Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

2017 #125
Matthew Vaughn | 141 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Critics, eh? There’s a lot you could say about them, both individually and en masse, but right now I’m concerned with the fact they’ve given Kingsman: The Golden Circle a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 50%.* More than that, many have gone further: I’ve read one-star reviews from several major outlets. Audiences disagree. On IMDb it’s got a very respectable 7.4 (just a few points down from the much better-received Wonder Woman, for comparison) and it topped the box office this past weekend, beating the latest LEGO movie in the US and almost doubling the first film’s opening weekend in the UK. Well, I’m definitely an audience member rather than a critic. In fact, I’m still weighing up the possibility that The Golden Circle might be even better than its predecessor.

I’ll return to both the critics and the two films’ relative merits later. For now, the obligatory plot summary: a year on from the events of the first movie, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a fully-fledged Kingsman agent and is dating Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). An encounter with former wannabe-Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) sets Eggsy on the trail of Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drugs kingpin with a ’50s Americana fetish and a plan for global domination. Eggsy and tech whizz Merlin (Mark Strong) travel to the US of A to team up with their sister organisation, Statesman, in a bid to stop Poppy’s nefarious scheme.

Magic us out of this one, Merlin

That’s the coy version of things — more coy than the trailers, certainly, which brazenly gave away major developments and revelations. (You’ll note my summary’s shortage of big-name stars, for example, who have been plastered all over the advertising.) Director Matthew Vaughn even asked the studio not to reveal one thing in the marketing — namely, that Colin Firth was back — but they went ahead and did it anyway. I know they had a movie to sell, but I’m not convinced they needed to ignore him on that. Actually, that connects to my first complaint about how critics have treated the film: those one-star major reviewers seemed to hate the film so much that they were happy to spoil bits left, right, and centre. No such disregard for the audience here (though there will be minor spoilers, if you’ve not seen it yet). Nonetheless, if you were one of those people who seemed to find the first film’s anal sex joke to be the most heinously offensive sin committed by cinema since The Birth of a Nation, maybe read a couple of those reviews for a benchmark if you’re undecided about seeing this sequel — it may also offend your delicate sensibilities for reasons I can only vaguely comprehend.

To me, The Golden Circle represents a commitment to being purely entertaining. It’s consistently funny and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The action sequences are crazily hyperkinetic to the nth degree. It mixes in all the classic spy movie shenanigans, like far-fetched plots and cool gadgets and exotic locales; but it also works to subvert, expose, or develop some of those things. Beyond that, however, it has surprisingly good character work for what could’ve been a mindless comedy shoot-em-up. I mean, Merlin’s arc… well, i said no spoilers. But the film also makes time to be concerned about Eggsy’s relationship and how his work might affect it. It’s almost a good subversion of the gentlemen-spy sleep-around stereotype, though the Glastonbury sequence rushes through that rather than meaningfully deconstructing it (more about that already-infamous scene later).

The Lepidopterist

Then there’s Harry’s return — not just a pleasant surprise, but an emotional minefield for our other heroes, who were still coming to terms with his demise. Now, some critics reckon that Harry’s revival lowers the stakes for the rest of the movie. Well, only if you choose to disregard the details of his return. OK, yes, there’s now a safety net in some scenarios; but a gel that slows the effect of a headshot isn’t much use if, say, you get blown to pieces. Also, the idea that Harry was “very much dead” is actually an assumption that’s not wholly supported by the first film. I mean, obviously it was implied that Harry is very much dead — that was the point at the time — but watch it again: you don’t actually see much detail of what happens, other than that Valentine shoots him somewhere in the head and he collapses to the ground. The scene ends almost immediately. Vaughn and co use this to their advantage, having the Statesman turn up with seconds of the shot being fired. Yeah, it’s still implausible, but then I don’t think people’s heads explode in choreographed light shows either, and that was a big part of The Secret Service.

