See, there is a way to do this right: It’s easy to lose hope as a parade of soulless, cash-in sequels streams forth from Hollywood, but X-Men: First Class proves that even the fifth movie in a franchise more than a decade old can be fresh, fun and exciting. After a noisy, cluttered third sequel (2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand) and a dreadful spin-off (2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the X-Men superhero series was looking pretty worn, and a prequel featuring an entirely new cast seemed like the wrong way to set things right. But director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn and producer/co-writer Bryan Singer (back on board for the first time since 2003’s X2) take the series in an entertaining new direction while sticking to the core strengths that made the first two Singer-directed movies so enjoyable.
The focus is once again on the rivalry between Professor X and Magneto, here played as younger men by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen played the older versions in the previous movies). In the 1960s, as mutants are first emerging, Charles and Erik (as they’re known in their pre-superhero days) are friends and allies despite their divergent personalities. They team up with a sympathetic CIA agent (Rose Byrne) and recruit a team of young mutants to thwart the efforts of the megalomaniacal Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who plans to start a nuclear war.
Vaughn reimagines the early days of the X-Men story as a sort of alternate history, with the Cuban missile crisis transformed into an inter-mutant conflict. Taking cues from ’60s-era action-adventures, Vaughn delivers a stylish and fast-paced movie, telling a complete story while also offering plenty of nods to continuity. Inevitably, the large cast means that some secondary characters are little more than background noise, and Shaw’s villainous motivations are a bit thin. But McAvoy and Fassbender do an excellent job of exploring the dynamic between Professor X and Magneto, and Vaughn nicely balances character development and historical resonance with the demands of a large-scale action movie. First Class shakes off the doldrums of its predecessors, and in the process shows other would-be summer blockbusters how it’s done.