Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class shows his continual fragmentation as a filmmaker, seemingly incapable of sticking to any one idea and the continual downward spiral of his satiric abilities, although the fact that the film feels at all tongue-in-cheek suggests a muted cleverness at work that never quite shows through the convoluted wash of genres tossed at the screen. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to break up the rote feel of a prequel, an admirable decision given the execrable Wolverine, but the film can't help but grind to a halt when it attempts to incorporate '60s era Bond, Dr. Strangelove, The Breakfast Club and on-the-nose subtext of closeted homosexuality into the already bombastic superhero genre.
At least the leads are great. Michael Fassbender plays Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr as a sleek but imploding killer seeking revenge for the horrors he experienced as a test subject of experimental doctors in the Holocaust, not yet hardened into Ian McKellen's cool shell. He's the first person to look sinister in a turtleneck in decades. James McAvoy, making the best of a wildly inconsistent character, plays Charles as wide-eyed and with a joy of knowledge that occasionally dips into good-natured arrogance and one too many uses of the word "groovy." He has all of Professor X's optimism with unchecked naïveté: he hasn't yet had to test and earn that fundamental belief in the goodness of mankind.
The first half-hour of the film (its best) separates the two as they grow into themselves, Erik in a Nazi camp, Xavier in the lap of luxury, and the marked contrast in their experiences delineates their personalities. Erik spends his first adult scenes as a loner tracking down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who brutally brought out Erik's metal-manipulating abilities in the camps. Charles, with his long-time friend Raven, a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), finds himself working for the C.I.A. when an operative (Rose Byrne) uncovers a nuclear war plot by Shaw. For Charles, getting to work with the government, regardless of the agreement's fragility an frigidity, is a wonderful opportunity to prove the mutant place in society; Erik is already comfortable outside it.
The opening segments play up those Bond elements, featuring the intrigue of Erik's tear through hiding Nazis and the tour of the lingerie-and-world-secret-filled social labyrinth of the Hellfire Club run by Shaw. When Charles and Erik meet and join forces, they do so against the looming Cuban Missile Crisis, leading to shots of the War Room that feel incomplete without a flailing George C. Scott.
This compounds the perfunctory feel of the film, mixing the foregone conclusion of history with the foregone conclusion of an origin story. One spends the whole film waiting not only for Charles and Erik to become the characters we know them as in their older years but to see the Cuban Missile Crisis averted. It highlights and underlines the inevitable outcome inherent to the prequel form.
Unfortunately, once the film begins adding characters, it only slips further into predictability. The young cast of mutants assembled to take down Shaw exist at the whim of plot, initially incapable of controlling their powers and having on-the-nose discussions—Mystique and Beast's (Nicholas Hoult) romance should have Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" playing under it at all times—yet somehow getting a handle on their abilities and maturing to the point of facing death within a week's time. The only consistent character in this film January Jones' Emma Frost, if only because Jones looks indifferent in every shot; her ability to turn into a shiny but dull, inexpressive hunk of diamond suggests her superpower is manifesting her personality.
Shifting from high-budget Glee episode to mythology-establishing epic erodes what little tension Vaughn had amassed in his earlier segments by dropping all pretext at camp and belatedly going for broke. The climax feels so deflated that I wondered if the hissing in my theater wasn't the sound of the air conditioner but of the film itself leaking. Charles and Erik devolve into manifesto-spewing mouthpieces, their speeches so grandiose even the action takes a backseat. For a film with so many shots of gobsmacked humans staring at unbelievable sights, X-Men: First Class ultimately feels strangely pedestrian despite its ambitions.
Much of the blame falls at Vaughn's feet: he uses lazy camerawork to overemphasize themes (every thematic speech gets its own close-up, and the zoom lens also gets a workout) and his treatment of the inherent cheese of the comic book form is too inconsistent to be particularly clever. He does have some nice touches, however: an early 90-degree jump from Shaw's Nazi office to reveal a medical lab with saws and knives off to the side is a brilliant shot that the director never equals. Also making the scene is the unique opportunity to hear one of those ridiculous "NOOOOOOO" screams in another language.
As blatant as the themes of acceptance and identity are, X-Men: First Class works best when it hones in on the unsure emotions of physically maturing people coming to terms with themselves. "I thought I was the only one," several say with a breathlessness suggesting their happiness has constricted every muscle, including the vocal cords. Those flecks of joyous, comforting self-recognition in others are the backbone of the X-Men franchise, and it's a shame Vaughn couldn't spend more time drawing out those feelings instead of cramming a whole trilogy worth of plots into one film.