At the Movies: X-Men First Class

Of all the comic book movies coming out this year — and there are many — the one I had the most qualms about was “X-Men First Class.”

The last X-Men film was a bit of a mess. The Wolverine film that followed was even more of a mess. The new one was going to be a prequel, and those rarely turn out well. The lineup of previously unused X-Men was less than stellar.

So I’m pleasantly surprised to report that “X-Men First Class” is actually quite good. Among the X-films, it’s second only to “X2: X-Men United.”

The film opens in the 1940s. Young Erik Lehnsherr manifests his mutant power over metal while in a concentration camp. He’s taken in by the camp’s sadistic scientist who wants to exploit the boy’s abilities.

Meanwhile in the States, young Charles Xavier befriends a homeless mutant named Raven.  Her strange appearance and shape-changing ability don’t disturb him, as he’s a mutant himself.

Twenty years later, Erik (Michael Fassbender) is hunting down former Nazis, with the end goal being to find his main tormentor — who now goes by the name Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Shaw hasn’t changed his evil ways and his actions are being monitored by the CIA, led by agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne).

When Moira witnesses Shaw’s assistants using their mutant powers, she decides to seek help from the leading expert in human mutation — Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).

The need to take down Shaw eventually brings Charles and Erik together. Realizing Shaw has his own little mutant army — Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Álex González) — Charles, Eric and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) go looking for mutants to bring in and keep safe.

As they teach their young charges — Angel (Zoë Kravitz), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and Havok (Lucas Till) — how to cope with their powers, Charles and Erik learn that Shaw is about to coax the U.S. and the Russians into starting World War III.

Bryan Singer, who directed the first two “X-Men” films, returned to the franchise as producer and also shares a story credit. He and director Matthew Vaughn have breathed much-needed new life into the franchise. The ’60s setting is fresh and the film even sports an early James Bond vibe (Shaw’s headquarters are in a submarine).

There’s a lot packed into “X-Men First Class” and it’s impressive that it all fits so well. It’s probably a bit too clever in trying to tie all the pieces together from earlier films but that’s a common curse of prequels. It’s really better to think of this as a fresh start, since there are elements here that contradict both the third X-Men film and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

Despite the large cast, the focus is primarily on Charles and Erik and the casting of  McAvoy and Fassbender is inspired. Both men shine in their roles, as does Lawrence as the young woman who would become Mystique.

Did it work for me? “X-Men First Class” is actually a first class effort. The story, special effects and acting come together in a compelling fashion.

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