X-Men: First Class

In theaters.

After I wrote this, I realized that, technically, there are some vague spoilers throughout. That’s because X-Men: First Class tells an origin story, rebooting a very successful franchise, so I went in knowing more or less how it was going to end, and I wrote this post in the expectation that other people would as well. I still think that’s a fair assumption, but the Rules of the Internet have been drilled into my head to the extent that I still feel the need to issue a spoiler warning: Herein I allude to how the alliances among the characters will shift over the course of the film, but if you’ve ever seen a movie or read a comic in the series, there’s absolutely nothing here you don’t already know.

The best thing about the first two X-Men movies (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are not worth consideration) is how complicated the conflicts are. Unlike most summer flicks, which have only a “good” side and a “bad” side, X-Men and X2 both feature at least three different factions and shifting alliances within and among them. Sure, there are still good guys and bad guys, at least relatively speaking, but they sometimes find themselves on the same side, and the bad guys tend to make good arguments and have sympathetic motivations, and that makes the movies interesting.

X-Men: First Class represents a return to form on that front. The movie has its problems, but the central relationship between antagonists-to-be is so evocatively rendered that it elevates the entire production. Throw in the playful flair of the 1960s setting, the dynamic pacing, the unexpectedly affecting climax, and—especially—the terrific lead performances, and First Class becomes the best sort of summer movie: hugely entertaining in the moment and worth talking about on the way home.

A reboot of the X-Men movie franchise, First Class takes place in Kennedy-era America, before the world is aware that “mutants” exist, before most of the mutants even realize that they’re not alone in being “different” in scientifically improbable ways. Powerful telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is completing his graduate thesis on genetics at Oxford—with his sullen, informally adopted kid sister, the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), tagging along—while across the globe, the metal-manipulating Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor, is hunting down former Nazis in South America in dogged pursuit of the Mengele-esque doctor who killed his mother and experimented on him. As it turns out, that doctor, who has mutant abilities of his own, has reinvented himself as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mysterious businessman whose dealings with high-level military figures attracts the attention of CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). Moira seeks out Charles for his expertise in genetics; they run into Erik in a botched assault on Shaw’s yacht; and before long, the CIA has a top-secret team of mutants who are recruited, led, and trained by Charles and Erik—and who are slowly coming to realize that Shaw’s plans are more audacious and more terrible than anyone had imagined.

This plot easily delivers one of the cheap but reliable pleasures of the X-Men franchise: a smorgasbord of kooky powers. Charles and Erik find a kid with a freakish ultrasonic scream and a girl with dragonfly wings and acidic spit, and Shaw’s sidekicks include a guy who can create mini tornados and a strange teleporting demon-man (seriously: red skin and pointy ears—what the hell?). Most of the mutants have little to do and only a handful of lines among them—which is uncomfortable when one considers that this class of virtual extras includes every single non-white character in the movie. First Class might be set in the sixties, but there’s no reason for the movie itself to regress several decades!

One can only wish that January Jones’s part, as Shaw’s personal telepath Emma Frost, was similarly limited, but she actually mucks up a number of scenes with her odd, flat delivery. Lawrence, on the other hand, acquits her supporting role beautifully, portraying Raven’s insecurities with the perfect blend of adolescent petulance and existential angst. Raven’s tentative flirtation with the brilliant, similarly self-loathing Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) is quietly poignant, and while I might wish that the young woman didn’t need a man to show her how to recognize her own beauty, I can’t say that that route to self-acceptance and pride didn’t ring true in this scenario.

The subplots are only filigrees, though, compared to the core of the film: the relationship between Charles and Erik. McAvoy and Fassbender are both gifted, charismatic actors, and the screenwriting team (six people are credited) has given them the richest characters and a gorgeous dramatic arc. For starters, the obvious binary of Charles as the white hat and Erik as the black hat immediately muddles into vivid shades of gray. McAvoy doesn’t hesitate to portray the smug, callow, naïve side of Charles, and Fassbender never lets us forget Erik’s pain or the legitimacy of his fear of those who would label him an “other.” But despite their differences, this Charles and Erik make a great team, however fleetingly, with Erik reminding Charles of his responsibilities to his fellow mutants—responsibilities he finds all too easy to overlook in his need to assimilate—and Charles alleviating Erik’s rage and helping him find some modicum of peace. When Charles, with Erik’s permission, initiates a telepathic connection to help Erik channel his powers, the moment is more intense and intimate than your average cinematic sex scene.

Of course, it can’t last. The men are too different in their aims and methods—and the movie is remarkably even-handed about dramatizing those differences. Charles’s pacificism might be admirable, but his inability to empathize with those whose mutations don’t leave them looking “normal” is disturbing, and his refusal to see how much danger the mutants face from a fearful human populace is foolish. Erik’s militancy isn’t necessarily the answer either, though, especially as it’s grounded in wrath and vengeance. Frankly, there aren’t any easy answers here, making First Class a kind of tragic pop parable about how minority groups so often struggle to find their place inside—or outside—the mainstream.

Not that there’s anything ponderous about First Class. Director Matthew Vaughn keeps things moving, and the costume and set designers make everything look delightfully retro-cool, from Jones’s slinky Mrs. Peel ensembles to the poppy proto-X-men uniforms. For all the underlying depths (at least in some areas), it’s still a fun, flashy movie on top. It is, in fact, a testament to the fact that even big, bold action movies can be compellingly character-driven underneath—especially when you have the acting chops to back it up.