Again, the Curzon cinema supplements its diet of arthouse, foreign and independent films with a garden variety blockbuster, albeit not exactly a dumb one: X-Men First Class, which I have been looking forward to not because I am a Marvel nut with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the source comics, but because I liked the first three films. (I’ve never seen the one about just Wolverine, as he was always my least favourite X-Man. Let me know if I’ve made a massive tactical error.) The new one, directed by Matthew Vaughn, who was all set to direct X-3 but had to pull out – regretting it ever since – also has Jane Goldman’s name on the credits, which further enhances her reputation of one of this country’s hottest screenwriters, particularly in the fantasy/sci-fi/comic book genre. If she keeps this up, pretty soon they’ll have to start calling Jonathan Ross “Jane Goldman’s husband,” which I’m sure he would welcome.
Although US-sourced, X-Men has a deeply English root, namely Professor Xavier, Oxford-educated young gentleman whose estate where the mutants are fostered and schooled, is in upstate New York but may as well be in Berkshire. First Class, an origins story to match Batman Begins and, although vastly superior, the second Star Wars trilogy, opens with Xavier as a boy, meeting Raven/Mystique, in his Westchester kitchen, the same year, 1944, that the future Magneto is being tortured by the Nazis and discovering what his unlocked anger can do to nearby metal. From these beginnings, it shifts forward to 1962 and the Cold War, and cleverly presses the actual Cuban Missile Crisis into service as a plot device to unite the seemingly unready young X-Kids in battle, and to test out their mutant superpowers off the Cuban coast. This film is drenched in special effects – there were so many technicians and digital wizards working on First Class, the closing credits were forced to stack them into five columns in order to cram them all in before the music finished. There are a number of money-shot set-pieces, all of which build to the nuclear stand-off on the cusp of the blockade, but strip away all the binary code, and you’re still left with a decent script, some good gags (James McAvoy, as the young Xavier, on being granted his professorship, says, “I’ll be going bald next” – a sly reference to the fact that Patrick Stewart will play him in much later life), and a credible narrative jigsaw which lays all the key pieces out on the table, such that not only do we understand how the gang got together, but leaves plenty of room for further adventures with the handsome actors before they turn into theatrical knights.
A fine cast includes Michael Fassbender, whose move from indie hunk (Hunger, Fish Tank) to mainstream hunk has been seamless, the aforementioned McAvoy, Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence (who I recognised but couldn’t place until the credits rolled), January Jones off of Mad Men (who, as has been pointed out elsewhere, was mainly bra), Nicholas Hoult from Skins, and Jason Flemyng, another Brit who seems to be taken very seriously by Hollywood. Sometimes I wonder if actual American actors feel a bit threatened by the current influx of Brits, going over there, stealing their jobs – and probably their women. (Great to see Michael Ironside as the captain of the US Navy warship charged with firing on the Russians during the Missile Crisis, though.)
Under the aegis of Bryan Singer, it seems that X-Men is one of the more reliable comics franchises. You have to suspend your disbelief a bit – I mean, how come the X-Men could appear out of the sky in a black stealth jet to prevent Russia and America from starting a nuclear war and not get blown out of the sky? – but it present an alternative history that almost hangs together. And of course, in the mutants, it reaches out to nerdy teens everywhere and tells them to be themselves and not be bullied into conforming. Not that they’ll listen.