You want to know how much I was into the movie X-Men: First Class? There's a scene near the end of the superhero prequel where Magneto, the Malcolm X of the mutant world, uses his powers of magnetism to levitate a metal object and force it through the body of one of his enemies. Usually, when I see something impossible depicted on screen, it takes me out of the story and I end up evaluating the quality of the computer-animation or special effects. But when Magneto used floating metal to pierce the body of his foe, I thought, "Oh man, that's it. He's killing a man while looking right into his eyes. There's no going back for him now. No redemption." and "Hey, the guy being attacked is a mutant, too. I wonder if he's really going to die or if his super powers will save him?" That's how much I was into the movie. I bought the premise hook, line and sinker.
X-Men: First Class isn't just a dandy X-Men flick; it's a smart, stylish escapist movie. It's serious when it should be, lots of fun in general, and it manages to take themes already addressed in the franchise and make them seem fresh. Most of the acting is top notch, the story mostly moves at a good clip, most of the plot lines satisfy, and most of the special effects are impressive. Yes, I noticed some weak parts in the production, but I was having too good a time to worry about them.
I didn't even worry about why there's a girl mutant (Zoe Kravitz) whose first name is Angel when we know that one of the most famous X-Men of all time is a guy named Angel who has massive angel-like wings instead of pitiful little dragonfly wings like this chick. I didn't worry about that.
The prequel, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) from a screenplay by a pack of genre writers, opens just like the first X-Men movie, at a Nazi concentration camp in the '40s, with young Erik Lehnsherr screaming as his parents are dragged away. His mutant powers make their first appearance as he telekinetically bends a metal gate during the traumatic incident, drawing the attention of the evil Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon, at his creepiest), who will change his name to Sebastian Shaw in later years.
Cut to 1962, where the rest of the movie takes place. The Cold War is nearing its peak, with the Cuban Missile Crisis right around the corner. Mutants are involved on both sides of the conflict; hell, they're right in the middle of it. Does the prospect of adding superheroes to a historical incident sound ludicrous and exciting? Certainly, but more important than all the brink-of-nuclear-war action is the first meeting and budding friendship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the grown-up Erik (Michael Fassbender). It's a treat to see Professor X and Magneto before they became Professor X and Magneto, and to actually watch the oft-referred to friendship between the iconic figures. McAvoy is very good as the telepathic Charles, who is brilliant, good with the ladies and a little smarmy, but Fassbender steals the show as the tortured but still reachable Erik. Magneto was always cooler than Professor X, glad the origin movie makes it clear.
Incidentally, Charles uses the word "groovy" as part of his pick-up routine with women. Apparently, in addition to being telepathic, he can also look into the future from 1962 to the mid-'60s, when the archaic slang term became popular again. Not that I'm worried about it.
As with all X-Men movies, there are teenage mutants all over the place, certainly too many to keep track of. The pile-up of angsty characters and goofy costumes has always been part of the fun of the series. Stand-outs here include Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) as Raven/Mystique, Nicholas Hoult (Tony in the UK version of Skins and the grown-up boy from About a Boy) as Hank McCoy/Beast, and January Jones as Emma Frost, the Ice Queen, sporting a variety of kicky mod '60s outfits around two years before the distinctive styles actually came into fashion, not that I'm worried about it. Rose Byrne provides solid support as Moira MacTaggert, who seems like she'd be a perfect match for Charles if he wasn't so occupied with the search for mutants and spending quality time with Erik.
The 132-minute film starts off strong, with lots of globe-hopping and propulsive plotting. The middle section, where Charles and Erik round up young mutants, is more routine, but I enjoyed spending time with the heroes-in-training. Everything builds to big, big action at the end, with dramatic confrontations and huge battles, including a mutant-powered struggle for control of a large number of flying missiles that Roger Ebert found laughable and I found exhilarating. Everything is accompanied by Henry Jackman's take-no-prisoners score, which comes on a little too strong even for a movie like this.
What else should I tell you? Don't bother sitting through the closing credits -- there is no cookie at the end. Don't tell people that haven't seen the film about the great cameo featuring you-know-who. Don't try to make sense of the incongruities within the X-Men timeline: The comic book has embraced incongruity for almost 50 years. Don't worry about anything, just have fun. X-Men: First Class works as a drama, an action-adventure, and as a lark. The series appears healthy again. Groovy.