I wasn’t really fussed about seeing X Men: First class. I thought the first two in the series were decent but the third was disappointing and at times laughable. So you’ll forgive my reservations about buying into Hollywood’s green, recycling approach to cinema. Greenpeace might approve but I’m no tree-hugger. I honestly couldn’t envision a happy ending for this particular mid-week movie ritual which didn’t involve me surgically removing the film-loving genome from my DNA with a jagged hunk of stale popcorn, so that I could live without the torture of having to endure any more nauseous cinematic regurgitations. An image of me exiting the cinema wishing Hollywood would evolve into a better version of itself seemed all the more likely.

Imagine then my surprise when in the run up to the opening weekend of X Men: First Class – which did something in excess of US$56 million dollars, as expected – nearly all of my favourite review sites were only just shy of raving about it. Not a bad first impression for number five in a franchise which is bound to warrant a few more mutations before they run out of superhero powers to computer generate. One enthusiastic reviewer insisted “This film is to X Men 2 what Godfather 2 was to the Godfather. Seriously…” Can’t argue with that can I? Well, I could. Fan boys have a tendency to overstate. I should know. I’m one of them. Having said this, I felt pretty confident that if the fan boys liked it we might actually be onto something here.

When the lights came up at the end of film (just before that obligatory conversation with the person next to me, something along the lines of “well, what’d ya think?”, which is really just an excuse for me to share my own opinion) I could tell by the wife’s expression that X Men: First class was a real shot in the arm for the franchise and had evolved X Men into something entirely unexpected and impressive. It actually managed to be a film about intolerance and identity, as well having an impressive bounty of effects which can boast Magneto raising a U-Boat out of the ocean. Which looks every bit as cool as it sounds by the way. Rather than just another garden variety Marvel comic adaptation (a look-what-my-superhero-can-do-and-doesn’t-it-look-cool-in-3D-a-thon) this really is a first class X Men movie.

This was very nearly everything director Matthew Vaughn said it would be: a grown-up take on an overcooked ready-made movie formula, for those who like to call comic books “graphic novels”. “Here, I got my cake and ate it, managed to do an X-Men movie, and a Bond thing, and a [John] Frankenheimer political thriller at the same time”. Everyone’s a winner. It really did feel that way walking back to the bus stop afterwards… a film entertaining enough to watch more than once, with a relevant message that wasn’t preachy, delivered with just the right balance of character nuance and plot intrigue in a setting more at home in a Raymond Chandler novel, appropriately realised by a superlative cast. What’s not to like?

It was funny too. I mean laugh-out-loud funny. On discussing the film with the guys at work the best compliment I could think of was to say that X Men: First Class doesn’t take itself too seriously, a tricky and all too common obstacle which the third film crashed headlong into. There are a few funny cameos and well-timed references which give the film a more developed sense of humour and lends the franchise some of the perspective its weaker counterparts had lost. This is a film with its big hairy mutated feet firmly on the ground.

Charles Xavier/Prof. X (James McAvoy) is all about overcoming division through understanding. Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) – who suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis – is more about proving he’s a “better man” by dispatching foes with metal objects. In increasingly imaginative ways. So it’s a morality tale from an unlikely source but it’s also an exemplary addition to the action genre. Not bad for a superhero movie.    

Imagine you could take someone you know pretty well and were able to beam back about 30 years into their past to witness first-hand the circumstances and events which helped to make them the person they are. Or the mutant they are, in this case. That’s basically what Vaughan has done here. What’s interesting about the whole “learning to accept difference and respect others” plot thread, is that in striving to be accepted as they are, the X Men discover that it’s all very well wanting others to accept you, but you have to accept yourself first. Just as you are.

Although the film has a positive message and the plot and character arcs have good moral implications, parents be warned. There are a couple of scenes in this new X Men movie which are decidely less than first class. The moral of this particular story might go something along the lines of: ‘If you don’t want little Jimmy asking, “Daddy, why has that lady got no clothes on?”, you might want to leave the youngsters at home’.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity .

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...