Bryan Singer's first "X-Men" was exactly what superhero movies needed after Joel Schumacher's "Batman & Robin" and the Shaquille O'Neal vehicle, "Steel," seemingly killed the genre. Singer's "X2" was one of the rare sequels that actually improved upon the original. Many fans felt that these movies started to show a decline in storytelling after Brett Ratner's "X-Men: The Last Stand." I suppose I was one of the few people that actually felt that "The Last Stand" delivered a satisfying conclusion to the initial trilogy. I think we can all agree though that "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is best left forgotten.
"X-Men: First Class" is the most intriguing, the most character-driven, the sexiest, and ultimately the best entry to the "X-Men" series. For diehard fans that have been let down by previous installments, "X-Men: First Class" will provide a significant return to form. Even if you've never read any of the comics or seen the four earlier "X-Men" pictures, this prequel will still act as a superb introduction to the franchise. Along with "Thor," "X-Men: First Class" is another spectacular addition to the summer of superheroes.
The film begins in 1944 Poland where a young Erik Lensherr attempts to save his mother from some Nazi guards using his metal bending abilities. A scientist named Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, is put in charge of unlocking Erik's magnetism skills for the Nazi's to use as a weapon. When Erik fails to deliver, Shaw shoots his mother right in front of him, causing the future Magneto to reveal the full capacity of his extraordinary powers.
We then fast-forward 20 years into the future where CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, played by Rose Byrne, confronts the telepathic Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy. Xavier joins forces with the CIA to find other mutants so they may prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is being planned by none other than Sebastian Shaw. The now grown up Erik Lensherr, played by Michael Fassbender, is hell-bent on revenge and agrees to join the cause.
The scenes between Xavier and Lensherr have the same fascinating appeal of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi's partnership. Throughout the film, we see the two become allies and friends. Little do they know that they will soon be divided and become archenemies. Unlike the "Star Wars" prequels though, we don't have to wait three movies to get to the most interesting parts.
Another key character is Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone" as the blue-skinned shape-shifter of Mystique. In previous "X-Men" films, Mystique acted as Magneto's femme fatale henchwoman. In "X-Men: First Class" we learn that before her career as a villainess, she was Xavier's oldest friend and she wasn't always so comfortable with being blue. Although between Mystique and Neytiri from "Avatar," blue skin seems to have become a fetish in the fanboy community.
In traditional "X-Men" fashion, there are one too many characters in the film and not all of them are entirely developed. But then again, there's only so much time to focus on every minor character in a movie that's two hours and 15 minutes. "X-Men: First Class" does a more than sufficient job of developing its main players and the performances are uniformly terrific. As far as superhero ensemble pieces go, this is a much stronger outing than "Watchmen" and certainly superior to the "Fantastic Four" movies.
The best performance of all comes from Kevin Bacon, an actor that I think we sometimes take for granted. Here he is genuinely menacing as Sebastian Shaw who relishes every devious act he commits. At times he feels like the distant super villain cousin of Col. Hans Landa from "Inglourious Basterds."
As great as "X-Men: First Class" is, it's not without a few shortcomings that prevent it from rising to "Spider-Man 2" or "The Dark Knight" territory. The climactic action sequence overstays its welcome, which is becoming common in all blockbusters nowadays. Fanboys will also have a field day with some of the film's evident continuity errors. But this is all essentially nitpicking in what is otherwise one of the summer's best movies.
Director Mathew Vaughn previously brought us "Kick-Ass," a superhero satire that you either loved or hated. In "X-Men: First Class" he combines his sense of action, humor and style to create another home run. Most importantly, Vaughn never loses track of the franchises crucial underlying theme of prejudice, making "X-Men: First Class" great summer entertainment and more. The adventures of Wolverine, Storm and Rogue seem to have reached their end in terms of film. But I think that the chronicles of Professor X and Magneto are only just beginning.
• Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org