The “X-Men” movie franchise had turned into a bit of a mess. The first “X-Men” helped usher in the modern era of superhero movies with solid characters and plenty of action while the second film proved to be a rousing and thoughtful sequel.
Then the wheels came off as the third movie collapsed under the weight of too many new and less interesting cast members and then somehow Marvel Studios managed to botch a spinoff focusing on one of the series’ most bankable characters in the dismally bad “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”
So just when it seemed it was time to write off this labored franchise about a seemingly endless supply of super-powered mutants, along comes a prequel, “X-Men: First Class,” that injects new life into the series with a great cast, an up-and-coming director and a screenplay that is more interested in characters than explosions (although not by much).
The driving force between the first two movies was the conflict between a group of good mutants led by wheel-chair-bound telepath Professor X and a group of bad mutants led by the metal-manipulating Magneto.
When we first meet these characters they are old men, Professor X played by Patrick Stewart and Magneto played by Ian McKellen, whose complicated back story was only hinted at.
In “X-Men: First Class” their relationship gets center stage as we are whisked back to the early 1960s where we learn these sworn enemies were once allies (Isn’t that always the way?)
Professor X (played here by James McAvoy) was once known only as Charles Xavier, a brilliant, non-paralyzed genetics professor, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) was known as Erik Lehnsherr, an angry, vengeance-driven Holocaust survivor.
They are thrown together when a group of evil mutants attempts to instigate a nuclear war in a series of events better known to you and me as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The evil mutants are led by Sebastian Shaw, a seemingly ageless mutant who has the power to absorb and deflect energy, and who just so happened to work with the Nazis as one of young Erik’s primary tormenters.
Shaw is played by Kevin Bacon, which turns out to be one of the largest flaws in the movie. I’ve got nothing against Bacon, in fact, he is quite good at the beginning of the movie when he is speaking in German and merely playing an evil Nazi scientist. But Bacon is not cut out to play the heavy for an entire movie and Shaw winds up being one of the least formidable villains in recent memory.
Fortunately, the movie really isn’t about him but is instead about the relationship between Charles and Erik as they assemble a team of mutants for the U.S. government to take on Shaw and his dastardly crew.
Adding some interesting layers of complexity is the character of Mystique, played by Academy-Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence. Mystique is a blue-skinned shapeshifter who is Charles’ oldest childhood friend, yet she finds herself drawn to Erik and his ideas of mutant superiority.
McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence are responsible for finding the heart in the midst of all this comic-book silliness.
“X-Men: First Class” is directed by Matthew Vaughn who is probably best known for helming “Kick-Ass.” While Vaughn nimbly handles the action set-pieces (the climactic showdown off the coast of Cuba is particularly impressive), he gives his actors plenty of space to work in and finds a place for as much humor and humanity as all the special effects will allow.
The movie was primarily written by Ashley Miller and Zach Stentz, who have already are having a good summer, have also written the screenplay for “Thor.” The two have proven they have a knack for wringing a decent story out of some pretty ridiculous subject matter.
The setting of the 1960s allows for a lot of retro-cool Cold War shenanigans that are more reminiscent of a Bond flick than a straight comic book fair as “X-Men: First Class” delivers everything you could possibly want out of a summer blockbuster. If only all of our mindless entertainment could be this well done.
“X-Men: First Class” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language.