X-Men: First Class takes the X-Men franchise into the swinging sixties for a James Bond style action thriller meets historical fiction with tons of political drama. Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn brings his own sense of fun and character to this fast-paced, energetic film about mutant heroes and villains set against the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The first two X-Men films directed by Bryan Singer, who returns to the franchise here as a co-writer and producer, are the highly enjoyable and were the peak of the X-films. Despite the problems associated with prequels, the films injects a true sense of nostalgia its re-imagining of the Cold War with mutants playing a pivotal role in historical events as a welcomed twist.
First Class has so much confidence and self-assuredness moving forward thanks to Vaughn's intricate direction and momentum of its plot. The political drama isn't always on the mark but the themes of tolerance, war, and humanity are universal. Things happen very quickly, bouncing through time and world wars and from Poland to New York, Washington, Moscow, Switzerland, Argentina, and back again.
The chemistry between the suave Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) and likeable James McAvoy as the young Erik/Magneto and Charles/Professor X is palpable as the duo have a great back and forth. They recapture the on screen charisma and presence their elder versions, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, displayed so well. Magneto is an angry man with a singular mission that snow balls into more nefarious intents. X-Men is not about good and evil, but love and anger, and we see how these themes manifest between Erik and Charles.
Oscar nominated sensation Jennifer Lawrence is another standout as she sizzles cinematically, playing off both Fassbender and McAvoy sharply. She proves her acting chops, bringing depth and understanding to a pretty ridiculous character in the blue-skinned, shapeshifter Mystique. Kevin Bacon as the dastardly villain Sebastian Shaw, an ageless energy sucking ne'er-do-well who inspires Magneto's later turn is dynamic and a solid antagonist. Bacon plays evil and fun and does it well larger than life. January Jones (Mad Men) as Emma Frost barely shows up to be super sexy and cold in increasingly ridiculously scantily clad clothing and backs up Shaw's evil plans to end humanity and start a mutant uprising.
The biggest flaw with the film comes with any origin story or prequel. We know the players and where they end up. Telling the story backwards of how a good guy goes bad is seldom all that compelling. Luckily, Vaughn wraps the film around Fassbender's magnanimous performance. Things get a little too comic book-y at times with scenes of characters giving each other nicknames and characters changing allegiances on the way to a very rushed ending to establish the status quo.
The film features many nods and references to the original trilogy that never distract and only remind of us of what already came. With slick direction, serviceable writing, and a monster performance from Fassbender with the film's only real, fully developed character arc, First Class sets up a new but familiar new world effectively.
X-Men: First Class proves itself as a worthy and immensely entertaining entry into the X-Men franchise as a very ambitious superhero thrill ride. It exhilarates, chills, and makes you think. Despite its rushed nature and doing its best to make sense of X-Men's convoluted continuity, it's easily one of the best Marvel Comics film adaptations to date thanks to its top notch ensemble cast. It is pop art and fun at its best.