"X-Men: First Class" is what happens to a superhero movie when you strip away the blockbuster budget and allow the filmmaker to simply tell a story. And when you're talking about a storyteller like Matthew Vaughn, the director of "Kick-Ass," that's a mighty excellent thing.
Make no mistake: there are clearly many millions of dollars behind Twentieth Century Fox's newest addition to the X-Men franchise. Bringing Emma Frost's diamond skin and Magento's metal bending to the silver screen doesn't come cheap, after all. The effects are dazzling when they need to be, but the real movie magic is in the narrative, which essentially boils down to the origin of the complicated relationship between Professor X and Magneto, two characters played perfectly by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively.
The budding friendship and eventual, inevitable parting of the classic X-characters is the beating heart of this story, the thing that keeps the audience's attention locked on the screen. There is of course a villainous scheme staged by Sebastian Shaw that fits neatly into the real world Cuban Missile Crisis, and a mutant super-team origin story, though one that firmly establishes the film's fiction as separate from that of the comics.
Bryan Singer's original X-Men trilogy took liberties and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" took a few more, but "First Class" makes it abundantly clear that this isn't your daddy's (or childhood's) X-Men. Frankly, that lack of slavish devotion to the source has been a boon to the big screen iterations of the franchise and a great benefit to this movie in particular. There is very little that feels forced here in the way of elements shoehorned in that nod back at the source material. A few pop up here and there, including one notable bit toward the end, but there is never a moment where "First Class" feels like a companion piece rather than its own, completely realized work.
For those who complained about the "X-Men Origins: Magneto" movie project falling by the wayside -- this is it. Seriously. Fassbender is a highlight, even more so than McAvoy. This is in part due to his talents as a performer, but he's also given some juicy material to work with.
The pre-Magneto Erik Lensherr is equal parts brilliant revolutionary and sympathetic villain, a guy who has a very clear, personal view of right and wrong that has been shaped by his experiences as one of the oppressed European minority during World War II. As such, the early '60s timeframe for the movie means those wounds are still fresh.
Still, as inevitable as Lensherr's fall is from both foreshadowing and a comic book fan perspectives, every new valley in his descent is painful to watch. You know Magneto will be born before the credits roll -- all of the signs are there -- but you're hoping every step of the way that things will be different. A major nod to Fassbender for selling that complexity and making it look easy.
McAvoy's Xavier is similarly complex. The future X-Men leader, who we know as a brilliant thinker and telepath with a calm exterior, is an unapologetically arrogant ladies man in his younger form, a studious James Bond-type with mind control powers. His journey to reluctant leader is similarly well-sold, once again thanks to the potent mixture of McAvoy's talents as a performer and Vaughn's as a teller of stories.
The rest of the cast doesn't slouch, though they're given less to do. Kevin Bacon is delightfully villainous as Sebastian Shaw, but the young X-Men are really the ones vying for your attention. As is often the problem with an ensemble cast, there's only so much screen time to go around and lots of interesting characters to jam into it. The strongest of the subplots involves Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Lensherr, amounting to an unusual love triangle that ends up speaking directly to the franchise's underlying message of tolerance and equality.
The rest of the mutants unfortunately flounder. A completely unexpected -- and arguably unnecessary -- death cuts the team down by one, but even that lightening of the load isn't enough to let any other subplots develop fully. There are some great characters introduced, people we will hopefully explore more in a follow-up film, but the "First Class" X-Men team, for the most part, is present for little more than character introductions and one-liners.
It is all the more impressive, then, that Vaughn manages to avoid falling into the same trap Singer did with his first "X-Men" movie. As much as this is an origin story, it doesn't ever feel like one. A big part of that has to do with building the fiction on top of real world events that we know or are at least aware of. These characters are meeting for the first time, certainly, but it's in the context of something bigger. The recruitment process, somewhat hilariously, boils down to a musical montage with Xavier and Lensherr.
Which brings us back to the real driving force of this story, the bromance that develops between two like-minded yet morally opposed friends and the circumstances that ultimately pull them apart. Bacon's Shaw is the villain, 100 percent, no question. He's the Big Bad, the guy who wants to start World War III for reasons the future Magneto would actually sympathize with. In that regard, Lensherr and Xavier are both the good guys. Shades of grey emerge as the story continues to unfold, however, and the result is a natural telling of events that feel totally honest and authentic despite the abundance of mutant superpowers.
Bravo to Vaughn, and to Fassbender, and to McAvoy and the rest of the cast and crew, for making the X-Men movies matter again. "X-Men" was fine, "X2" was superb -- and then everything went flying off the rails, ironically enough, after Vaughn left "X-Men: The Last Stand." This is his triumphant return to the franchise, his taking care of unfinished business. It's still unfinished, as there's clearly more story to tell with these characters. But things are off to as good a start as fans could have asked for.
"X-Men: First Class" opens in theaters June 3.