With spectacular effects and an engaging story, “X-Men: First Class” is a standout period adventure film that just happens to be about superheroes. And with Marvel seemingly throwing all of their early summer marketing weight behind “Thor,” the film could prove to be the sleeper hit of the blockbuster summer season.
Unlike most superhero films, “X-Men: First Class” does not take place in present time. The setting is 1962, moments before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dropping a genre film in the middle of a historic event immediately and successfully adds depth, substance and plenty of story.
Despite being an origin story, it unfolds less like a superhero film and more like an epic James Bond adventure. The villain, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) plots and connives his way around the globe in a nuclear submarine with his endgame being the Cuban Nuclear crisis and World War III. His assistant is the sultry Emma Frost (January Jones), who is essentially a Bond girl with a skill. And who better to hunt them down than Magneto, superbly played by Irish star Michael Fassbender.
James McAvoy (Charles Xavier/Prof. X) and Fassbender are the glue that holds the film together. McAvoy’s Professor X is a more relatable character than Patrick Stewart’s in the original trilogy. He is still as much a genius, but maintains his boyish charm and an accessibility that has yet to have been afforded to X’s character.
Fassbender similarly takes his character to a new place, trading the campiness of Ian McKellen’s Magneto and focusing more instead on Erik Lehnsherr’s anguish and tragic past.
But the standout performance in the film is Kevin Bacon. The prologue features Bacon as a frightening Mengele-esque Nazi doctor who becomes a seemingly invincible super villain. It was an inspired choice to cast Bacon in the role of Sebastian Shaw, and the audience gets to see a completely different side of the actor.
One of the best parts of the film is watching the mutants find themselves. X-Men has always touched on issues of acceptance and the notion of "the other," but director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick Ass,” “Layer Cake”) takes his time in letting the audience feel the characters’ revelations and ultimate fear of rejection. It’s an ambitious task for a superhero film, but the breakneck speed of the plot allows Vaughn to accomplish it well.
The film is not without its faults. Most notably, the obnoxious and overbearing musical score during scenes that might have been more powerful had they been done with less volume.
Overall, Vaughn and his team did their homework and gave Marvel’s “X-Men” franchise a real winner.
4 out 5 stars