Comparisons to that previous movie abound in other reviews, I guess because it went down well while this one, which is ostensibly more of the same, hasn’t. Also, to be fair, because the film itself is constantly making such references too. Consequently, some critics are focused on the idea that what The Golden Circle lacks is the freshness of the original. Well, personally, I enjoyed the first one more when I re-watched it a couple of days ago than when I first saw it back in 2015, so the “I’ve not seen that before” factor is not its defining quality for me. Nonetheless, this is the kind of sequel that’s somewhat derivative of its own predecessor, with many riffs on stuff you’ll remember from before. The most regularly repurposed is the famous church fight, though I’d argue that it’s taken the style of that sequence and then applied it to several more in this film, rather than merely producing an outright copy of what came before — something I would (and did) accuse, say, X-Men: Apocalypse’s Quicksilver sequence of doing (even though it tried to find fresh angles on the same basic concept).

Skipping rope in the snow

One particular way that half the action sequences feel like they’re deliberately riffing off / ripping off that church fight is that they’re set to pop songs, and often unexpected ones. It may be repeating a trick, but this use of music is consistently entertaining — I mean, hasn’t Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting always wanted a fight set to it? And the country-fied cover of Word Up for the finale is bang on. That’s not to mention the score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson. I always liked the main theme from the first film, which is carried over here, along with effective action cues (for those times it goes without a pop song) and a neat integration of melodies from John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. That song is used to very particular effect at one point, and, listening to the soundtrack while writing this review, the bit of Mark Strong singing it that’s included did actually leave me with a little something in my eye — again, not what you expect from a film like Kingsman. Though I must clarify, that is due to the memory of the film, not the quality of Mr Strong’s singing, which is certainly… Scottish-accented. Something I didn’t notice particularly when watching the movie (and why would you on a first viewing?) is that those melodies are there right at the start, played on bagpipes and segueing into the opening theme. Cheeky foreshadowing beggars.

While there may be some dimension of merit to some of the criticisms I’ve referenced so far, others merit mention only to be ridiculed. I mean, one critic slagged off the fact that most (but not all) of Poppy’s scenes take place in one location, which must be the most ludicrous factor contributing to a film getting one star that I’ve ever read. Relatedly, that the big-name new cast members are given less focus than the returning characters seems to be a recurring sticking point. Well, what do you expect? In fact, what do you want? It’s like thinking the solution to Quantum of Solace’s woes was to spend less time with James Bond and more with Agent Fields. Plus, surely the fact that some prominently-billed new names turn out to be glorified cameos is more to do with the marketing overhyping them — as you do when you’ve got genuine movie stars in your movie — than the film itself fundamentally underserving them. Sure, I’d like more of Channing Tatum’s character too, but hey-ho; and it’s not like his limited screen time isn’t put to memorable effect, several times over. The same can be said for Julianne Moore and, arguably best of all, Elton John. They may reuse the same Elton gag a couple of times too often, but on the whole he has a surprisingly effective part to play. On the other hand, after “more Halle Berry” was something that eventually undermined the X-Men films, I’m fine with her role being kept to a minimum. Still, for everyone who wished for more of Tatum and co, there are already rumours of an extended cut coming to DVD and/or Blu-ray. Oh, but those critics moaned about it already being too long. There’s no pleasing some people…

More Tatum, less Berry

There is perhaps a case to be made that the film has bitten off more plot than it can comfortably chew. I’ve already said that some sequences feel a little too hasty, and there might be one big set piece too many — I assumed the film was about to head into its final act, before remembering we hadn’t had all the snowbound set pieces from the trailers yet. Personally, I didn’t mind this additional length — at no point did the film bore me. I’ll be more than happy if that extended cut does materialise. Perhaps the paciness despite the length is what led many critics to call it out for having too complex a plot, an accusation I find somewhat implausible. I can only assume they weren’t expecting to think at all and so almost literally turned their brains off, because this isn’t some intricate thriller, it’s a big action spy movie that moves pretty linearly from plot point to plot point. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

