Why is it that in movies, comic-book superhero sagas run out of steam by the third installment? In the first part, the superhero attains his or her power; in the second, he or she weighs the demands of life and human relationships against the responsibility of superheroism (and its attendant fame); and in the third there are different villains and more occasions for hand-wringing and the star’s fee has become so huge that the studio just wants to wipe the slate clean and go back to the beginning — which is, narratively speaking, the easy part of the whole arc. (Plus, the fanboys have closer emotional ties to their heroes in the earlier, nerdier stages.) In the case of the X-Men saga, which plunged to earth in part three under the hacktacular Brett Ratner after Bryan Singer had found his wings in X2, the decision to start over must have been particularly easy. The old principals are old principals, while Hugh Jackman as Wolverine now has his own “Origins” plotline. And there really is an earlier story to tell, a good one, about the youngish Professor Charles Xavier’s decision, way back in 1962, to identify, shelter, and educate the planet’s population of mutants and his fundamental rift with the separatist mutant known as Magneto.
X-Men: First Class is thoroughly second-rate, but it’s pleasant enough. Where Singer often let his “It Gets Better”–style gay-rights subtext smother the sheer pop exhilaration of the material, the new director, Matthew Vaughn, allows nothing to bog him down. The even-less-talented acolyte of Guy Ritchie, Vaughn developed his self-consciously hip, ironic style at the feet of his petit-maestro and wouldn’t know how to put real emotions onscreen if he even had any. Nazis round up Jews for concentration camps, characters whom we care about are brutally murdered, there’s an imminent nuclear holocaust — and it all just flies by. Vaughn does linger on his female characters’ miniskirts, though. He has priorities.
He’s lucky he also has two first-rate actors in the lead: blue-eyed Scots cutie James McAvoy as Xavier and German-Irish chameleon Michael Fassbender as Erik, soon to be the human magnet dubbed Magneto. McAvoy doesn’t have Patrick Stewart’s stentorian chops, but he’s able to drop his natural jauntiness on cue and rise to several momentous occasions, and Fassbender turns the chip on Erik’s shoulder into a magnetic force all its own. They team up to join forces with the CIA (represented by Oliver Platt) to battle a Dr. Mengele–like supervillain called Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), but Erik is only onboard because Shaw exterminated his mom. Unlike the staunchly accommodationist Xavier, the future Magneto shares Shaw’s militant anti-humanism. He has witnessed the way governments round up the undesirables.
Part of the fun in “prequels” like X-Men: First Class is seeing how characters you’ve never met evolve into characters you’ve known for years. In this case, the pivotal figure is Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue-skinned shape-shifter who becomes Xavier’s surrogate sister — but is destined to grow into Magneto’s most formidable ally, Mystique. Lawrence is a likable presence (she still has her delectable baby fat) and makes her mutant radicalization convincing — but not her defection from the side of her beloved Xavier. The movie has a lot of balls in the air and Vaughn doesn’t focus on any one too long. He has an easier time with split-screen training montages than, you know, feelings.
As an American secret agent, Rose Byrne has a promising first scene in which she impulsively strips down to her lingerie to follow the guy who played Aaron in 24 into a swank nightclub, but she fades into the background once McAvoy and Fassbender do their male-bonding thing. January Jones as an icy telepath strides around in a white miniskirt and pillbox hat, and affects a state of exquisite boredom and superiority — cleverly making her ineptitude as an actress look like a creative choice. By far the most passionate performance comes from Bacon, who has evidently decided that if you’re going to play a villain who exults in his villainy, you don’t half-exult: You throw back your head and throw up your arms and groooooove on your evil. It’s too bad that, for reasons I can’t spell out, what should be his mightiest moment — his last in the picture — is his most inert.
The climax is the biggest letdown, a giant hash of crosscutting and unremarkable (in an era in which we’ve seen everything) CGI, but it does throw a whole new light on the Cuban Missile Crisis. The fact is, it’s a lot less disturbing to believe that the U.S. and Soviet Union came this close to nuking each other out of existence because of unseen psychotic mutants than by humans whom Christopher Hitchens has rightly called “high-risk narcissists.”
Related: The Similarities Between X-Men: First Class and Inglourious Basterds
The Star Market: Does Michael Fassbender Have the X Factor to Become a Superstar?
From The Godfather Part II to Indiana Jones to X-Men: First Class: The History of the Movie Prequel
Vulture Flow Chart: Which Loud Summer Action Movie Is Right for You?