This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.
Although any and all think-pieces on the state of contemporary film (or the ‘here’s what wrong with film today’ article) are detestable, I’m going to propose to you that there is a crisis in contemporary action filmmaking, and that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is a form of relief.
Spearheaded by filmmakers as diverse as Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass, and Peter Jackson, the contemporary action sequence is generally marked by spatial disorganisation, incoherence in shot structuring and sequencing (often passed off as ‘kineticism’), and an unmotivated emphasis on spectacle. Basic rules of thumb dictating that action should be motivated by character and grounded in conflict, result in tediously arbitrary obstacles in these sequences (we have to get to that MacGuffin through this burning building!), and embarrassingly schizophrenic characterisation (I cannot go with you through this burning building!).
Vaughn, throughout his brief four-film career, has demonstrated an innate understanding of the primal dynamics of action cinema, aided by a crack conductor’s sense of tempo and pacing. He knows that the best action scenes are at heart equations of cause and effect, with events breeding inevitable and escalating consequences, and logistical problems, where character’s established capabilities can be activated at pre-ordained moments but only with already intuited limitations and nullifications. More importantly, he and his writers (frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, I think, deserves a lot of credit) understand that these rules cannot be shoe-horned post-conceptually, but must grow organically out of the demands of the narrative and the characters. He also knows that upping the stakes of an action sequence is not the same as upping the antics – a single bullet fired, if grounded in a moment of revelation for the character, is worth a thousand exploding buildings.
This is all just a long way of saying that my enthusiasm, both emotional and analytic, for the climax of First Class, is boundless. The film is cleverly structured as a giant coming out party both for mutant characters and for mutant-kind in general, as they take up or test their abilities and enter onto the world stage. The opening salvo of the climax and big-money moment, familiar from the trailers, has Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) levitating an entire submarine out of the sea and dumping it on a Cuban beach. The moment connects both as a galvanisingly cathartic character beat (the film is in part the story of Lehnsherr’s ascension into his full abilities) as well as an appalling display of power that sets the course for the fate of the mutants throughout the close of the narrative.
The rest of climax unfolds, to my mind, as a model of what all superhero films, or indeed all action films, should aspire to. Multiple groups of adversaries (here including Navies both American and Soviet, and mutants both good and evil) confront each across a spatially well-defined arena of conflict, and as sub-groups split off to conduct their own battles, Vaughn and his writers carefully and speedily collapse these sub-conflicts until all parties are drawn inexorably together into one final showdown. The axis of the arch-conflict shifts cleanly as these sub-conflicts are dispatched, obstacles arise, are overcome, and are re-formed (an admirable amount of business is found, particularly, in the mechanics of where and when James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier can extend his telepathic abilities). By the time the whole thing comes to a head the orientation of individuals and parties, as well as the consequences of the entire conflagration, has shifted perceptibly in a way that’s thrilling, emotionally resonant, and motivated by character. It’s kind of structurally perfect, and a joy to watch, and proof that Vaughn and his collaborators just plain get this kind of filmmaking on a cellular level, and have a sure grasp on the principles which are otherwise misused and abused by their contemporaries.