And if you want to go the other way and overthink the film, some people do get very het up about what the political messages and affiliations of these two movies may or may not be. Now, I’m not going to argue they don’t have a political dimension — that would be a patently ludicrous position to take, given how much they both allude to real-world issues like climate change and the drug trade — but, allowing for that, I don’t think the films care what their political allegiance is. That’s how some people can manage to read a movie in which the working-class hero blows up the world’s conspiring elites in order to stop the common folk from massacring each other as nothing but a right-wing fantasy, and how other people can manage to read a movie in which an unaccountable intelligence organisation gentrifies a lower-class kid to make him worth something, before blowing up an environmentalist and President Obama, as proletariat wish-fulfilment. Both of those describe The Secret Service, but there are elements in the sequel that have the same effect — this time, it’s your stance towards the war on drugs and how we deal with addicts that is being prodded.

View to a kill

All of that said, the more I’ve thought about the film afterwards (as you do, especially if you’re going to, say, write a review for a blog or something), the more some issues do begin to become apparent. While I don’t inherently object to the Glastonbury sequence (I’d wager it in part exists as another way for Vaughn to thumb his nose at critics of certain parts of the first movie, and he got ’em too), I do think there were cleverer ways to handle it. Vaughn has said that sequence is meant to be about having to do something you don’t want to do for the sake of your job, but that doesn’t wholly explain the teenage smuttiness of how it plays out. I mean, wouldn’t it be funnier if Eggsy felt he had to stick to his principles and find a way to clumsily shove his finger up Clara’s nose? Then phone Tilde back: “It’s okay babe, I only put it up her nose.” “You did what?!”

So yeah, it’s not a perfect movie. But, at least while it was on, I was having way too much fun to care. If you’re the kind of person who found something (or lots of things) about the first movie offensive to your moral fibre, chances are slim that you’ll like this sequel. Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who misses ’90s lads-mag culture, you’ll bloody love it, mate. For those of us somewhere on the (very broad) spectrum between those two points, other reviews make it clear that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it was very much to mine. The niggles I’ve mentioned have led me to give it a lower score than the first film, but I reserve the right to change my mind as soon as I get a chance to rewatch it — I can envision myself ultimately revisiting The Golden Circle more regularly than The Secret Service.

4 out of 5

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in cinemas most places now, and in the other places soon.

It placed 15th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

* At time of writing. It was 49% on Saturday and 51% on Sunday, so it might be different again by the time you read this. ^

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100 Favourites II — Statistics

I couldn’t do a list like that without publishing some statistics at the end, could I? No, no I could not. By my standards this will be a relatively brisk post, though, because I didn’t thoroughly log everything I could have. Nonetheless, I had some observations…

One thing I was particularly interested to compare was the age of my picks. I know my tastes skew recent — I like “old films”, but I do watch more new(er) stuff and (as demonstrated in my 10th anniversary statistics) I tend to place newer films higher in my year-end lists too. My first 100 Favourites list certainly bore that out as well, as you can see on this graph. Have the last ten years changed that at all? Well, no. Not in the slightest. If anything, it’s worse.

That’s 49% of my selections — almost literally half — from the 2010s, a decade which at the time of writing only includes seven years. And if you add in the 2000s as well, the last 17 years account for 72%, just under three-quarters of the list. I guess if I tried this again in another ten years some of the more recent films would fall out while the older classics would endure. I must say, I’m not alone in this — it’s something I’ve observed on other public-voted great lists, like the IMDb Top 250 (well-liked new films are always jumping in and then slowly dropping out), or Empire magazine’s 500 Greatest and 300 Greatest polls. The opposite seems to happen with critics’ lists, like Sight & Sound’s famed poll, which Citizen Kane topped for, what, 50 or 60 years, and the rest of the top ten is pretty stable too. But maybe that also changes a lot further down, I don’t know.

