Who would’ve thought that an origin story would be the best in the series? That’s certainly the case here, as the cleverly titled X-Men: First Class (yes, it’s also a first-class movie) delivers the goods for hardcore fans as well as newbies to this superhero universe.
The opening sequence sets the mood. It’s a re-shot version of the opening scene from the original film, set in a 1944 concentration camp in German-controlled Poland, showing a young Erik Lehnsherr first discovering — under extreme duress — his powers to control metal objects, and now followed by his meeting with the Nazi doctor who will shatter his young life. This time, though, the story jumps to Westchester, N.Y., where a young, wealthy, and very smart Charles Xavier first meets up with a young and very blue Raven.
Right away, the film gives viewers greatly opposing scenes of agonizing loss and youthful joy. And that’s all before it jumps to the 1962 setting where the main story will play out.
Charles (James McAvoy) has become quite the ladies’ man, though he still maintains a close friendship with Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). Meanwhile, across the ocean, Erik (Michael Fassbender) continues to obsess,
after all these years, about his Nazi tormentor, Klauss Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), and about the vengeance he will one day deal out.
From there we get into stories of a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) who’s looking for an expert on genetic mutation, of a CIA-sponsored school that will recruit mutants to fight the good fight, of the relationship between Charles and Erik (who will later become Professor X and Magneto), and, for those who like a little real historical context in their fictional stories, a plot centering on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, complete with archival footage of John Kennedy.
Moving along at a relentless pace under the direction of Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake), the film takes us to more international locations than your average James Bond movie, all while keeping up wonderful senses of both humor and surprise, even though it’s ready to switch to fierce-and-ferocious mode in an instant. For action fans, there are outstanding visual effects, mostly in scenes of mass destruction, accompanied by music that is extremely loud but never out of place.
While much of the storytelling rests on the young mutants who are brought into the program, most of it stays with Charles, the calm mentor who’s running the show, and Erik, the intense guy who can’t get retribution out of his mind. Though this is another example of James McAvoy getting better with each role he plays, all eyes are going to be on Fassbender (who played Rochester in the recent Jane Eyre), mainly because of the intensity he displays, mostly in his eyes.
Also adding to the fine display of acting here is Kevin Bacon, whose Nazi character reinvents himself as the evil, forever young, mutant leader Sebastian Shaw, who Bacon plays with all of the smarm he can muster.
There’s some comic relief in an extended set of training sessions for the young recruits and in a brief, funny cameo set that’s aimed squarely at fans of the series.
The biggest effects-driven battle business is saved for the latter parts of the movie, as is the realization of how neatly this all ties into the films that came before and the plotlines that would follow.