Matthew Vaughn's path as a film artist actually originated several years before his directorial debut, Layer Cake: His peculiar sense of macabre humor heavily informs Guy Ritchie's first two films (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.), both of which were produced by Vaughn. What goes missing when you subtract Vaughn from Ritchie isn't simply the blackly comic violence (there's no trick to that), but the way it plays out in cleverly composed, richly colored, often widescreen frames. Now that Ritchie, whose own ticks seemed to begin with gun-barrels-in-the-lens and end with frantic overcutting, has finally revealed his true colors as a dull blockbuster impresario, Vaughn has weathered an eccentric loss leader in the fantasy genre (the punchy, mischievous, and underrated Stardust) to cut loose with the enjoyably naughty, if uneven, Kick-Ass.
The surprise success of the latter film was presumably what led to Vaughn being given the keys to the big store: X-Men: First Class, a reboot/sequel/prequel to the exhausted 2000-2006 trilogy. Despite his apparent comfort with F/X-heavy projects, the obligations of duty to the brand are too much for Vaughn's strange, singular voice, which rarely has the chance to shape the film unmolested by a curiously bland script (I think at one point a character says, "Welcome to my facility," with a straight face), a dominant sense of too-much-ness, and the simple fact that such super-productions as these, with too much merchandising and cross-pollination at stake, are downright hostile to the director's impulse to use more than a fraction of the potential of a large, diverse cast. Interesting faces and voices (Oliver Platt, January Jones, Ed Gathegi, an unrecognizable Jason Flemyng) are undistinguishable from the noise.
Still, Vaughn's struggle is valiant and, at the outset, he lands a few choice blows, the most memorable of which is an early 180° cut away from a dull office and to a Mengele-inspired lab, the walls lined with butcher knives and assorted torture implements. Recognizable characteristics of Vaughn's direction appear throughout. One of his specialties is composing flat, clean spaces that are knocked off balance by an internal quirk or sight gag; think of Big Daddy and Hit Girl rappelling suddenly down opposite sides of the billboard in Kick-Ass. Whenever possible, he arranges several characters, facing the camera, on a horizontal axis and, with dialogue or gesture (e.g. James McAvoy speaking from the extreme left of the frame) destabilizes the line. He also favors "Buffy and the Scoobies gathered 'round the library table" setups, and generally directs small-group dialogue scenes with easy assurance.
There's also the matter of the violence, which is absolutely in Vaughn's bailiwick. Especially when contrasted against the delirious Kick-Ass, mayhem has predictably been diluted for the rating, usually by fading to white (two instances) or cutting away, but Vaughn almost always finds a way to make bloodshed palpable and disconcerting, either by tempo, circumstances, or performance. The image of Rupert Everett's profoundly unfair demise in Stardust is reprised here. A sympathetic youth is dispatched in a scene of slowly dawning sadness, while the (decidedly non-lethal) takedown of several Soviet guards with barbed wire is done in a pungent, comic wide shot.
Of the performances, Fassbender is almost boringly the champion, neutralizing viewers effortlessly with the one-two punch of his triangular but infinitely expressive jawbone, and those lodestone eyes. He phones it in, but it's one of those phone calls where you die. Surprisingly, the apparently ageless Kevin Bacon does right by his first decent part in years, proving (if Diner, Murder in the First, and Hollow Man weren't evidence enough) that all this legendary ensemble-cornerstone of Philadelphia needs to attain escape velocity is a role of substantial weirdness. Other highlights tend to consist solely of hambone guest spots (Ray Wise, James Remar, Michael Ironside, Rade Serbedzija, and Glenn Morshower), while up-and-comers like Zoë Kravitz and Lucas Till just don't stand a chance.
The film is ultimately undone by that old paradox of Hollywood movie production: If you're given an enormous budget, you have to spend every penny—a little like telling a chef he needs to use all of the spices in his cabinet, for a sauce that would be much improved by discipline and moderation. Historically, this results in modestly pleasurable films that run 20 minutes to an hour too long, distended by innumerable instances where the director is under orders to capture on film the exchange of cash for a thing of equal value (here, it's a fleet of Soviet and U.S. battleships, a dozen massive sets, and January Jones's eyesore of a mutation), and the fact that it's 99% digital changes nothing about the way the slightest hint of specialness in X-Men: First Class is smothered in numbing exhibits of conspicuous consumption.