It's fairly self-evident that, nowadays, the furthering of a film franchise has really little reason to exist other than to prop up the studios' balance sheets. With X-Men: First Class, Marvel and Fox's X-Men series about genetically mutated super-heroes reaches its fifth episode, after two strong entries and two middling ones. Bryan Singer's foundational stones X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) respected Stan Lee's design of the original comic-books as a metaphor of teenage alienation, by anchoring it in a recognisable reality where mankind has begun to evolve into a mutated species and framing that alienation as a direct result of xenophobia and intolerance. But Brett Ratner's underwhelming X-Men: The Final Stand (2006) and Gavin Hood's Wolverine spin-off (2009) steered the series towards a more standard, less interesting visual-effects-oriented superhero movie.
For this prequel designed as an early-sixties “origin story” detailing the start of the X-Men adventures, mr. Singer is back in the fold with producer and story credits, having recruited British hot property Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Kick-Ass) to direct it. Ironically, mr. Vaughn (who also worked on the script with his usual screenwriting partner Jane Goldman) was supposed to have helmed The Final Stand, but it was his untimely bow-out shortly before shooting started that led to the blah end result.
The director injects the right sense of 1960s insouciance into what turns out to aim for a glossy ersatz Bond-caper, with a pre-Magneto Erik Lehnsherr (an intense Michael Fassbender) and a pre-Professor X Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) jet-setting the world chasing Nazi war criminal Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, relishing an unusual mad villain turn), the man who developed Lehnsherr's powers at Auschwitz and is now behind the Cuban Missile Crisis. That Bond-like frothy silliness is what's so enticing about the whole concept, and it's consciously played up throughout (down to the highly stylized, Maurice Binder-like title sequence). But despite what Martin Campbell did with the Bond series recently, that kind of 1960s black-on-white spy caper doesn't mesh very well with the series' roots in nuanced plot twists and existentalism, and mr. Vaughn literally loses the plot as the film careens towards an over-egged visual-effects-heavy climax. So the fifth X-movie ends up an honourable but less than essential entry – not as strong as the two Singer-directed episodes, not as disposable as the lesser films.
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi; and Kevin Bacon.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Gregory Goodman; screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and mr. Vaughn, based on a story by Sheldon Turner and mr. Singer; music by Henry Jackman; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen), John Mathieson; production designer, Chris Seagers; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; film editors, Lee Smith, Eddie Hamilton; visual effects designer, John Dykstra.
A Twentieth Century-Fox presentation, in association with Marvel Entertainment and Dune Entertainment, of a Bad Hat Harry/The Donners' Company production; made in association with Ingenious Media, Big Screen Productions and Ingenious Film Partners. (US distributor and world sales, Twentieth Century-Fox.)
Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 11 (Lisbon), June 1st 2011.