So I saw X-Men: First Class this afternoon (I love going to the cinema in the middle of the day in the middle of the week - there were 6 people in the auditorium!) and I have to say, overall I thought it was a pretty good film.
The story follows the early days of Professor X and Magneto, how they came to be friends - and subsequently fall out of friendship - and their alliance against would-be mutant dictator Sebastian Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon, starting to look his age and sporting a number of questionable hairstyles). Each has their own agenda for doing so, which serves to add a degree of tension to the thrills.
Now out of context, most superhero films - or more importantly their stories - are utterly ridiculous and implausible, so as a film-maker, to get around it you need a good set of actors to keep the whole carnival grounded and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do a sterling job in their roles as Professor X and Magneto respectively. There’s a great chemistry between them and it’s knowing that these two budding allies will eventually become each other’s nemesis keeps you hooked on what they have to say to each other and to the others around them; for example, the groundwork for the future alliance between Magneto and Mystique is very subtly done.
The other X-characters aren’t the most well-known of the lot, so the actors here don’t really have a great deal to do other than turn up and be a mannequin for some clever special effects work (the exception might be Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast, who seems to be the guy who makes everything possible). They all do a good enough job and it’s actually quite nice to see these new mutants behaving like a bunch of spoiled youngsters with little responsibilities because up until then, that’s really what they’ve been; it’s not until people start getting sliced up or blown up around them that they start wising up.
However, what the films lack though is a change of gear; sure, it does steadily go along and never seems to drag but when it comes to the big showdown, it all starts to seem a bit rushed and uneventful; there’s no real ‘WOW!’ sequence. The nearest it might come to is the scene when Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw and his cronies attack the CIA facility that the X-teens are holed up in, but Azazel’s teleporting was seen to much better effect in X2 with Nightcrawler.
Origin films can also prove quite problematic because unless you’re appealing solely to fans of a films’ content from other media (in this case, comic book fans), you have to try and make a casual viewer aware of what’s happening and why. Seemingly serving as a prequel to Bryan Singer’s X-Men films (let’s try and ignore Brett Ratner’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand), has both its benefits and detriments in that an audience - assuming they’ve already seen the first X-Men trilogy - is already fairly familiar with certain characters like Professor X and Mystique and their real origins (how they came to be mutants) aren’t that important. That allows for them to carry the story along at a fairly steady pace, but it also means that some of the elements that those later films have are almost spoiled early on - for example, you know the flourishing romance between Mystique and Beast in this film won’t go anywhere, and Xavier’s paralysis doesn’t have the emotional impact that maybe it should.
Comic-book movies can be viewed in one of two ways: as a film or as a good translation to film of a comic book. In terms of the former, it does fall short in places but is still an enjoyable ride; in terms of the latter however, it does a much better job. Some of the transitions between scenes work really well and the framing of some of the key shots is very well structured.
It’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here. The problem you have with prequels is that the story you tell in them has a definitive end-point, and for it to work as part of a series it does need to try and find its own story arc whilst complementing the story that comes after it (but came before it, if that makes sense). Still, if Fox want to stretch out the franchise a little longer, they could always ret-con the celluloid atrocity that was X3.