Comic-book lovers, fans of alternate history, and fantasy-prone moviegoers in general are all sure to find something to love about X-Men: First Class. That rare, elusive fourth chapter that actually manages to pull a failing film series out of a full-on nosedive, X-Men: First Class folds an involving origins story into a dynamic fantasy adventure, and succeeds in delivering both thanks to a strong cast, a tight script, and solid direction.
Set in the era before Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr became mortal enemies as Professor X and Magneto, respectively, director Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class follows the two former allies as they lead a powerful team of mutants on a mission to save the planet from nuclear annihilation. Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) were just young men when it began to appear as if the world was careening toward destruction. As the Doomsday Clock ticks faster toward midnight, the time comes to take action. Realizing they could use their unique powers to avert a global thermonuclear war during the Bay of Pigs crisis, the two powerful mutants launch an intense recruitment campaign with the support of Dr. Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and the CIA. Before long, Charles and Erik have assembled a crack team that includes Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Havok (Lucas Till), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). Meanwhile, the malevolent Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) plots to plunge the world into war with the help of villainous mutants Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and Emma Frost (January Jones). In the process of saving humanity, however, Charles and Erik clash, setting the stage for Professor X to lead the X-Men in the fight for good as Magneto and the Brotherhood spread chaos and destruction on a global scale.
It's no secret that comic-book fans can be a fickle bunch. But who can blame them? It seems like every year some Hollywood hotshot makes a misguided attempt at producing a comic-sourced summer tent pole, yet botches the job by thinking they know better than the folks responsible for the source material. In the past decade, even Comic-Con, the massive annual San Diego convention that draws comic geeks from every corner of the globe, has essentially become little more than a free showcase for the latest Hollywood superhero epics. Considering the fact that director Bryan Singer's enthusiastically received X-Men and X2 were followed by a pair of sequels that practically had loyal fans of the comic foaming at the mouth (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), it had started to look like the once-successful series had abruptly run out of steam. By looking to the past for inspiration, though, writer/director Matthew Vaughn and co-screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Jane Goldman managed not only to find a grand-scale origins story that's actually worth telling, but the character dynamics to give the drama genuine impact, as well.
The rivalry between Professor X and Magneto has long been a staple of the X-Men series, both on the pages of comic books and in motion pictures. Recognizing that, the creative team behind X-Men: First Class made the wise choice to explore the events that pushed the two former allies to opposite extremes: one devoted to bettering humanity, the other sworn to destroy it. And by filling those roles with talented actors McAvoy and Fassbender, Vaughn and his team ensured that the character drama would pack as big a punch as the action sequences. If the complex relationship between Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr failed to resonate in X-Men: First Class, the film would have been dead in the water. Fortunately, it does, and the energy of that conflict seems to send positive shockwaves through the rest of the production. On the heels of her breakthrough performance in the critically acclaimed Appalachian film noir Winter's Bone, Lawrence brings a deep soulfulness to the character of Mystique as she struggles with the stigma of being "different," and coming off his deliciously sleazy performance in James Gunn's Super, Bacon literally takes power-mad villainy to nuclear extremes.
Try as they may, no filmmaker is likely to produce a faithful comic-book adaptation capable of coaxing die-hard fans and casual moviegoers into a human pyramid of mutual adoration, but X-Men: First Class might just come close. Not only because the writers display a certain amount of reverence toward their iconic subjects, but also because the performers are well up to the task, and the action holds consequences that are at once deeply intimate yet potentially devastating for all of humanity.