X-Men: First Class. 138 mins. PG-13. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Ashley Miller & Zach Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn.
The new X-Men movie, First Class, does what every questionable reboot of a fading franchise needs to do in order to shut up its detractors: it's good. Really good. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by the quality on screen. After punishing audiences with The Last Stand (which I actively disliked) and Wolverine (which I downright hated), Fox has wisely brought Bryan Singer back into the fold, and, even better, handed the directing reins to Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass). The result is a smart, confident, and briskly paced action movie that truly delivers the goods.
Taking a page from the Star Trek playbook, X-Men: First Class takes many of the characters we know and love, and shows us their origin. The 2009 reboot of Star Trek is a great comparison - First Class gets many of the same things right as that film. Though it stays faithful to the X-Men movies that preceded it, First Class definitely signals a break and a new direction. Set in 1962, amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis, the movie focuses on the early development of the X-Men and the combustible friendship between Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy).
The smartest move First Class made was casting those two actors. Fassbender and McAvoy rule the screen - you can't take your eyes off either one. Their scenes together, as they bond and bicker over the nature of humanity and mutation, are just dynamite. It is so wonderful to see two excellent actors treat comic book material so seriously and just elevate it with their performances.
Fassbender is particularly mesmerizing. After memorable roles in Inlgourious Basterds and Jane Eyre, and many more coming soon, Fassbender is poised to break out in a big way. I, for one, can't wait to see more of him. My favorite scene in the movie features Magneto at a bar in Argentina, laying waste to three former Nazis in seriously efficient, no-nonsense manner.
The rest of the cast is stuck playing second fiddle to those guys, which is good because nobody else is quite as compelling. Kevin Bacon does a nice job as the main baddie, Sebastian Shaw, who aims to start up World War III. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young Mystique, and she's pretty far from her Academy Award-nominated performance in Winter's Bone. Here's hoping she proves more impressive in The Hunger Games films.
The big weak spot is January Jones as Emma Frost. Ms. Jones is beautiful, yes, and I don't doubt the filmmakers' reasoning in casting her as the ice queen who sometimes resembles a crystal robot. Her dead-eyed, monotone delivery doesn't do the movie any favors though. Her outfits, on the other hand, do.
Vaughn is on a roll now. Now that the mediocre Stardust is safely behind him, between this and Kick-Ass, he has officially become one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. He adds real style and charm to the movie. The pacing is better than any of the other X-Men films. Each scene moves along at a clip, never boring the audience, always moving on to something new and interesting. There are several montages devoted to training and gathering up the mutants, and all of them ramp up and pay off in big ways, including an awesome cameo featuring one of the most judicious uses of the f-bomb in a PG-13 rated film in recent memory.
The '60s setting offers a unique visual style to the movie that sets it apart from other comic book films. It gives the movie a mod feel, what with all the early CIA dealings, horn-rimmed glasses, Dr. Strangelove-type war rooms, and black-and-white televisions with JFK on them. Mad Men fans will certainly enjoy it. So will fans of the Sean Connery-as-James Bond years. Very shagadelic, baby.
Other than Ms. Jones' performance, my issues with First Class are few and far between. The mutant characters switch allegiances often and a little too easily for my taste, and the film sets up the inevitable sequels a little too patly. I would have preferred to see Professor X and Magneto's friendship develop a bit more in another sequel before they settle into their established roles, as they do by the end here.
Still, all things considered, this is the best X-Men movie yet, taking over the mantle previously held by X2. And it will likely be one of the more satisfying moviegoing experiences we'll have this Summer. I recommend signing up for this Class.