It's a sad and terrible thing when film franchises with much potential and promise die, and it's hard to view recent contributions to the X-men series any other way. The Last Stand was a disaster of a film and although Wolverine, the first in a potential series of X-men Origin films, improved upon this it was far from the level we have come to expect from the Bryan Singer days. All in all, expectations of First Class must range from cynical to blindly optimistic, but it was going to take something special to make me sit through yet another X-men disaster.
Three things suggested the tide might be turning before this film was even revealed. Firstly, the return of Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-men films, as producer seemed both an inspirational move and one perhaps geared around reassuring longstanding fans like me that this wasn't just another cash in. The fact that this was to be a prequel showing the origins of characters pointlessly disposed of in X3 also made me curious.
But casting was the real clincher. Patrick Stewart was an inspiration in the main series of films and one of my all time favourite actors to boot. His replacement needed equal calibre and among the actors young enough to play the role there are few castings I could support as wholeheartedly as that of James McAvoy who I have been following with enthusiasm ever since his days on the sets of Children of Dune.
The film follows the first mutants, assembled by a young Charles Xavier, in their attempt to avert nuclear war in the hope that so doing will demonstrate that their kind can live peacefully with humanity and should not be feared. In their travels they meet Erik Lehnsherr, soon to be known as Magneto. A firm friendship develops between Erik and Charles but it will be challenged by their differences in ideology and Erik's quest for vengeance.
First Class brings us back to the central question of the first X-men film; the choice between violent confrontation or a potentially hopeless attempt at harmony in the face of persecution by a more numerous sister species. Xavier and Magneto are once again the pillars of their respective viewpoints and their younger friends must decide which view they ultimately support. The success of this type of conflict is dependant on both sides having not just understandable but supportable views.
It is to this films credit that Magneto's arguments are if anything more convincing than Xavier's, whose idealist principles seem to rely on an acceptance of the infinite diversity of mutant kind, something that he has problems with even in the context of his own sister. Meanwhile, Magneto is not afraid to pick up not just the banner but the sword to defend his kind. There is little sense that personal gain comes into his objectives anywhere aside from the initial vendetta. The audience is forced to see the logic of his position right up until the very end of the film where innocents and even allies start to get caught in the crossfire.
I really enjoyed this film. There is an operatic scale to it that makes every individual incident feel bigger and bolder, with the final climax perfectly executed. You are kept guessing by a film like this, which is quite something considering we know where it all has to end. Allegiances waver, promises are broken, nothing is safe or stationary.
Even in the Producer's chair, Bryan Singer's influence shines through. The acting is solid throughout, the script well written and well paced. The score adds to the tension perfectly without being overpowering and the CGI is a marked step up from the poor efforts in XO: Wolverine. But it is really the story that I want to rant and rave on. Finally, eight years after X2, we have an X-men movie that keeps its promises, not to mention paying off on the backstory implied in the main trilogy of films and undoing some of the damage inflicted by the bumbling third installment.
If you enjoy the sort of film that the first two X-Men movies were and if like me you have been thoroughly disillusioned by the following two, take my advice and get up off your behinds, take yourself to the cinema and enjoy. This film deserves to gross well and just goes to prove that the saga deserves to continue. I hope that this will not be the last top notch film in the saga and finally feel positive about further sequels. This one delivers!