We’re almost halfway through 2011, and so far this has got to be the most mediocre year for film in recent memory. Thus far, we have not seen many outright terrible movies — no more than in any other year, anyway. But it seems like every week brings yet another film that toes that uneasy line between the barely passable and the outright unacceptable — movies like “Fast Five” and “Thor” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which are too intermittently entertaining to be called “bad,” but too lethargic and by-the-numbers to truly be worth your time and money.
It’s a privilege, then, to write about Matthew Vaughn’s franchise “pre-boot,” “X-Men: First Class.” At last, here’s a summer “event” movie worth getting excited about — one that thrills its audience not by overloading them with sound and fury and chaos, but by enveloping them in a solid story with interesting characters and deliberate, carefully measured action sequences. The result is, for my money, the best “X-Men” entry to date, and certainly the best live-action spectacle we’ve seen this year.
The “X-Men” franchise has followed roughly the same trajectory as the first run of “Batman” movies: Starting off with two accomplished works by an established filmmaker, the series descended into tongue-in-cheek silliness and, eventually, full-blown idiocy after the auteur was replaced by random studio hacks for parts three and four. And, like the “Batman” films, the “X-Men” series is now reborn under the supervision of a young and talented Brit with a legitimate artistic vision.
Now, Matthew Vaughn is no Christopher Nolan, and “X-Men: First Class” is no “Dark Knight.” Vaughn does not completely reinvent the genre here, nor does he dabble in philosophy and subversive themes, as Nolan does. Vaughn plays things relatively straight (a little homosexual subtext notwithstanding), but he assembles his old-fashioned picture with deft precision and confidence. Nolan wrote the book on how to completely retool a franchise from the ground up, but Vaughn deserves his own accolades for providing a template for how to resurrect a good-as-dead film series while still remaining true to the predecessors’ tone and overall style.
This is only his fourth film (after the British gangster throwback “Layer Cake,” the imaginative, family-friendly fantasy film “Stardust,” and the unspeakably awesome superhero riff “Kick-Ass”), yet Vaughn holds the viewer’s attention and engages their imagination with the apparent ease of a seasoned pro. The film never feels labored, as an increasing number of superhero movies do, but moves along at a brisk pace despite its two-hour-plus running length.
“X-Men: First Class” tells the origin story of future-archenemies Professor X and Magneto, and Vaughn and his fellow screenwriters make the interesting choice to place this narrative against an historical backdrop, circa 1962. The bulk of the plot follows mutants Charles Xavier (the future Professor X, here played by James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (later Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender) as they meet and decide to join forces to defeat the immortal, energy-harnessing mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Erik, who has the telekinetic ability to manipulate metal, is on a manhunt for Shaw because he murdered Erik’s mother during the Holocaust. Charles’ motivations are more altruistic, as he uses his telepathic abilities to locate and enlist other mutants in their struggle against Shaw, who is in the process of triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis in an attempt to wipe out humanity in the name of mutant supremacy.
Thus begins the central tension at the heart of the “X-Men” saga: the ideological battle between those mutants who, like Charles, believe that human and mutants can peacefully co-exist; and those who, like Shaw and Erik, know that mutants will never be accepted in society — which therefore must be destroyed for the safety of the mutant brotherhood. Vaughn deals with this material in much the same way as the other “X-Men” movies have, but by placing it in a historical context (with the Cuban Missile Crisis angle, and some important early scenes set during the Holocaust), he lends the narrative more dramatic weight and credibility.
Yet Vaughn’s talent for juggling character-based drama and superhero-genre conventions would mean little if his cast failed to bring these characters to life. Fortunately, the film is populated by real actors giving real performances. The dialogue is sometimes clunky and the screenplay includes a few too many cutesy fan boy jokes, but actors like McAvoy, Bacon and Jennifer Lawrence (as a young, good-girl Mystique) do great things with what they are given.
McAvoy’s Professor X is, by design, a rather one-dimensional character, but that flatness is rendered moot by the character of Magneto. As written, this is a fascinating, nuanced anti-hero, driven to do good by an audience-friendly revenge motive. Personified by Fassbender — exhibiting a fiery intensity that makes lesser men cower — the role becomes something greater still. This is a spellbinding, star-making performance, and the clear highlight of an already impressive bit of comic-book escapism.