Packed as much with action and special effects as it is rich in story and detail for fans and newbies alike, X-Men: First Class delivers a summer-movie experience more on par with X2 than the muddled and tepid X-Men: The Last Stand.
And, as far as origins stories go, this one is pretty great.
Set against the taut, panic-stricken backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film chronicles how brilliant genetics professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) met vengeful mutant Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), and how the joint paths their lives took for a while eventually diverged into good and evil. Though, to be fair, that should be “evil” with an asterisk after it, since Erik/Magneto’s back story reveals enough about his tortured past that his actions later on in life are at least somewhat excusable, if not mildly forgivable.
Because, you see, Erik was tortured. It was, as previous films briefly explained, in a WWII concentration camp and at the ruthless hands of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon in a deliciously nasty turn). And, as an adult therefore, Erik is seriously pissed. Though he escaped Shaw’s clutches, Erik never really gave up the profound desire to exact sweet revenge, so when he, Charles and a gaggle of other young mutants – including Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel (Zoë Kravitz) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) – are recruited by government agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) for a mission against Shaw and the Russians, it’s fully “game ON!”
For me, as a fan of the X-Men films, the fun here lies in seeing how everything began for all these characters – how they met, who they were, which friendships and relationships existed between them – while knowing what that future is. Even better, watching them all discover and shape their powers, learn how to hone their skills and, as geeky as it sounds, seeing how they all decided upon their mutant names.
Though the film is more than two hours long, it never lags and never sputters. The story moves briskly but in such a way that it is still saturated with detail. There are clever throwaway lines and asides, and even a couple of get-the-audience-cheering surprise cameos, that further add to the overall experience… making it that much better. The casting works across the board, and even the normally bland January Jones perks up for her role as Shaw’s right-hand gal, Emma Frost.
Better still is the fact that director Matthew Vaughn’s appropriately kick-ass installment in the franchise opens up all kinds of new doors through which, one hopes, these engaging and exciting younger incarnations get to walk through in a subsequent film.