Following a less-than-stellar reception for X-Men – The Last Stand in 2006 and Hugh Jackman’s 2009 Wolverine adventure, Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn (and co-writer Jane Goldman) kick started the flagging Marvel mutant franchise three years ago with X-Men: First Class. A retro prequel set in the early 60s (convincingly evoked via suitably swinging hairstyles and fashions) with a cast of bright, new talents playing younger versions of established characters (James McAvoy as Professor X, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, a pre-Oscar winning Jennifer Lawrence as blue-hued shape-shifter Mystique), it rejuvenated the series virtually overnight. The magic must have rubbed off, as there was even a half-decent Wolverine film last year called, imaginatively, The Wolverine.
No surprise, then, that a sequel to the prequel would wing its way to our screens. However, director Bryan Singer has upped the ante with an ambitious time-spanning tale that puts the stars of the franchise he started in 2000 – Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry and Jackman’s clawed ball of fury (expanding on his blink-and-you’ll miss-it cameo from First Class) – in the same movie as their younger counterparts.
It begins in a dark dystopian future where the stakes are high for a grizzled Wolverine, who’s sent back to 1973 by old sparring partners Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) to save the future from mechanoid mutant killers called Sentinels. Trouble is, that means convincing McAvoy’s drugged-up, fed-up (and now powerless) Xavier to bury the hatchet with frenemy Magneto, who was last seen enticing gal pal Mystique away after crippling his friend at the end of First Class. The fact Fassbender’s master of magnetism is now locked away in a vault beneath the Pentagon, apparently for killing President Kennedy, is also a bit of a problem. Cue a terrific Mission Impossible-style rescue sequence that introduces Evan Peters as dynamic speed demon Quicksilver, all this so Xavier and Magneto can prevent a vengeful Mystique from causing the end-of-days scenario awaiting them in the future.
Thankfully it’s not all portentous doom and gloom, though. Singer continues the fresh, almost Bond-like approach championed by Vaughn – if you enjoyed the nostalgic 60s vibe of First Class, then be prepared to wallow in the fabulously rendered 70s – the fashions, the Vietnam War, tricky Dicky Nixon, even the way the film is shot smacks of the decade style forgot.
The set pieces are powerful, particularly the earth-shattering climax as both future and past X-Men battle to avoid annihilation. But it’s not all about brawn; there are great little nuggets of thesping, too (including a crucial tete-a-tete between the two Xaviers). In the end, it’s the cast that makes the movie so compelling and prevents it from being another noisy action-fest, whether it’s McAvoy and Fassbender not knowing if they should kill or hug each other; the always charismatic Lawrence demonstrating that blue is not the warmest colour; Peter Dinklage (Tyrion in Game of Thrones) as the inventor of the killer robots, complete with fine 70s ‘tache; and of course Jackman who’s more mentor than mauler here.
Plaudits go to Singer for making the franchise fit for purpose, a rip-roaring recalibration of past and future X-teams that hasn’t resorted to the recasting shenanigans of, say, the recent Amazing Spider-Man movies. Roll on X-Men: Apocalypse. (Remember to check the end credits for a taster of that epic due in 2016.)