Talking of top tens, precisely 70% of the films on this list were previously featured in one of my year-end top tens. The worst affected were 2007, 2009, and 2012, each of which lost six films. Luckiest was 2016, with all ten top-tenners making the list. 2013, 2014, and 2015 only lost one each. That’s partly thanks to a change of perspective, of course (as you may have noticed, many of the films have shifted around in their ranking), but it’s also simply the case that some years had more films I liked than others. In terms of total numbers in this 100, the worst hit were 2009 and 2012, which only feature four films each. If you want to rank them thoroughly, 2009 definitely fared worse: only one of its films is in the top 50, while 2012 has three in the top 50, including two in the top 20, and one of those in the top 10.

Conversely, the most successful years were the last four (the ones with the most top-tenners that made it, unsurprisingly). Highest of all was 2015 with 18. I suppose that’s helped by the fact I watched 200 films that year, though 2014 is second with 16 and I ‘only’ watched 136 then. Indeed, rendered as a percentage, 2014 fares best of all, with 11.76% of the films I watched that year making my top 100. Second is shared by 2011 and 2013, each with exactly 10%, while 2015 only comes fourth, with exactly 9%. At the bottom end, the fact 2009 and 2012 were my least successful years in numerical terms (the only two times I failed to make 100) doesn’t help them at all, coming out at 4.26% and 4.12% respectively.

Here’s a pair of graphs, comparing the years in flat numerical terms and as a percentage of their own year’s total.

Compared to their previous positions in my year-end top tens, the biggest riser was The Story of Film: An Odyssey, shooting up 13 places from being 2015’s 21st to its 8th now. (I know #21 is not in the top ten, but I did a top 20 that year and noted The Story of Film was 21st, so…) The biggest faller within the chart was Stoker, also from my 2015 viewing, which dropped seven places from 7th to 14th. The worst-affected film not on the list was 2010’s #3, Inception, which isn’t among the nine 2010 films on the list. The #3 films from 2007 (Mean Creek) and 2012 (Master and Commander) also aren’t here, but (as we’ve seen) their respective years don’t feature as many films on the list so they’ve theoretically dropped less far.

Lastly, directors. There were 82 of them across the 100 films, of which 13 had two or more entries on the list. Top of the pile with four was, of all people, Matthew Vaughn. His films ranged from Kick-Ass in 8th up to Kingsman in 83rd, via X-Men: First Class at #16 and Stardust at #41. Sharing second place, each with three films, were David Fincher (Zodiac at #3, The Social Network at #11, Gone Girl at #66), George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead at #62, Dawn of the Dead at #63, Land of the Dead at #89), and Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin at #9, War Horse at #86, Lincoln at #95). Finally, the remaining nine directors with two films apiece were Wes Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, George Miller, Hayao Miyazaki, Chan-wook Park, Zack Snyder, Quentin Tarantino, and Denis Villeneuve.

And now I’m done.

Should you wish to revisit the excitement, all 200 of my 100 favourites can be found linked from their dedicated page here.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

2015 #76
Matthew Vaughn | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15* / R

Kingsman: The Secret ServiceThe team behind Kick-Ass bring that same reverent irreverence to the spy genre in this comedy-action-thriller that aims to bring the fun of ’60s/’70s spy-fi back to a genre that’s become oh so serious.

Developed alongside the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic book The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s film casts Colin Firth as Harry Hart, an agent for an independent intelligence operation, Kingsman, who recruits council estate kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a fallen comrade, into the group’s elite training programme. As Eggsy battles tough training challenges and the snobbery of his Oxbridge-sourced competitors, Harry investigates suspicious tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is secretly kidnapping people of importance and publicly giving away free SIM cards to everyone on the planet, but for what nefarious purpose?

