Very much a prequel and not a reboot, Michael (Kick-Ass/Layer Cake) Vaughn’s first stab at a Marvel film is hugely enjoyable. Subtly concocted, aware of the need to fix the damage done by X3, the film focuses on the relationship between Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), and explains how their friendship was forged, as well as how their diametrically opposing worldviews led them into opposing paths. It’s not without it’s faults – McAvoy definitely plays second fiddle to Fassbender, some of the effects are needlessly ropey, and some of the mutants’ changes in allegiance are downright baffling, but its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. I should add though, that this is a very character-driven piece – most of the action is in the back half of the film, and I can imagine that not knowing that in advance could lead to disappointment for some.
First thing I should say is that this isn’t Kick-Ass. Although it seriously glamourises the villain of the piece, it’s a very conventional film. Set in the 60′s, it’s a romp through the early X-corner of the Marvel Universe (can Marvel please retrieve the rights to the X-films please?), and the cute period touches work well. The fashion of the time is noted, the politics underpin the film’s plotline, and Sebastian Shaw’s Bond villain-esque lair was a well considered sarcastic touch. The heart of the film though is Michael Fassbender and his transformation from Lehnsherr into Magneto. The script by Miller, Stentz, Goldman and director Vaughn never loses touch with the reasons for Lehnsherr’s hate-filled worldview and Fassbender makes it very easy to empathise with him. Towering above his co-stars, this is very much his show, but whilst that may be hugely entertaining, it causes let-downs elsewhere. McAvoy’s countervailing Xavier never really convinces – he has the lines but doesn’t give them the punch needed, and similar problems occur throughout the nascent X-Men team. Nic Hoult’s Hank McCoy is brilliant, but his Beast is downright awful (this is largely not his fault – the make-up/effects are woeful). Zoë Kravitz’s Angel may be a welcome, off-beat, street-based character, but her reasons for switching sides are never properly developed, and we never really find out much about Havok or Darwin. Disappointing too are some of the effects, particularly the miniatures – whilst they’re clearly necessary in most action movies, someone should have noticed that if it’s abundantly clear that the trees are toy trees, the entire credibility of the scene could be completely wiped out.
The confrontation with (and backstory behind) villain Sebastian Shaw is well developed (Kevin Bacon is unexpectedly brilliant), putting the Xavier/Magneto confrontation at the heart of the Cold War is even more clever, and the formation of the X-Men as a result of both is dramatically satisfying. But the film suffers from confused priorities – Fassbender’s mission of vengeance is a taut, nasty and compelling thriller, which doesn’t sit easily alongside the conventional X-superheroics which the franchise demands. McAvoy’s Xavier must then bridge the divide between plotlines, and for either script or acting reasons (it’s ultimately hard to tell), he never really manages; only after the character loses the use of his legs does he start to resemble Patrick Stewart’s Xavier. This opening outing though is full of knowing and enjoyable moments, from the links to the future (you’ll have to see them for yourself) to Fassbender’s clear joy at playing Lehnsherr/Magneto, and it’s well worth your time. If the plot had been built up entirely through the prism of Xavier/Magneto, and had been played against the parallel social changes happening in America at the same time, it could have been as great as X2. It’s not too far off though.