Since “X-Men” debuted in 2000 to massive box office success, it’s been credited with shaping the modern superhero genre. After a tremendous sequel, the series faltered; first with a mediocre third film and then with an abhorrent prequel based on breakout character Wolverine. “X-Men: First Class,” another prequel to the series, is not only the best film in the series since “X2,” but is also summer filmmaking at its best — a smart superhero film with strong, well-acted characters.
Following an opening scene ripped from the first “X-Men” film, “First Class” chronicles the early ’60s when Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) assemble their first team of mutants to stop the nefarious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is relentlessly pushing America and Russia to the brink of nuclear war.
With prequels, there’s always a chance of the film falling short simply because we know where the story is going. Charles Xavier will always end up in a wheelchair and Erik Lehnsherr will always become Magneto. Director Matthew Vaughn, fresh from last year’s memorable “Kick-Ass,” makes the smart move of staging the film as a tragedy, sending the characters on an unstoppable collision course with their destinies and letting the audience watch the pieces slowly fall into place. Vaughn’s brisk pacing and strong character work makes the slow march to a predetermined destination entertaining and surprisingly suspenseful.
The film’s massive cast is almost flawless. James McAvoy more than fills the shoes of Patrick Stewart. The radiant Jennifer Lawrence is compulsively watchable, even when buried under a layer of blue makeup as the perpetually conflicted Mystique. Nicholas Hoult stands out as the quiet, ashamed Hank McCoy. That’s not even mentioning the strong turns by Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt and many others. The only weak link is
’ Emma Frost, mostly thanks to the icy delivery that Jones manages to call acting, but director Matthew Vaughn wisely sidelines her for most of the film’s second half.
Despite the amount of talent on display, no one shines more than Michael Fassbender as Erik. Fresh from a memorable turn in “Inglourious Basterds,” Fassbender oozes movie star charisma, especially in his early scenes, which play like a classic Bond film. Fassbender steals every scene with minimal effort and his slow descent into villainy is truly something to behold.
A big summer action film is nothing without good action sequences, and Vaughn delivers here as well. The film’s mutants all have uniquely cinematic powers and it’s a sight to behold when they come to blows, especially in the film’s climax. Two fleets of American and Russian warships are on the verge of firing on each other while the X-Men face down their first formidable antagonist.
After the massive misstep of the past two films, “X-Men: First Class” almost single-handedly redeems the once laughable franchise, thanks in no small part to director Matthew Vaughn and the fantastic Michael Fassbender. Despite working with a recipe for disaster, “First Class” manages to be one of the most ambitious, intelligent and purely entertaining films of the summer so far.