There are several things going on in Kingsman that make it a uniquely entertaining proposition, especially in the current blockbuster climate. Part of the setup is “My Fair Lady with gentlemen spies”, as chavvy Eggsy is reshaped to be an old-fashioned besuited gent, inspired by the story of how Dr. No director Terence Young took a rough young Scottish chap called Sean Connery under his wing and taught him how to dress and behave as a gentlemen in preparation for his star-making role as the original superspy. It’s one of those ideas that you wonder why no one thought of developing into a fiction sooner. It could have come across as datedly classist, but Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman nail it as a 21st Century character arc: being a gentlemen is not about speaking correctly or lording it over the lower classes, but about a universal level of good behaviour, politeness, and doing the right thing. It successfully and acutely dodges any potential accusations of classism.

Classy mealAn even bigger part of the film’s triumph, and what likely led it to over $400 million worldwide in spite of its higher-than-PG-13 classifications (it’s Vaughn’s highest-grossing film to date, incidentally; even more so than his X-Men instalment), is that it takes the ever-popular James Bond formula and brings it up to date. However much you might love Casino Royale and Skyfall (and I do), the Bourne influence is undeniable. They’re not Bond movies in the same mould as the Connery and Moore movies that established the franchise’s enduring popularity around the globe; they’re modern thrillers, faithful in their way to Ian Fleming’s creation, but also zeitgeisty. Vaughn and co have looked at the DNA of those ’60s and ’70s Bond classics and given them a fresh lick of paint. So we have just-beyond-possible gadgets, a megalomaniacal supervillain, complete with epic mountain base, his own personal army, a physical tic, a uniquely-gifted almost-superhuman henchwoman, and a tongue-in-cheek tone that isn’t all-out spoof but lets you know no one believes any of this could actually happen and that’s OK.

Despite the overall tone of modern blockbusters, I don’t think the appetite for movies like this ever went away; or if it did, it quite quickly made a resurgence: a similar itch has been scratched in recent years by superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones. Audiences — or, perhaps, studio execs — seem currently more ready to accept outlandish action sequences, melodramatic stakes, and an occasionally-humorous tone if they were dressed up in colourful suits and pitched in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, A little swimrather than the supposed real-world universe of spy movies. What the worldwide success of Kingsman proves is that audiences don’t need the set-dressing of superpowers to accept an action movie that’s less than deadly serious. It’s a place I don’t think the Bond movies could go anymore — not without accusations of returning to the disliked Moore or late-Brosnan films — but it’s one many people clearly like, and Kingsman fulfils it.

Another clever move by Vaughn and co was to aim it at adults. Every blockbuster is PG-13 these days to keep the box office high, but Kingsman shows you can cut loose and still make good money. By specifically setting out to make an R-rated version of the classic Bond formula, everything gets ramped up to 11. On the one hand, that earns the controversy of That Joke in the final act (as Vaughn has said, not wrongly, it’s a variation on the classic Bond film finale; Mark Strong’s Merlin even closes his videoscreen, Q-style), but on the other it allows for crazed action sequences. The (faked-)single-take church massacre has to be seen to be believed; a highly-choreographed orgy of violence that is a marvellous assault on the senses, demonstrating the benefits of clear camerawork and highly-trained professional stunt- and effects-people over fast-cut close-up ShakyCam handwavery. Later on, a certain sequence set to Land of Hope and Glory would be inconceivable in any other movie. Things like this perfectly demonstrate why the world needs these less-than-serious kinds of film: they let creativity loose, crafting moments and sequences that are exciting, funny, unique, and memorable.

The first rule of Fight Church...Criticisms of the film tend to pan out to nought, in my opinion. Is there too much violence? There’s a lot, certainly, but part of the point of that church sequence (for instance) is just how long it goes on. Other excellent action sequences (the pub fight you might’ve seen in clips; the car chase in reverse gear; the skydiving) aren’t predicated on killing. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson’s baseball-capped lisping billionaire is a perfect modern riff on the traditional Bond villain, not some kind of attack on Americans or people with speech impediments. Some have even attempted a political reading of the film, arguing it’s fundamentally conservative and right-wing because the villain is an environmentalist. Again, I don’t think the film really supports such an interpretation. In fact, I think it’s completely apolitical — just like its titular organisation, in fact — and such perspectives are being entirely read into it by the kind of people who read too much of this kind of thing into everything.

