X-Men: First Class

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones
Review: 4 stars (of five)

Imagine a superhero movie that puts character development ahead of action, one that cultivates a style that’s not “Louder! Faster! Stupider!” Or don’t—just go see it delivered in Matthew Vaughn’s new X-Men: First Class.

Vaughn, who also gave us last year’s strong Kick-Ass and the utterly charming and fun Stardust takes a script that passed through six credited writers (including, at the last, himself and Jane Goldman, who collaborated on the Stardust and Kick-Ass adaptations) and delivers something coherent and complex. He brings in a solid cast and makes us care about them, and isn’t afraid to let the story trigger the superheroics, rather than vice versa. Yet rest assured, the action gets insanely big at the end, just like you’d expect.

The movie is a prequel to the four X-Men movies (including the Wolverine solo pic) set back when a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) met a young Magneto (Michael Fassbender). It’s a double origin story—how Prof. X ended up leading a band of clandestine mutant heroes, and how Magneto became the scourge of the world, or whatever. Because Magneto’s childhood is tied back to World War II, the film picks up in the sixties. The filmmakers set it in 1962, a year before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the characters in X-Men #1, which gives the film the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop (it’s also the year Dr. No launched the Bond film franchise, and many have already compared the vibe of this movie to an early Bond flick).

The film offers a mishmash of characters representing pretty much every decade of the franchise’s long and insanely convoluted four-color history, showing an affection for the source material and a desire to appeal to fans—at least, the ones not so anal-retentive that they’re screaming about the disruptions of the canonical timeline. Perhaps the largest such deviation produces the highlight of the story, which is the inclusion of Mystique. The naked blue shapeshifter (Rebecca Romijn in the previous films, Jennifer Lawrence here) is recast as a sort of foster sister to Xavier. While this idea retroactively makes the “later” films a failure for not being able to play with this relationship, it really enlivens this one, because the young girl’s evolution (ha!) from budding heroine to villain (or mutant-rights terrorist) aligned with Magneto. Not only does the Mystique arc upstage the developments of the Xavier-Magneto relationship, it’s the rare case of a female character having a complete story within a superhero movie that doesn’t relegate her to girlfriend/sidekick and/or trade on a sexual or romantic relationship with a male hero.

The ostensibly bigger-deal woman in the film, Emma Frost (January Jones) doesn’t fare so well. Her character is flat, undeveloped and utterly superfluous (other than to counter Prof. X’s psychic powers with her own). The film makes the mistake of dressing Jones in a version of Frost’s lingerie-style costume, which looks even stupider on a real person, but at least they set those scenes within a somewhat logical context. On the other hand, Jones in sleek white leather works pretty damned well. If only her character did, too.

While the cast is generally quite strong, McAvoy is particular fun as Xavier, and Kevin Bacon is surprisingly entertaining, though wryly over the top, as chief villain Sebastian Shaw. The only thing missing from the cast is Stan Lee, who has made a cameo in every other recent Marvel adaptation. One suspects that the oversight is deliberate, a way of maintaining this film’s higher ground, rather than playing to the good-natured goofiness and sense of modern fun that the other Marvel flicks shoot for.

Where Thor was a flawed movie saved by interesting visuals and a compelling lead actor, this film fires pretty well on all cylinders. If the film has a drawback, besides the uselessness of Emma Frost, it’s the course of Xavier and Magneto’s doomed friendship. Lots of wrenching emotion, but we all know where it’s going (though the Star Wars prequels were infinitely worse in this regard). Xavier and Magneto’s fallout is inevitable, and the issues have been endlessly explicated in the previous X-Men movies, so it runs the risk of becoming tedious. Fortunately there’s a lot of other stuff going on here, too. This won’t be the summer’s biggest comic-book movie, but I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t turn out to be the best.