Smartly rebooting the X-Men series after two substandard instalments (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class proves there is still mileage left in the blockbuster brand; not only living up to high expectations but also exceeding them with confidence. A discontinuity prequel which remains true to the already-established series mythology while at the same time revitalising the franchise with new ideas and fresh blood, the X-Men series is finally in the hands of filmmakers truly able to handle the mix of big action, genuine intelligence and drama the series demands, not to mention First Class is grounded in the socio-political allegory for civil rights, conformity and social misfits that made X-Men more than your average comic in the first place. Rather than a generic action film, this is a character-focused story, though the material never plods thanks to stylish technique, proficient pacing, and engaging dialogue. In a solid summer season (with Thor exceeding expectations in particular), First Class has arrived to declare itself the new king of summer 2011.
We first meet Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender) as kids during WWII; Charles grew up privileged in Westchester and took in fellow mutant girl Raven, a.k.a. Mystique (Lawrence), while Erik suffered in a Nazi concentration camp at the hands of Sebastian Shaw (Bacon). As adults in the early 1960s, Charles is a powerful telepath and swinging bachelor who attends Oxford specialising in genetic mutation, and Erik has matured into a killing machine looking to exact vengeance on Shaw. At this time, though, Shaw has gathered a powerful group of mutants and is determined to wreak nuclear havoc on a global scale. With Shaw and his mutant team organising a master plan to initiate World War III off the shores of Cuba, C.I.A. agent Moira MacTaggert (Byrne) recruits Charles who in turn begins assembling a team of mutants in the hope of stopping Shaw. In the midst of this, a tentative friendship is struck up between Charles and the frustrated Erik which is threatened by Erik's recklessness and unpredictability.
Bryan Singer claimed producer and story credits for First Class, and his influence reverberates all throughout the production. Fortunately, this film was in sturdy hands with Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) and his trio of co-writers, who made First Class respectfully reverent to its predecessors while also doing enough to prevent it from feeling like a retread. Interestingly, the film kicks off with a recreation of the opening of the original X-Men film from 2000, as child Erik finds his powers while trying to save his mother in a Nazi camp. It may seem redundant to remake an 11-year-old scene, yet the occurrence is an essential part of Erik's traumatic origin story which is further explored throughout the film. By allowing this prequel the room to develop characters and thus breathe and percolate, First Class is a more real and personal story, making it far more thoughtful than typical superhero actioners. The film also dips its toes in other genres, with the globe-trotting narrative and villainous machinations reminiscent of a classic James Bond film, while team recruitment scenes possess the hip energy of a crime caper like the Ocean's Eleven remake. First Class' only narrative flaw is that it rushes a few details and tries to cram all the essentials into a single 130-minute picture.
Director Vaughn was originally scheduled to helm X-Men 3 but dropped out at the last minute due to lack of creative control. He ultimately cut his teeth in the superhero genre with last year's Kick-Ass, but First Class is far removed from Kick-Ass in both style and tone. Luckily, as heady and grave as First Class is at times, it's also fun, with a vibrant colour palette allowing the picture to actually look like an X-Men movie. Photographed by veteran John Mathieson, the film additionally possesses an authentic edge rather than feeling like a dull trudge through studio sets. The action sequences are big and inventive, with a handful of oddball character zipping around the place using their various powers in combat, but it all feels real and immediate on top of being fun. By the time the impressive climax in Cuba arrives, the excitement and thrills feel well-earned after focusing on dramatic growth. The digital effects are solid for the most part but occasionally a little rocky, probably due to the rushed post-production schedule. Henry Jackson's accompanying score is generically engaging and suitable, though it may've benefitted from a more John Barry-esque zing to fit the setting, and it lacks a proper distinctive hero theme.
Another strength of X-Men: First Class is the almost faultless cast. The boundlessly charismatic, solid James McAvoy plays a Charles Xavier that's utterly foreign to us. A walking, drinking, womaniser with a full head of hair, McAvoy's interpretation is less staid and noble, and more human. In fact, his take on the soon-to-be Professor X is so refreshing that, as the finale approaches and familiar characteristics begin to surface, it's somewhat disappointing. Michael Fassbender is equally excellent as Erik/Magneto, who grows up to be a globe-trotting, multilingual Nazi hunter with a splash of James Bond and a touch of Hannibal Lector. Fassbender afforded a badass edge to the role and has an indomitably strong presence. More than that, Fassbender's portrayal keeps Magneto in the gray zone between good and evil where he belongs. McAvoy and Fassbender do not look much like their elderly counterparts from earlier X-Men films (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, respectively), but the stars do effectively capture both their souls and the tricky bond they share. Meanwhile, as Sebastian Shaw, Kevin Bacon obviously had an absolute ball; hamming it up and chewing the scenery accordingly. The supporting performances are almost all terrific, with each one individualising themselves even if their roles are comparatively compact. Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy) is particularly good as Hank McCoy, whose transformation into Beast makes for an intriguing character arc. (It's also fascinating to see Hoult all grown up!) The only thing approaching a weak link is January Jones, who lacks range as Emma Frost.
X-Men: First Class works so well on multiple levels. As an origin story it's patient and respectful of its source material. As a summer blockbuster it contains a handful of outstanding action set-pieces complementing a tense plot that's politically relevant despite its '60s setting. And finally, as an X-Men movie it taps all the right geek chords (there is one surprise cameo in particular that's beautifully played and absolutely hilarious). Vaughn and his crew were able to keep First Class connected to the previous films while also launching it as its own series. The fact that blockbusters of this high calibre can still be produced within the Hollywood system (and not be in 3-D!) gives hope for the future of summer filmmaking.