With apologies to Blade aficionados, director Bryan Singer's 2000 X-Men was really the film that jump-started the cinematic superhero craze that continues to this day. Previous comic-book adaptations tended to be made for television, and such blockbusters as 1978's Superman and 1989's Batman proved to be the exception rather than the rule. But ever since Singer's exceptional (X-ceptional?) film hit the screen 11 summers ago, there's been no shortage of super-cinema, with much, much more on the way. In a sense, X-Men: First Class brings us full circle: It's the best X-Men flick since the original, and while it's no match for either The Dark Knight or the aforementioned Superman, it still ranks among the top 10 movies to date in this specialized genre. It's that good.
The film's high marks across the board are something of a surprise, given the general direction of the franchise. While Singer's two efforts (X-Men and X2) were solid, Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand and Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine stumbled badly (personally, I don't think they're as awful as their reputations, but they're definitely underwhelming additions to the canon). Under the auspices of director Matthew Vaughn, this one gets the series back on track. Working from a plot fashioned by six writers (including himself as well as Singer), Vaughn employs a generous 132-minute running time in order to give all the characters and their predicaments breathing room. The film starts with an image familiar from the 2000 X-Men: Eric Lehnsherr (later Magneto) first becomes aware of his mutant power while a mere lad in a German concentration camp, mentally bending a steel gate in a futile effort to reach his mother. The early idea for this film was to concentrate it solely on Eric (in essence, X-Men Origins: Magneto), but perhaps mindful that this might lead to comparisons to the similarly WWII-set Hannibal Rising — the leaden prequel in which the great character of Hannibal Lecter was reduced to a flesh-chomping Nazi hunter — the powers-that-be quickly opened the playbook to allow equal time to Charles Xavier, who's living in opulence in a Westchester, N.Y., mansion while Eric is undergoing tests under the thumb of a Mengele-like Nazi (Kevin Bacon).
Cut to the 1960s, where the adult Eric (Michael Fassbinder) is seeking revenge on his tormentor and the adult Charles (James McAvoy) is wooing college coeds with his patented pickup lines involving the charming aspects of genetic mutation. Eric soon learns that the former Nazi is now operating under the alias of Sebastian Shaw and on the verge of starting World War III by playing the Americans and the Russians against each other, Yojimbo style. Circumstances bring together not only Charles and Eric but other mutants all looking for acceptance in a world that is just now becoming aware of their presence but already fearing and despising them for being different. Some of these tortured youths, like the shape-shifting Raven (Winter’s Bone Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence) and the ever-so-slightly misshapen Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), desperately want to look just like “normal” humans, while others, such as moody Alex Summers (Lucas Till) and the vocally gifted Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), simply want to be able to control their awesome powers. Both Charles and Eric are happy to serve as mentors, but to different ends: Charles believes that mutants and humans can eventually coexist peacefully, while Eric feels that humans deserve only contempt and must bow to mutant superiority.
Vaughn appears to be something of a mutant shape-shifter himself, moving from the steely coolness of Layer Cake to the fairy tale romance of Stardust to the relentless brutality of Kick-Ass. Here, he ably demonstrates that he can tackle a mammoth Hollywood blockbuster without getting swallowed whole by the experience. Crucially, he never loses sight of the fact that the characters matter far more than the effects work, and such an approach results in some memorable characterizations as well as one standout performance by Fassbinder (Inglourious Basterds) as Eric Lehnsherr. That's not to say that the effects work is a letdown: On the contrary, the CGI is superb, resulting in some truly exciting set pieces (the sequence in which Eric uses an anchor chain to effectively slice a ship in half is astounding).
X-Men: First Class will of course appeal to fans of the comic books, but its screenplay is streamlined enough so that even the uninitiated should have no trouble hopping aboard. Yet this isn't dumbed-down, assembly-line product; as one example, check out the clever manner in which the writers manage to work real-life events (chiefly, the Cuban Missile Crisis) into the proceedings. There's even archival footage of John F. Kennedy to seal the deal, although it must be noted that the filmmakers wisely opted not to have Magneto share the same frame with JFK, like some Forrest Gump gone mutant.