There's much to admire about X-Men: First Class, a combination reboot and prequel for a three-film mutant-superhero series that peaked with its rousing second entry, then hit the wall in a by-the-numbers adventure that languished between workmanlike and perfunctory. Yet it's not the artistry of X-Men: First Class that's particularly striking; though it's finely crafted, the film feels less the product of a visionary director than of the Marvel movies machine working at maximum efficiency.
What's really awe-inspiring about X-Men: First Class is akin to what's startling about watching a sideshow strongman lift a refrigerator over his head. Just re-energizing a moribund franchise would be enough of a burden, but director Matthew Vaughn and his battery of screenwriters have also been tasked with rebuilding the entire X-Men universe from scratch.
Origin stories can be deadly — we're looking at you, Star Wars prequels — because they're about setup more than follow-through. By that measure, X-Men seems especially perilous, given its many dozens of specialized mutants and the convoluted allegiances and rivalries among them.
It's a headache just to consider the logistics of squeezing all that business into one movie, but the small miracle of X-Men: First Class is that it pulls off this herculean feat without breaking a sweat. Rather than feeling hampered by the need to introduce the likes of Magneto and Professor X to an audience that knows them through three previous blockbusters — to say nothing of comics, video games, action figures and other ancillary products — the filmmakers seem to have seized the opportunity to start fresh with a new cast and a cleaner, stronger mythology.
Harnessing a wealth of pulpy energy from real human events, X-Men: First Class cleverly incorporates the X-Men into a shadow history of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis. But first, it turns to the ultimate pulp villains — Nazis — to raise the stakes all the more. Flashing back to Auschwitz, it recaps the tale of young Erik Lensherr, who discovers the powers that will later transform him into Magneto when Nazi doctor Sebastian Shaw, played delectably by Kevin Bacon, guns down his mother. From that moment on, Erik's anger and impulsiveness will contrast starkly with his future friend and eventual nemesis Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, who manages his telepathic powers with intelligence and restraint. (Sometimes to a fault.)
Jumping ahead to 1962, with James McAvoy as Xavier and a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender as Erik, the film brings the two mutants together in an effort to avert global catastrophe. After a postwar lay-low in Argentina, Bacon's Sebastian has assembled a team of mutant ne'er-do-wells, including the telepathic Emma Frost (January Jones in brittle Mad Men form), and sets out to provoke a U.S.-Soviet nuclear conflict that will thin the ranks of ordinary humans. Recruited by the CIA for a "Division of Mutant Powers" aimed at countering the threat, Xavier and Erik put together a mutant army of their own, mainly stocked with young, unrefined talent — mutants we'll come to know, but before they're called such names as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Havok (Lucas Till).
On top of everything else, X-Men: First Class introduces an experimental serum designed to turn the mutants into ordinary humans — but really, the Cuban missile crisis is effective enough at stoking the identity issues built into the X-Men mythos. As evil plots go, the idea of escalating Cold War tensions in an effort to eradicate humanity is pleasingly outrageous, but it also complicates the mutants' struggle to integrate with other people or reject them entirely. This division among the mutants will likely be central to future X-Men movies, and First Class sets the table swiftly and clearly.
In the end, that clarity is the film's greatest asset, because it's a giant contraption built from an awful lot of moving parts. That Vaughn and company have time to sprinkle in witty references to X-Men marginalia — and delight, too, in the shagadelic details of the swinging '60s — speaks to the integrity of their blueprint. With X-Men: First Class getting the heavy lifting out of the way, the sequels will presumably cut loose — but it won't be easy for them to have this much fun doing it. (Recommended)