By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

It was X-Men that more or less triggered our obsession with superheroes a decade ago.

And if the first four X-Men outings, each a comic book-inspired superheroes thriller, weren’t quite first-class movies, they were close, especially the first two.  They may have been about outsiders with gifts who were second-class citizens, but none of the films would be mistaken for second-class citizens of the movie marketplace.

The involving and visually arresting X-Men (2000) and X-Men United (2003), both directed by Bryan Singer, had plenty of “x” appeal. And while we weren’t as x-static about X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) or the standalone W-Man spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), they were still solid if unexceptional.

Now, X-Men: First Class is absolutely exceptional, the fifth and best of the bunch.

It’s a prequel to the others, an origin story set in Nazi Germany in the 1940s and the US in the early 1960s (the Cold War era of the Cuban Missile Crisis), its mission to resolve the mysteries of the mutant characters’ past.

James McAvoy (below) is Professor Charles Xavier, later (that is, previously) played by Patrick Stewart: “Professor X,” who has the power to read and manipulate people’s minds and is the leader and founder of the X-Men, a group of humans with superhuman abilities struggling to protect a human race that hates, fears, shuns, or mistreats them.

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That there are folks walking the streets who have such powers, whether they know it yet or not, is taken for granted as part of life on this planet.  The CIA recruits Xavier to head its clandestine Mutant Ops Division, and to help them hunt down warmonger Sebastian Shaw, a megalomaniacal mutant and former Nazi played by Kevin Bacon.  He’s the leader of the Hellfire Club, a secret society intent on world domination.

The hope is that World War III can be prevented.

Charles is a close friend and eventual rival (well, frenemy) of Erik Lehnsherr, played by Michael Fassbender, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, later to become Magneto, to be played by Ian McKellen, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and a mutant who can generate and control magnetic fields.

Angry Erik, who’s sort of a James Bond with superpowers, has a thirst for vengeance that contrasts sharply with compassionate Charles’ instinct for accommodation.

With a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, and Ray Wise (think of the contribution this film makes to the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game!), X-Men: First Class is well cast, adroitly acted, and surehandedly directed.

Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake, Stardust) keeps the pace brisk and the flow dynamic as he globetrots in the style of early James Bond.  His slick-as-a-Bond-flick enterprise may be overpopulated, with some of the characters shortchanged on delineation and backstory — but it remains absorbing and watchable throughout, and is often downright thrilling in its inventiveness.

If ever a director seemed perfectly suited to a project at hand, it’s Vaughn and X-Men: First Class. That’s part of the reason why, while you’re watching the first half of First Class, it feels like the best comic book-derived movie ever made.

The densely plotted but still fully accessible screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Vaughn — which starts exactly where the first X-Men movie did eleven years ago — in a concentration camp in Poland — smoothly interweaves the fantasy elements with historical actuality, but it’s the bromantic relationship between Charles and Erik that serves as the film’s spine, and rising stars McAvoy and Fassbender do their characters full justice.  Fassbender couldn’t be any more charismatic (think Sean Connery as James Bond), McAvoy couldn’t be any more quietly commanding.

And the screenplay does a smooth job of not only providing context but answering abiding questions of devoted fans of the franchise or source material without disenfranchising those with only a casual interest.

After two episodes that, respectable or not, gave the franchise the feeling of winding down or bypassing its sell-by date, this fifth x-cursion puts the “super” back in superhero, serves to reinvigorate the brand name, and presents itself as everything a summer blockbuster should be.

So we’ll mutate 3½ stars out of 4 for the smartly entertaining fantasy reboot, X-Men: First Class.  Could this be a brand new start for a whole new franchise?


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