, though perhaps a tad puzzling, is Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart. In Byrne's case, the fault may lie more with the writing. Either way, though, for someone who is supposed to be tough and supportive of the X-Men, she has one too many scenes where her character is simply wide-eyed and astounded. It makes her look weak, and even stupid, despite her status as a CIA Agent. That said, at least she gets some chances to act, whereas many in the ensemble are just there. Azazel (Jason Flemying), a red-skinned mutant with a tail and the ability to teleport is more of a cool effect than a character. He still fares better than another henchman of Shaw's, who can create tornadoes, yet never gets a single line.
For all of its little faults, however, Vaughn and co. do deserve credit for restoring quality to a franchise that had taken a serious tumble. In putting more emphasis on exploring (some of) the characters, he's able to inject some scenes with a sense of purpose. When Magneto lifts a submarine clear out of the water, it's more than just a special effect. It's a moment of triumph for the character, one that is built upon his ability to master the trauma of his past. Scenes like this show First Class at its best, and what the series is capable of when some real effort and talent is behind the material. So while this latest installment may be far from perfect, and certainly not the best super hero film, it's a solid (re) kickstart to the franchise, even if it doesn't quite reach its full potential.