X-men: First Class - review

Having watched X-men: First Class last night, and driven home between two and three in the morning, with the eastern sky already turning light blue, I fell asleep and dreamt of being a superhero. Clearly it had got inside my head, which is more than can be said for Thor. Is that what summer blockbusters are for? Not really, but some of them would like to be, and this feels like one of those.

Its central emotional story - how Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto came to be an enemy of the human race - has huge tragic potential. That we know that he is going to become the bad guy gives a dramatic sense of fate that, along with a great performance by Michael Fassbender, nearly creates something really memorable. We see his early career as a lone avenging angel consuming and defining him, he is already lost. Later he will be warned, “Killing will not bring you peace.” to which he replies, “Peace was never an option.” This is the kind of clunky dialogue that is only just saved by several other decent acting performances, including James McAvoy as the altruistic, placatory Charles Xavier who brings a hope of hope to Lensherr. He shows him that rage alone is not the source of his power, but rather it comes from a place “between anger and serenity”. Ignoring yet another piece of grating dialogue, this leads to a powerful scene in which Xavier uses his telepathy to recall a memory Lehnsherr had lost: of his murderer mother stroking his face and looking proudly at him in the light of a hanukiah. This unleashes unprecedented strength, Fassbender shows him ravaged yet victorious, and we are with him.

But the swelling of darker undercurrents and his final decision to fight the world rather than save it don’t match this. Several times he suddenly appears in a scene, walking across the shot, pausing to deliver a pithy / scathing line, and then walking on again. It’s the same forced technique that this franchise used to make Wolverine seem like a brooding presence, which makes it a doubly annoying failure. The other problem is Kevin Bacon’s decision to play the arch-nemesis as if he was in Austin Powers, (which perhaps he thought he was given the kitsch 1960s setting and the confusingly semi-playful tone). The result is an important relationship that feels emotionally one-sided; if there had been chemistry as strong as that between Fassbender and McAvoy it could have contributed to a really memorable film.

This leaves a disappointing sense of an opportunity missed. It’s not as glaring as the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels, but it’s still unsatisfying. As often in the X-men movies, really interesting questions begin to be asked only to be interrupted by an explosion or something similarly crowd-pleasing. The mutant motif provides a great opportunity to discuss identity and responsibility but these are not allowed to dominate the film’s agenda. It’s not as mindless as Transformers, which really is just about things exploding, but it could be much closer to Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, which it in part aspires to. I was left wanting more, but not in the form of the sequel that was so obviously being set up.