German actor Michael Fassbender has been hovering on the fringes of Hollywood for a while, doing really big things in really small roles. He was memorable as Stelios in 300, but all the attention was on Gerard Butler’s abs at the time; he impressed critics as hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, but the film was hardly a commercial success; he put his German to good use in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but somehow Brad Pitt stole the show. He has completed filming for the upcoming Jane Eyre opposite Mia Wasikowska, and for David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method opposite Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley. I’m sure his interpretations of Rochester and Carl Jung will be superb, but for the moment, it’s X-Men: First Class that has my attention.
Fassbender plays the mutant Erik Lehnsherr, a Jew who was tortured in the German concentration camps by a sadist who was intrigued by his ability to manipulate and control all forms of metal. Lehnsherr’s experiences there shaped his attitude towards humans for the rest of his life, and ultimately put him on course to become Magneto, leader of the Brotherhood.
James McAvoy (Becoming Jane, Atonement) plays Charles Xavier, the yin to Lehnsherr’s yang. Xavier is a brilliant telepath who becomes Lehnsherr’s teacher and friend, and later, as Professor X, his nemesis. The relationship between these comic book icons is at the centre of the film – and Fassbender and McAvoy rely on their dramatic and comedic skills to bring the “bromance” to life as they learn about their mutant abilities – and their world views – side by side.
Director Matthew Vaughn, a no-nonsense Englishman, produced Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. He also helmed the crime thriller Layer Cake (which turned the pre-007 Daniel Craig into an action star), the fantasy epic Stardust and the superhero comedy Kick-Ass. These efforts caught the attention of studio bosses in Hollywood and, I believe, proved that he had the talent and tenacity to take on a prequel to the X-Men series.
The movie itself is an origin story. Before Charles Xavier was a bald professor in a wheelchair, he was a lonely young man from a privileged home. He received the best education and had every comfort in life, but was largely ignored by his parents and yearned to know someone like him – someone with special powers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Erik Lensherr grew up in a concentration camp, where he witnessed immeasurable brutality and was subjected to countless ordeals at the hands of the Nazis. He says later in the film that he is “Frankenstein’s monster” – a product of the monstrous life he had to endure. The men meet for the first time to address the threat from a common enemy and are joined by a host of other mutants – some new and some familiar.
We are introduced to the blue-skinned Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence) who eventually becomes Mystique; scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) before and after his transformation into Beast; the winged Angel (Zoe Kravitz); the screaming Banshee (Sean Cassidy); the adaptable Darwin (Edi Gathegi); and the powerful Havok (Lucas Till). They are the young mutants our intrepid leaders must mould into shape for the mission against the bad guy.
The bad guy in this case is Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon in fine form as a sardonic megalomaniac) and he has his own group of helpers… Telepath Emma Frost (January Jones) has a diamond-hard skin that nothing can penetrate (except Shaw’s charm, apparently) and she lends beauty and brains to the operation. Water manipulator Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) and red-skinned teleporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng) provide the brawn (with glee, it must be said).
I’m not sure what hardcore comic fans will make of the screen adaptation, but I found it thoroughly entertaining. Vaughn has made a stylish film with the same character-driven action of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and none of the campy echoes of the original X-Men trilogy. X-Men: First Class is in a league of its own.