Review: 'X-Men: First Class'

(Three-and-a-half stars)

Those anticipating "Harry Potter" withdrawal can take heart: "X-Men: First Class" is every bit as good as any of the "Harry Potter" films. Matthew Vaughn's franchise prequel turns out to be a superb, stylish piece of modern mythology.

In 2000, director Bryan Singer delivered the comic-book-based "X-Men," a mutant superhero action-adventure that also served as cleverly subversive sociopolitical allegory. Broadly dealing with the universal adolescent desire to "fit in" (while reflecting the angst of closeted youth), "X-Men" also posed the philosophical difference between peace-seeking Professor X and "by any means necessary" Magneto as mutant-civil-rights counterparts to MLK and X.

All of those themes get full play in the Singer-produced "X-Men: First Class," with the added frisson of making text out of what once was sociopolitical subtext. The climactic crisis to which "First Class" builds is the Cuban Missile Crisis, which turns out to have a hidden history involving one set of mutants plotting mass destruction and another planning to prevent it. Before we get there, the film deals with Nazi war crimes and secret CIA research into the paranormal. As for the superhero history, fear not: The film starts pretty much from day one, rewarding geeky foreknowledge but not requiring it.

Concentration camp survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) will not rest until he hunts down the Nazi scientist -- Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw -- responsible for his greatest trauma. Meanwhile, child of privilege Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) becomes an expert in genetic mutation. Both gifted with powers demonstrating the evolution of the human genome, Erik and Charles will one day be supervillain Magneto and superhero Professor X. But first they will meet, bond and be tragically torn apart by their unmovable cross purposes.

In a large-scale action sequence, Charles saves Erik from disaster, and they form a tentative alliance to pursue the shadowy Shaw, who has been manipulating events on the world stage. The loose-cannon Erik doesn't play well with his CIA handlers (Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt), but he comes to an understanding with Charles.

Charles' childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is already on board. So is young scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) -- aka Beast -- who gives the telepathic Charles the technological boost he needs to find more mutant recruits: Alex "Havok" Summers (Lucas Till), Sean "Banshee" Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), Armando "Darwin" Munoz (Edi Gathegi), and "Angel" Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz).

This "first class" of X-Men gets a first-class origin story, as directed by Vaughn and scripted by a bevy of writers including Vaughn and his regular co-writer Jane Goldman. Above all, this is a story of self-actualization through self-discipline and self-understanding, a message that will particularly resonate with young viewers finding their own paths. But it's also about choosing a relationship, collaborative or adversarial, to the political and typically oppressive forces that rule our world. With carefully wrought emotional contexts, the characters are moved to action in moving ways.

Okay, okay, and it's fun, too. This is the witty, winking '60s chic version of superhero adventure, with enough globetrotting, swingin' nightclubs and Ken Adam-style lairs for a Sean Connery Bond marathon. More power(s) to them: Here's hoping this reborn franchise makes a mint.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language. 2 hours, 12 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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