X-Men: First Class reboots the wallowing X-Men franchise with a burst of fresh energy and giddy pop invention. It’s a rare blockbuster that actually busts some blocks. The last film in the original trilogy, which had the lamentable Brett Ratner stepping in for Bryan Singer, who directed the first two pictures, was a strained, stumbling mess. Here, new director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) whips the contending mutant teams back to life, restoring the fun and the thrills that had dwindled away.
As the title indicates, First Class is a prequel. It begins with an expansion of a scene in the first film, set in 1944, in which we see young Erik Lehnsherr–the future Magneto–being separated from his mother and father in a Nazi concentration camp. Erik erupts in a fit of super-fury, which is spotted by a mercurial Nazi on the scene (Kevin Bacon, as future bad guy Sebastian Shaw), who wants to groom Erik into an invincible killing machine. He’s not entirely successful, apparently, because, leaping ahead to 1962, we find Erik in Geneva, in grim pursuit of his evil mentor. “Let’s say I’m Frankenstein’s monster,” he explains to an ill-fated thug at one point. “I’m looking for my creator.”
Meanwhile, rich young telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who has already befriended the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), is graduating from Oxford as a specialist in genetic mutations. He’s approached by Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), a sympathetic CIA agent who’s just back from Las Vegas, where she was surveilling a summit of mobsters and Russians convened by Sebastian Shaw. Aided by his mutant henchmen–the storm-bringer Riptide (Álex González), the Satan-esque Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and the icy Emma Frost (January Jones)–Shaw is scheming to foment a war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (Cue the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
Director Vaughn hustles this complicated narrative past us with admirable dispatch, and is similarly concise in packing Xavier’s subsequent assembly of a mutant team–the soon-to-be X-Men–into a lively montage. Assisted by Erik, now his new best friend (and played by Michael Fassbender), Xavier recruits the shrieking Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), the explosive Havok (Lucas Till), the slippery Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and strip-club fly-girl Angel (Zoë Kravitz). And let us not forget science geek Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who, following an experiment gone very wrong, will morph into the formidable Beast.