Prequel, reboot, or preboot? While scholars in the field of superheroism are invited to discuss the movie-vs.-comic-book cosmology of X-Men: First Class until they turn as blue in the face as Mystique, to a casual fan like me (who loved X-Men and X2, then chafed at X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the newest addition to the X-marked movie franchise fits in any of the above three categories just fine. As befits a prequel, this jaunty, hop-skip-jump-about variation of the saga is set in the Kennedy-era early 1960s when the peaceful young scholar with powers of telepathy who would grow up to become Professor X and the damaged young Holocaust survivor with powers of magnetism who would grow up to become X’s rival, Magneto, were two cocky, handsome young specimens named Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). Back then, right about the time that mutants were first coming out of the closet, the two were close friends rather than enemies.
And to get to the headline immediately, McAvoy and Fassbender are a casting triumph. These two have, yes, real star magnetism, both individually and together: They’re both cool and intense, suave and unaffected, playful and dead serious about their grand comic-book work. I hope movie-studio telepaths reteam the two in the future. True, with the right wormhole in place they could play Charles and Erik again, but why not also pair them as spies, detectives, bank robbers, or, I don’t know, romantic rivals for the affections of a bawdy Kate Winslet?
Where was I? Right — as a reboot, X-Men: First Class re-imagines mutant power with the kind of youthful, Brit-knockabout pop energy director Matthew Vaughn absorbed from his previous collaborations as producer of director Guy Ritchie’s bloke-y larks, a spunk Vaughn most successfully demonstrated in the writing and direction of Kick-Ass. It’s not just that Charles, Erik, and their mutant recruits (why, look! There’s The Hunger Games’ Katniss-to-be Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique) are younger; the characters are refreshingly less polished and more unpredictable, too. On the downside, the younger cast, Lawrence included, all blur into one less-than-vivid coed household. Also on the downside, Mad Men’s January Jones turns in a mighty frozen performance as another 1960s-coiffed, platinum-blond sex object/ice queen, playing competing telepath Emma Frost, in the employ of the world-class villain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
X-Men: First Class provides answers to questions many audience members didn’t feel compelled to ask over a decade ago when Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart in a wheelchair) and his followers first battled Magneto (played by Ian McKellen) and his Brotherhood of Mutants. Such as: How did these two fellows meet? Why is the Professor in a motorized chair? What’s the real story behind the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the toe-to-toe showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that nearly launched a nuclear war? (You say JFK and Cuba never even entered your mind back when X-Men premiered? X-Men: First Class explains anyway.)
Here, at last, is the truth — the movie truth — of the early days. McAvoy’s Charles has a full head of hair and stands on his own two feet as a rich, rakish Brit-about-town. And Fassbender’s Erik is a trim, dashing mystery man who happens to have astounding mutant powers of his own, and who’s scheming to use them on an evil Nazi doctor. This nasty doc (Kevin Bacon again. Hmmm, I wonder if there’s a connection between him and the evil Sebastian Shaw?) separated the boy Erik from his parents and turned him into his own Frankenstein’s monster. At first, Charles and Erik are allied in their quest to recruit other young mutants — mutants just claiming their true identities — and to instill in them a pride and discipline that will strengthen and refine their skills for world good. Then things begin to go wrong between the two. Really wrong.
In the busy cosmology invented by Vaughn and his crowded bench of co-screenwriters, the Cuban Missile Crisis turns out to have mutant fingerprints all over it. But unfortunately, Vaughn doesn’t quite know what to do with his own considerable power as a filmmaker — a distractibility the director copped to in an interview on the excellent British comic-book-oriented blogsite BleedingCool.com when he said, ”I’m terrified of doing a movie with one lead character? If something’s getting boring I can just say, ‘Let’s cut to that plotline.’ It’s hard to make sure they all come across as three-dimensional characters, but at the same time, I think it’s more interesting, it’s easier to con an audience into thinking there’s lots of interesting things happening if I can change the channel when I need to.”
First Class lesson: The audience delighted by McAvoy and Fassbender doesn’t need conning. They’re the most interesting (X) Men around. B+