If there’s any fault, it’s perhaps in an overabundance of ideas. One fewer training sequence might’ve been better — but then, which would you lose? Based on the trailer, some scenes were cut as it is (sadly there’s no deleted scenes section on the Blu-ray), and the film doesn’t really outstay its welcome. For me, it wasn’t as balls-to-the-wall revolutionary as Kick-Ass and, when we have actually had lighter-toned action films in the past few years, it doesn’t reconstruct its genre quite as much as Vaughn and Goldman’s adaptation of Stardust did for fantasy.

Secret SocietyNot everything hinges on being wall-to-wall groundbreaking, though, and Kingsman has so much to recommend it. It ticks all the requisite boxes of being exciting and funny, and some of its sequences are executed breathtakingly. The plot may move along familiar tracks — deliberately so — but it pulls out a few mysteries and surprises along the way. There’s an array of likeable performances, particularly from Firth, Egerton (sure to get a lot of work off the back of this), Jackson and Strong, and Sofia Boutella’s blade-legged henchwoman is yet another why-has-no-one-done-that great idea.

I’m more than happy for the Bond series to carry on down its current, serious-minded path, but I’m ever so glad Kingsman has come along to provide the level of pure entertainment and unabashed fun that series used to do so well. If they can keep this quality up, may there be many sequels.

5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, and the US tomorrow.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

* During editing, the BBFC advised the film would receive an 18 certificate unless changes were made. The submitted version was classified 15. Normally such edits are applied globally (despite what some websites like to claim), but this has been a less clear case: vastly different running times were posted by the BBFC and their German equivalent, but Vaughn stated in an interview that nothing was cut for the UK. Now, the UK and US Blu-rays have identical running times, so it seems likely he was (unsurprisingly) telling the truth. Another “the UK version is cut!” storm in a teacup? Yessir. ^

X-Men: First Class (2011)

2011 #60
Matthew Vaughn | 132 mins | cinema/Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Superhero films have been a significant regular part of the summer movie season for over a decade now, but this year really looks like it’s going to take the biscuit: The Avengers obliterated box office records Stateside last weekend, and has spent most of the week knocking down more worldwide; there’s a Batman sequel/finale to look forward to, which everyone has been expecting to do the same; and sandwiched somewhere between the two is a Spider-Man reboot that, provided it doesn’t get dwarfed by the other two and/or poor reviews, is likely to make a pretty penny. (If I recall correctly, the initial Raimi Spidey film was the first movie ever to make over $100m in its opening weekend; and now, 10 years later, The Avengers is the first to beat $200m — how neat.)

But that’s all still to come (I haven’t even seen The Avengers yet myself, and I won’t now until at least sometime next week, for various reasons. Grr.) Instead, here’s a review of my personal favourite from last year’s crop of comic book adaptations — indeed, I ranked it the second best film I saw all year.

I made sure to see First Class soon after its cinema release back in June 2011 — an increasingly-rare cinema trip for me (previous one before this was Inception in July 2010), and even rarer to go so quickly, but it earnt it as probably my most anticipated movie of the summer. I’ve been a fan of the X-Men since the ’90s animated series was a defining part of my childhood; Matthew Vaughn has become one of my favourite filmmakers thanks to Stardust and Kick-Ass, both of which earnt 5 stars and spots on my end-of-year top 10s (and Layer Cake was 4-star-ly entertaining too); and the idea of doing a superhero film that was definitively set in a specific point in the past (namely the early ’60s), rather than the perpetual Now of every other entry in the sub-genre, is the kind of thing creative fans long for but risk-averse studios rarely greenlight. Plus the trailers looked brilliant.

