X-Men: First Class

After some duds, the franchise about rival mutants delivers a solid origin story


X-MEN: FIRST CLASS directed by Matthew Vaughn, written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Vaughn from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer, with James Mc Avoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne and Kevin Bacon. A 20th Century Fox release. 132 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (June 3). See listing Rating: NNNN


You know what they say about not fixing broken things, right?

After the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand and the dopey X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Marvel’s mutants get back to basics – quite literally – with X-Men: First Class, a prequel that puts the franchise back on more confident footing.

Set some 50 years before the events of X-Men, X2 and Last Stand, Matthew Vaughn’s First Class is a proper origin story for the characters, filling us in on the bond between rivals Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (played in the previous films by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and here by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender).

Playing out in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, First Class finds the same balance of gravitas and knowing camp that powered Bryan Singer’s X-films. The inconsistent characterization and wobbly rhythms of Brett Ratner’s regrettable swing at the series are politely ignored. (Singer gets story credit on this picture Ratner’s name is nowhere to be found.)

The good guys are particularly well cast, with Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult and recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence turning up as Moira MacTaggert, Hank McCoy and Raven Darkholme, whom nerds (and I am one of you) will recognize as key characters in the mutant saga.

The bad guys this time around are played by Kevin Bacon and January Jones. Bacon seems to be overacting in order to balance Jones’s reliably vapid presence. Honestly, I don’t know how Matthew Weiner makes her look like an actor on Mad Men, but it’s a secret he’s shared with no one else.

First Class’s storyline is consistent with the previous X-movies, slotting in nicely before the major developments of the Wolverine prequel and playing on our knowledge of events in the Singer/Ratner trilogy. There’s a bit of hand-waving to explain how Mystique will still look good naked in half a century’s time, but that’s about the worst of it.

Having toyed with costumed heroes in last year’s Kick-Ass, Vaughn gets to play on a much larger scale here, and he’s good at it. He ought to be, since he was originally slated to direct Last Stand. The skill he shows here makes me wish he’d stayed on the project instead of leaving it in Ratner’s meatheaded care.

Here’s hoping he sticks around. For the first time in a while, the prospect of another X-movie doesn’t make me uneasy.

normw@nowtoronto.com

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