Hey, Marvel, what’s next? Because frankly, I’m not entirely sure what we’ve got here. Is director Matthew (Kick-Ass) Vaughn’s X-Men:First Class a reboot? A standard-issue prequel? A sidebar item before we get back to the main story? It’s never made entirely clear, and frankly between this and last year’s X-Men Origins:Wolverine, it’s hard to say exactly where this license-to-print-money cinematic franchise is going. Which is not to say that it’s a bad flick in and of itself. It’s pretty decent, and in fact starts off almost looking like it’s going to be a serious shot in the arm for the property in general. But by the time it’s over, even though what we’ve witnessed is by any standard a pretty solid superhero flick (that starts to fizzle a bit the longer it goes on, but a lot of them to do that so we won’t hold that against it too terribly much), we’re no more clear about just what the next X chapter is going to be than we were when it started.
Because frankly there’s not much point in a sequel to this one. The story of a young Professor x (James McAvoy, who’s usually a pretty solid actor but here seems to be more or less mailing it in ) and Magneto (portrayed by Michael Fassbender, who delivers a sterling performance and has by far the best material to work with here as a Holocaust surviving-mutant who’s hunting down the Nazi monsters responsible for the murder of his mother, either directly or indirectly — and who, at certain angles, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Ian McKellen, so kudos for a terrific casting job here, fellas) and how they assembled and trained the first mutant superhero team in preparation for a conflict with a seriously evil (and apparently immortal) son-of-a-bitch named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, in a terrific scenery-chewing turn), who’s manipulating the Cuban missile crisis in order to bring about World War 3 and the destruction of mankind/takeover of Earth by mutantkind, and how Xavier and Magneto came to go their separate ways at the close of said ordeal, is pretty much an open-and-shut story. And enjoyable, mostly entertaining one, to be sure, but not really an open-ended one.
There are some surprises along the way, and some diversion from established comic-book continuity that will certainly enrage some fans and thrill others, but on the whole you never get the sense that you’re watching the rebirth of a legend here or something. It’s just backstory filler. Good backstory filler, competent backstory filler, at times even enthralling backstory filler (especially the opening concentration camp scenes), but backstory filler nonetheless.
Which isn’t to say that anyone apart from McAvoy seems to be just going through the motions. Vaughn has adopted a swingin’ ’60s visual sensibility, particularly in the “time marches on —” montage-style scenes, that works quite well , is terribly theme-appropriate, and also, frankly, exhudes a type of playful fun. Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone fame tunrs in a terrific performance as the young Raven/Mystique, who in equal turns pines longingly after Xavier but sees more worth in Magneto’s vision for the mutant’s future. January Jones, despite having a name that instantly marks her for being drawn and quartered on mere principle alone, is coolly confident as the sexy Emma Frost (although she looks a lot better from a distance and, sorry to dwell on the physical, just sort of looks weird in some of Vaughn’s lingering close-up shots). Rose Byrne is supremely competent, if unspectacular, as CIA liason/potential Xavier love-interest Moira MacTaggart. Oliver Platt does his — well, Oliver Platt — as — errrmmm — Oliver Platt (his G-Man character doesn’t have a credited name). And the story is certainly clever even if it does lose some momentum early on and never really gets it back.
But the whole thing’s also a bit schizophrenic. It starts off looking like it’s headed for Christopher Nolan-style superhero realism and ends with ridculous code names for the characters and an agonizingly-drawn-out, way-too-OTT scene of Xavier getting shot that might pack more dramatic wallop if we actually thought he might die, but seems just plain self-indulgent since we know that he doesn’t and this is how he ends up in his magic wheelchair.
On the whole, then, X-Men:First Class would be a lot more effective if it knew what it was, and what part in the overall ouevre of the series it was supposed to be filling. As it is, it feels like nothing so much an an enjoyable, generally-well-executed diversion, that does the best it can given its rather not-completely-thought-through remit. Where it all goes from here is anybody’s guess, and while you’ll more than likely be pretty entertained by this movie(I certainly was), you won’t come away from it with any answers about where the X-Men concept is headed in the future, and that’s something that the powers that be at Marvel and 20th Century Fox need to start figuring out fast before they kill their golden goose not so much through incompetence as sheer aimlessness. What’s next, indeed.