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X-Men: First Class

A Prequel Worth Watching

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

With a short production schedule for an effects-heavy, superhero-themed film, an underwhelming, if not disastrous, result seemed more than likely for X-Men: First Class. Director Matthew Vaughan, however, delivers the exact opposite — a success on practically every level.

Mirroring Bryan Singer’s franchise starter, X-Men: First Class follows a young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner), the powerful, metal-bending mutant who becomes Magneto, the founder and leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, an organization dedicated to the overthrow of Homo sapiens and their mutant allies.

The film digs deeper into Erik’s backstory, first as a experimental subject in 1944 for an amoral concentration camp doctor (Kevin Bacon) at Auschwitz and then two decades later as a fearless Nazi hunter (played by Michael Fassbender), and follows a trail that ultimately leads to Florida where his nemesis has reinvented himself as Sebastian Shaw, the owner/operator of the posh Hellfire Club. The Hellfire Club serves as a front for Shaw’s super-secret organization and its plan to conquer the world by instigating the Cuban Missile Crisis and, by extension, World War II. Shaw expects the mutant survivors to inherit whatever remains.

It’s in Miami where Erik meets Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the wealthy genetics professor and powerful telepath who is also attempting to stop Shaw’s plan from coming to fruition. Collaborating with CIA field agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), and Xavier’s obligatory romantic interest, and his adopted, shape-shifting sister, Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier fails to stop Shaw’s henchwoman, Emma Frost (January Jones). Shaw, showing his flair for the theatrical, escapes in a submarine hidden underneath his yacht.

Agreeing to cooperate, Charles and Erik develop an uneasy friendship motivated by common goals but undermined by uncommon means. Before their friendship fractures, a fait accompli given what we know about their relationship from the comic books and the three-film franchise that kick-started the dormant superhero genre began 11 years ago.

X-Men: First Class temporarily segues away from the pursuit of Shaw to focus on the “first class” of the title, giving Charles and Erik the chance to recruit new members to their nascent, covert mutant team. In a move bound to upset continuity purists, Vaughan and his screenwriting team decided to not include X-Men fan favorites and members of co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s actual “first class”: Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Iceman from X-Men: First Class. Presumably, they’ll make an appearance in sequels to the X-Men prequel/reboot.

Given limited screen time and perfunctory backstories, the new recruits include Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), a genius-level research scientist with a Jekyll and Hyde problem; Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Hill), a mutant with an as-yet-uncontrollable energy powers; Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), a mutant capable of hypersonic screaming and flight; Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a mutant capable of adapting physically to almost any threatening situation; and Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), a winged mutant Charles and Erik discover in a gentlemen’s club.

While X-Men: First Class repeatedly returns to Charles and Erik’s fraying friendship, the Cuban Missile Crisis backdrop moves to the foreground, ultimately setting up a suitably spectacular climax that pits Charles and Erik’s inexperienced X-Men on one side and Shaw and his own mutant team, Azazel (Jason Flemyng), a red-skinned teleporting mutant; and Janos Quested (Álex González), a water-controlling mutant, on the other. The U.S. and Soviet navies sit in between middle. Vaughan effortlessly switches between the central and supporting players (and locations), making each struggle and each mini-battle in the larger battle, easy to follow.

Not surprisingly, X-Men: First Class revisits the themes of mutants as oppressed minorities feared and hated (and misunderstood) for their differences, a subject that feels a bit tired and clichéd by this point in the franchise’s history, but understandable given the needs of a prequel/reboot. Occasional dodgy visual effects and clunky exposition aside, the film delivers the same combination of story and spectacle producer Bryan Singer brought to audiences more than a decade ago with the first entry in the franchise.

X-Men: First Class also serves as an engrossing reboot for a tired, moribund franchise, and an introduction to general moviegoers unfamiliar with the X-Men universe. Attentive X-Men fans will get one or two treats in the way of cameos (they won’t be spoiled here, however).