Let’s get one thing out of the way before all else; Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is miles better than the slightly fun, but mostly dumb, Wolverine and the all-dumb X-Men 3. Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise as a producer is felt immediately and this is very much the spiritual successor to the first two X-films. One will probably find themselves wishing that he would ape his own Superman Returns in its flagrant nose-thumbing at what’s come before and make a sequel to the first two films that ignores the established film continuity of the third and fourth. (Actually, I’m pretty sure First Class already does in a way. I haven’t seen Last Stand since it was released in theaters due to its stank, but I seem to recall its opening (and the end of Wolverine) being contradicted by the ending of the current film.)
But enough of this nerdy fanboyism as to continuity and its place in the X-pantheon. (Yes, I hope to use a lot of X-words today.)
As an origin story, X-Men: First Class is pretty much X-pendable. It’s simply not needed. The first film did a good enough job introducing the characters and concept. However, this is no waste of a movie. It’s a solid piece of storytelling and a lot of fun.
The important thing is that not only does this sequel take us back to the roots of what made the franchise enjoyable, but it gives us something we haven’t seen before; a period superhero film that isn’t set in World War II and that takes itself seriously enough to get us to take it seriously.
It’s the sixties and the Reds are just shy of parking some warheads where they can shove them up our collective asses in, as JFK pronounces it, “Cuber.” In this alternate, comic book history, we see the situation being exacerbated for the malevolent machinations of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), leader of the infamous baddies, The Hellfire Club. Will the X-tots be able to stop all-out nuclear war? Will Shaw act as Blofeld-ian as Kevin Bacon is capable of? Will Emma Frost strut around in what appears to be a wonderbra long before they were invented? What do you think?
There are certainly moments when the proceedings (or at least some of the props) will likely make you roll your eyes, but none of them are deadly to the enjoyment of the story. For the most part, the actors play their roles well and look the part, especially in their dapper yellow and black outfits, inspired by their Silver-Age origins. Take that, black leather.
The biggest question marks in the casting going in would undoubtedly be Xavier and Magneto, given the pedigree that the characters have been filled with in their later incarnations, but both are portrayed acceptably. Michael Fassbender’s turn as the future leader of the Brotherhood is especially inspired as he harnesses the rage of Magneto before it is tempered and turned into the simmering, weary villain that Ian McKellen would embody.
Quite a number of the other mutants are throwaways, shoehorned from more modern eras, but most of them work. Special attention is due to Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart, a CIA employee that manages to pull off seeming like a capable agent and looking great in her underwear at the same time. Not an easy feat.
If you started out as a fan of this series, but feel burned by some of the previous entries, I recommend giving Professor X’s brood another chance. You’ll likely find a lot to enjoy in this Bond-ian superhero romp.
(Three and a half out of five stars)