In a Summer full of sequels, X-Men: First Class does more than live up to its franchise — it improves upon it. With a combination of great actors, a compelling story, and a fun, swingin' '60s setting, X-Men First Class is an entertaining blockbuster that doesn't sacrifice any substance for style. Technically a prequel rather than a sequel, First Class visits the universe of the X-Men before they came into their own as superheroes. James McAvoy is the young Charles Xavier, a new professor studying genetic mutation, with his own to boot: telepathy. Michael Fassbender plays Erik Lensherr, a man who witnessed the murder of his family during the Holocaust as a boy, and who has spent much of his adulthood tracking down and killing those responsible. At his disposal is his own mutation: the ability to attract and manipulate metal like a magnet, eventually earning the nickname Magneto.
When upstart CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is monitoring suspicious businessman Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his involvement with nuclear weaponry, she witnesses his alliance of mutant minions. Moira consults Charles for his mutant research, recruiting him to help in her investigation. Erik and Charles encounter each other while Erik is hunting Shaw, who happens to be the man who killed Erik's mother. Erik and Charles find that they have much in common and form a fast friendship. Though the plot is propelled forward by the pursuit of the villain Shaw, the real meat of the movie is in the origin story of the mutant characters and how they came to harness their powers as X-Men. It's an angle that breathes fresh new life into the series, and the clean slate is an opportunity that's not wasted by director and writer Matthew Vaughn. Find out why I enjoyed X-Men: First Class so much when you read more.
After four other movies, the X-Men franchise felt like it was losing a bit of its spark, especially after X-Men Origins: Wolverine failed to reignite it. Perhaps that film's focus on one character was too limiting, because First Class's breadth gives you enough to chew on to keep your attention. Introducing us to several key characters and giving us the entire mutant story is much more effective.
The shared backstory is absorbing; using an invention of brilliant young scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Charles and Erik locate several mutants, each in various states of bewilderment over their mutations. Most prominently, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers from the angst of being unable to accept her true, blue shape-shifting form, Hank has been ridiculed for his animal-like feet, and Alex (Lucas Till) lives in fear of hurting people with his fiery gift. Along with a few others, the young outcasts form a community for the first time, and Charles establishes a school for them at his home, training each of them to take control of their particular abnormalities. Eventually, they find their way, and new monikers: Mystique, Beast, Havok, Banshee, and Professor X, to name a few.
Though the characters themselves are recognizable, the fresh faces playing them are newbies to the series, and most are new to the superhero genre itself. Fassbender, McAvoy, and Lawrence are each known for their dramatic performances, and the combined acting chops are a boon in an action movie. The only negative takeaway I had was that I wanted to spend more time with the characters in their development and bonding. The relationships (and potential romances) among the mutants are far more interesting than Shaw's plot to incite a third-world war, even if it is necessary to explain how Charles and Erik came to be on opposing sides.
First Class finds a balance of drama and action that keeps it from being a mindless popcorn flick, while still retaining the high energy of one. The tone varies admirably; the movie can be tragic at times, but it also has plenty of lighthearted moments to prevent it from being a totally dark, dramatic take on X-Men. Charles has an affection for chugging beer and hitting on women, and Raven's adolescence makes her an incorrigible flirt. Likewise, Fassbender breezes into each scene with charm as murderous as his mutant skills. As cheesy as it may be, the fantastic cast and story can be summed up by its title: first class.