Origin of Species: X-Men – First Class (2011)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Matthew Vaughn’s 2011’s prequel, X-Men: First Class

As prequels go, X-Men: First Class is a pretty great offering. As saviours of an entire franchise go, First Class is pretty much a miracle.

To suggest the X-Men franchise was in the doldrums at the end of the last decade would have been an understatement. The Last Stand, meant as a capper to the first two initial Bryan Singer helmed X-Men films, made a decent profit but was roundly trounced by critics and many fans, as indeed was X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 – technically both a sequel *and* prequel, intended as a character study for Hugh Jackman’s breakout mutant from the previous trilogy, it turned out a critical failure that set 20th Century Fox onto a path they had been toying with throughout the first trilogy of pictures: a film about the youthful origins of the X-Men. With no clear path forward, producer Lauren Shuler Donner started looking back, in order to gain a fresh perspective the franchise by this point sorely needed.

The result, First Class, turns out to be far more of an assured triumph than, off the back of the previous two films, it had any right to be. Matthew Vaughn’s film does not just go back to the origin story of characters who Singer introduced us to fully-formed and established in X-Men—principally Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr—but takes the franchise further back to its essential comic-book roots than ever. While the name First Class was grabbed by writer Simon Kinberg from a modern X-Men comic he chose not to directly adapt, the 1962, height of the Cold War setting, with a narrative underpinned by geopolitical tensions between the US and Soviet Union, very much calls back to Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’s original 1960’s comics—which debuted around the same time—filled as they were with anxieties about nuclear conflict and Communist fears.

In going back to the beginning, First Class is remarkably successful in charting a way forward that was inconceivable two films earlier.

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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

If you ran a poll asking the average film goer, and indeed the average film critic, which of the Mission Impossible films they considered to be the strongest outing in the franchise, you would have a significant amount point to Ghost Protocol. On the face of it, you can see why. Once you scratch deeper, those reasons become more opaque.

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

One of the most interesting cinematic franchises of the last fifty years, Planet of the Apes makes a vibrant and fascinating return in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which classes itself as a reboot while holding true to the spirit of the original movies and charting its own modern day course.

Rupert Wyatt’s reimagining charts a very similar course to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes from 1972, the fourth of the original five film series after Charlton Heston famously shouted down those “damn dirty apes” in 1968’s seminal Planet of the Apes. In Conquest, the world’s pets have been destroyed by a lethal virus in the early 1990’s (here the series’ past, but the filmmakers’ future), which leads humans to begin domesticating apes as a replacement. The film even features an ape named Caesar leading a rebellion and the shouting of the word “NO!” as the first human word uttered by an ape.

Pointedly, Rise is not a remake of Conquest. It seeks to take certain essential pieces of that film’s DNA and place them in a contemporary context. This was deemed a necessary step after the critical and commercial failure of the first attempt to reimagine the franchise in Tim Burton’s awfully misjudged 2001 remake, Planet of the Apes, which sought to re-tell the Charlton Heston film for a new audience. Burton should have known better but his film fell in that strange nether zone of Hollywood blockbusters which was the early 2000’s, in which big budget cinema seemed locked in an awkward transition between brainless 90’s fare, the advent of popularised CGI, and a dearth of talented filmmakers wielding serious cinematic money.

A lot changed in 2005 & 2006 with both Batman Begins and Casino Royale, respectively. Those films, one made by an auteur and the other a stalwart, helped fashion the blockbuster landscape into one where talented filmmakers seemed to have a handle on quality scripting as well as major set pieces and computer generated effects. Rise took a big cue from Begins especially in quite how Wyatt, fresh of the low-budget but critically impressive The Escapist (2008), imagined reimagining the Apes universe and grounding the concept in more of a natural storytelling perspective than a high-concept vision of the like Burton tried and failed to achieve.

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