So my long-held high anticipation (unlike many whingy comic-continuity-obsessed inexplicably-Vaughn-dubious internet fanboys, who needed the trailer to even consider thinking the film might be good) led me to the cinema quickly. Why so long to post a review, then? Because I’ve been waiting for Blu-ray to see it properly.*

As “Film fans”, rather than “movie consumers”, we’re supposed to believe 35mm cinema projection is the best way to view a film, rather than the cold hard digital realm that’s taking over, or the home cinema that is increasingly the viewing location of choice as people seek to avoid inflated ticket prices and noisy crowds, and gain a huge degree of convenience in the process. Well, sod that. I saw X-Men on 35mm. It was blurry, the sound was muffly. I saw a clip in a summer movies trailer just a few days later when I saw Pirates 4 in 3D (i.e. digitally projected), and had a genuine moment of, “oh, that’s how it’s meant to look”. So thank God for Blu-ray — never mind prices, crowds or watching when I want, the real advantage is seeing it as sharp as a pin and being able to hear everything the characters are saying. I can enjoy the cinema experience, but at the end of the day it’s about the film, and if the only way to see, hear and appreciate it properly is to watch it 5+ months later on a much smaller screen from a digital source, so be it. The fact that it’s usually cheaper to buy the Blu-ray to own forever than take two people to see it just once doesn’t hurt either.

But I digress massively. X-Men: First Class takes us back to the origins of the X-Men (at least, the movie-universe X-Men): it’s the 1960s, mutants aren’t widely known about yet, Charles Xavier is uncovering some interesting ideas at Oxford, and Erik Lehnsherr is travelling the world taking revenge for Nazi atrocities. But when some Evil People are plotting to do Something Nasty, the US government winds up bringing them together, and the road to establishing the X-Men begins…

I should give up on plot summaries again, I never write good ones. There’s so much more to First Class than that might suggest. Firstly, it’s very much a prequel to the other X-Men films, rather than a reboot. So no Cyclops and co in the original team-up, which really annoys some fanboys, but pfft, it doesn’t matter. It’s fair to say the characters who make up the eventual first X-Men team aren’t as iconic or memorable, but that’s fine because here they’re just supporting characters. This is the story of two other young men, Xavier and Lehnsherr, aka Professor X and Magneto.

You need some pretty fine talent to replace two of our greatest actors — Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, of course — and in Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy you certainly have that. Fassbender carries much of the emotional weight of the film, and certainly received much of the praise from critics, but it’s thanks to McAvoy’s support that the film is lifted to a higher level. He provides calm, humour and fundamental decency to balance Fassbender’s rage and emotion. What’s fascinating about them as characters is that they are half-formed people. That is to say, while they are Wise Old Men by the time of X-Men, here they are still flawed and finding their way; witness Charles’ insensitivity toward Raven, for instance. That’s quite aside from all the little character-building touches. It all builds to the fantastic, heartbreaking climax on the beach. I’d also say it adds weight to the relationship between McKellen and Stewart in the original X films. Not significantly, perhaps, because those films are about other things, but I think you can feel their shared history more keenly.

The rest of the cast is suitably well equipped. There’s 2011 Best Actress Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, aka Mystique. Little more than a henchman designed to bring sex appeal in the trilogy, here she’s given a significant degree of backstory that makes her an important piece of the overall series. Indeed, she comes across as woefully underused if you watch X-Men after this — the flipside to the Xavier-Lehnsherr relationship working better, if you will. There’s also Kevin Bacon, playing his second superhero villain in as many years, who does sterling work as a former Nazi seeking world domination — remember the ’60s, when world domination was a valid aim for a villain? There’s more than a little Bond in the mix here.

