Marvel Comics diehards may squirm in frustration over the flagrant liberties the filmmakers have taken with the X-Mencanon. But for everyone else, X-Men: First Class is an uncommonly polished and sophisticated superhero movie in which the characters are so strong you sometimes forget you’re watching a story about telepaths and men who can bend steel with their minds.
In his previous picture, Kick-Ass, director Matthew Vaughn deconstructed the comic-book genre, delivering a satire that was affectionate yet deeply subversive. With First Class, though, Vaughn sets aside all the irony and comes up with one of the best X-Men movies (second only to X-Men 2), by going back to the beginning in the 1960s when mutants were becoming more frequent after the nuclear testing of the atomic age.
Kids growing up with bizarre talents such as the ability to shape shift or shoot laser beams from their hands keep their skills hidden, afraid of being ostracized and outcast. As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union escalate, a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) recruits the help of telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to see if this growing number of odd humans can be put to use to defend the country. Meanwhile, Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), who has the ability to manipulate metal, is hellbent on tracking down Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), the Nazi officer who murdered his mother in front of his eyes and used him for medical experiments.
The eventual friendship between Charles and Erik, who will eventually be known as Magneto, is one of most appealing aspects of X-Men: First Class. We’ve seen these two old foes at odds for so long that watching them working together to round up a team of young, frightened mutants and honing their skills is highly entertaining (Imagine the Joker and Batman suddenly making nice and helping each other.)
Schmidt, who wants to lead the this country and Russia into a nuclear war in order to strengthen the powers of mutants everywhere and rid the world of puny humans, is played a bit broadly by Bacon, although his orchestration of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a clever intersection of history and pure fantasy. The young mutants, played by Jennifer Lawrence (the blue-skinned Raven), Nicholas Hoult (Beast) and others, are all fine, but the true stars of the film are McAvoy and Fassbender, who credibly depict how Xavier and Magneto could go from being such tight allies to mortal enemies.
Vaughn pulls off some astounding set pieces — Magneto’s lifting a giant submarine from the ocean is a jaw-dropping highpoint — but this is the rare kind of comic-book adaptation in which you’re equally entertained when the characters are just sitting around talking.
The X-Men series seemed to have reached its end with the crummy third installment The Last Stand, but First Class injects energy and life into the franchise and opens the door for a slew of potential sequels. Plus you also get the most amusing cameo of the year thus far. ’Nuff said.
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi.
Director: Matthew Vaughn.
Screenwriters: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn.
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Gregory Goodman.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, adult themes. Opens Friday June 3 at area theaters.