First class, indeed

Latest in the X-Men series could be best yet

X marks the spot where our young mutants meet and team up.

X marks the spot where our young mutants meet and team up.

X-Men: First Class
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

There is something about the X-Men movies that really gets me going. I’ve enjoyed all of them thus far, and then I watched First Class over the weekend and was, quite frankly, blown away. By the scenery, the character development, the story itself.

The latest installment is part prequel, part entrance into a series of its own. This time, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) takes the helm. What results is a movie heavy on storyline and plot and lighter on actual action. But I’m not complaining, despite the 2 1/2-hour running time.

First Class offers insight into how the mutants first arose out of silent obscurity to form small armies, hone their special skills and come out of hiding in a very public way. One of the great things about prequels, however, is that it doesn’t take institutional knowledge to get into the story, making this just as good an introduction as a part five.

The main characters are the same, but younger—Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender)—and as the film is set largely in 1962 we finally get to see how they meet and become friends before they are enemies. Xavier starts out here as a telepath who is writing his master’s thesis on mutations. After a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) witnesses a bizarre scene involving mutants, she calls on Xavier’s expertise and help on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Lehnsherr, on the other hand, has a less-glamorous beginning. As a young Jewish boy in Nazi Germany, his talents for manipulating metal are discovered by an evil German named Dr. Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who teaches him to hone them using anger.

The casting, quite simply, is superb. McAvoy plays a charming Xavier, ever the calm voice of reason. Fassbender does a compelling job as Lehnsherr, with his internal battle between the good world of Xavier and the evil from his past. The others, while mostly secondary characters, are equally as good, the only exception being January Jones as Emma Frost—she’s just as deadpan as she is in Mad Men, only here she gets to turn into a living diamond with cleavage.

What surprised me most about this film is its focus more on character development—for example, Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) struggle to look “normal” and fit in—than action. It’s a nice change of pace.

There are a few disappointing moments of inconsistency with the films that supposedly follow—the creation of Cerebro, the satellite of sorts that allows Xavier to communicate with other mutants, for instance. But this doesn’t fully distract from the film, which ranks right up there as one of the best thus far. Rumor has it we can expect at least two more installments of the First Class series. I, for one, can hardly wait.