Rounding out, we have the likes of Vaughn regular and perpetual “I’m only doing it for the money”-er Jason Flemyng, in an almost dialogue-free part that, while visually striking, doesn’t fare much better than his Kick-Ass ‘cameo’ in terms of screen time. There’s also a very flat (in every way apart from her frequently highlighted chest) turn from January Jones as a villainous sidekick, feeling every bit like the last-minute casting she was (after various other actresses walked away — considering the small size of both the role and costume, I can see why). Plus Rose Byrne, who’s always worth mentioning.

Much was made in some circles of a rushed production schedule leading to some of the film’s flaws. I think that’s only an issue because people know it could be one, because (on second viewing especially) I noted no such problems. The earlier parts are probably the film’s best — with Lehnsherr and Moira being all Bond-y, and Kevin Bacon’s Shaw being very much a Bond villain, making it feel more like a big ’60s spy thriller than a superhero movie in many ways — and when it tries to introduce an X-Men team made up of second-string leftover characters it loses its way slightly. But balance is everything with ensemble casts like this, and watching the film again gives a better perspective on its pace and its actual balance. First time through these things are distorted because you don’t know how far through the story you are, how long’s left, how long each scene will last, and so on; a second time, with an idea of where it’s going and so forth, you can better appreciate how it’s all actually weighed up, and I think First Class achieves a balance better than most have given it credit for.

Also worthy of a mention is Henry Jackman’s score. He gives us brilliant driving, menacing action themes, alongside some evocative ’60s stuff too, especially when they’re on the hunt for mutants for instance. I love a good blockbuster movie score, and this is definitely one of those.

Perhaps the thing that most impressed me about First Class, however, was its genuine sense of spectacle. The climax features master-of-magnetism Magneto hoisting a submarine out of the ocean with his powers. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the trailers — so we’d all seen it going in. And we’re in an era of anything-goes CGI — nothing looks impressive any more because we know not only that it can be done, but how it was done too (greenscreen and pixels, essentially). But that’s not what happens, at least for me, especially on the big screen.

Between Vaughn’s direction, Jackman’s score, Fassbender and McAvoy’s performances, plus those of other supporting cast members, and sterling work by the visual effects team(s), the moment when that submarine floats dripping into the sky is hair-raising. It played to me as a moment of genuine cinematic spectacle; the kind of thing you used to get when big stunts had to be done for real somehow. It’s not a feeling I expected to get from a new film ever again.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times how it ties in to the earlier (set later) films in the series, and how some complained about it messing up X-Men comics lore. But this is an adaptation — it’s not beholden to what’s established in the comics. And it’s working around fitting into the world of the later films, so of course they’re not going to have Cyclops in a ’60s X-team, and so on. It’s a complete non-issue for non-fans, and the same for any open-minded fans who realise they’re not trying to faithfully bring the X-Men canon to the big screen. Earlier films should already have shattered that illusion anyway.

As to the former, it largely fits well with the earlier films. There might be some questions about ages and events not lining up precisely (especially with the flashbacks in The Last Stand), but these are minor points that I think we can overlook for the overall quality of the film. Largely, a use of certain effects, call-forwards, cameos and little touches here and there really tie it in to the existing films. You don’t need to have seen them to get this — indeed, I imagine the ultimate way to experience it would be with no foreknowledge whatsoever of where Charles & Erik’s relationship is going — but for all those of us who have, it works very nicely.

Yet despite these links, and the 40(-ish)-year gap between the end of this story and the start of X-Men, if First Class never received a follow-up it would work perfectly as a standalone ’60s X-Men film. But I’m ever so glad we’re getting more, because I want to see this crew and this cast tell us more stories of the X-Men.

After seeing First Class in the cinema I thought to myself that, while I would dearly love to give it a full five stars, in all good conscience I couldn’t; for whatever reason, it didn’t quite come together enough. Watching it again on Blu-ray, however, I’ve completely changed my mind: I wouldn’t change a thing. All my anticipation is more than paid off — I love this movie.

5 out of 5

X-Men: First Class placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

* That was released back in October 2011, I know. The rest is general tardiness. ^