X-Men: First Class reboots the wallowing X-Men franchise with a burst of fresh energy and giddy pop invention. It's a rare blockbuster that actually busts some blocks. The last film in the original trilogy, which had the lamentable Brett Ratner stepping in for Bryan Singer, who directed the first two pictures, was a strained, stumbling mess. Here, new director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) whips the contending mutant teams back to life, restoring the fun and the thrills that had dwindled away.
As the title indicates, First Class is a prequel. It begins with an expansion of a scene in the first film, set in 1944, in which we see young Erik Lehnsherr—the future Magneto—being separated from his mother and father in a Nazi concentration camp. Erik erupts in a fit of super-fury, which is spotted by a mercurial Nazi on the scene (Kevin Bacon, as future bad guy Sebastian Shaw), who wants to groom Erik into an invincible killing machine. He's not entirely successful, apparently, because, leaping ahead to 1962, we find Erik in Geneva, in grim pursuit of his evil mentor. "Let's say I'm Frankenstein's monster," he explains to an ill-fated thug at one point. "I'm looking for my creator."
Meanwhile, rich young telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who has already befriended the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), is graduating from Oxford as a specialist in genetic mutations. He's approached by Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), a sympathetic CIA agent who's just back from Las Vegas, where she was surveilling a summit of mobsters and Russians convened by Sebastian Shaw. Aided by his mutant henchmen—the storm-bringer Riptide (Álex González), the Satan-esque Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and the icy Emma Frost (January Jones)—Shaw is scheming to foment a war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (Cue the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
Director Vaughn hustles this complicated narrative past us with admirable dispatch, and is similarly concise in packing Xavier's subsequent assembly of a mutant team—the soon-to-be X-Men—into a lively montage. Assisted by Erik, now his new best friend (and played by Michael Fassbender), Xavier recruits the shrieking Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), the explosive Havok (Lucas Till), the slippery Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and strip-club fly-girl Angel (Zoë Kravitz). And let us not forget science geek Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who, following an experiment gone very wrong, will morph into the formidable Beast.
The story's 1960s setting allows Vaughn to access quite a bit of period style and humor. The crafty Sebastian, with his fabulous yacht and plan for world domination, recalls the supervillains of the early Bond films, whose production designer, Ken Adam, is further saluted with a Pentagon war room clearly modeled on the one in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, which Adam also designed. On the other hand, a scene in which January Jones slinks by us in a tight white miniskirt and a bushy fur hat has to be a nod to the beloved Ilsa skin flicks of the 1970s. I think.
There are also a couple of cute cameos by X-Men of yore, the funniest an ornery encounter in a bar, and a scene in which the blue-skinned Raven—now evolved into Mystique—slips into Erik's bed (and gets turned down!). The action, which is abundant, is fluidly staged, especially a knife-flashing tussle with a pair of fugitive Nazis in an Argentinian cantina. I'd say that an elaborate mega-clash involving the opposing teams of X-Men and a fleet of Coast Guard gunboats goes on a bit too long, but I'd be stretching to find something to carp about.
The movie is elevated by the quality of its actors, especially McAvoy and Fassbender, who have a warm rapport, and the too-often undervalued Bacon, who exults in full-bore perfidy. Bacon may not be back (although who knows), but most of the rest of this new crew of opposing X-Men are obviously poised for a return match. A second film is reportedly in the works—with Vaughn once again directing, one would hope—and if so, it could provide that most elusive of franchise pleasures: a superhero sequel that really is worth seeing.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin's Press.