Film Review: X-Men: First Class

A dark and emotionally complex movie for grownups, this prequel to the Marvel Comics 'X-Men' franchise is exactly what its title suffix says.

The best X-Men movie since the first—and one of the best Marvel Comics movies, period, up there with the Iron Man films and the first two Spider-Man movies—this prequel to the superhero franchise has many distinctions, from maestro John Dykstra's visual designs to two classically trained leads who up everyone else's game. Those things are good, but the equivalent of a nice costume and super-strength—the basics. What really makes X-Men: First Class fly, however, is a wickedly smart script with a multilayered theme that never wavers, never loses sight of its ultimate story, and makes each emotional motivation interlock, often shockingly playing for keeps with its characters. This is not a kids' movie, unless your kid is comfortable with an opening ten-minute sequence set in a harrowing World War II concentration camp and told entirely in subtitled German.

That's not the only subtitled language: You also get Spanish and Russian in this globetrotting tale set in the 1960s with conscious overtones of classic Connery James Bond. The Cold War is hot, a Russian freighter is steaming missiles to Cuba and U.S. naval forces have drawn a line in the ocean. Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn's conceit is the behind-the-scenes story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which in this universe is a ploy by the energy-absorbing mutant Sebastian Shaw (an utterly but stylishly evil Kevin Bacon) to play the superpowers against each other and trigger a nuclear war. From the resultant ruins, the mutants shall inherit the Earth. It's just evolution. Nothing personal. Hey, your ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals.

Combating this is wealthy telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who has revealed himself and his shapeshifting foster sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), to the CIA, in particular field agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and the unnamed Man in Black Suit (Oliver Platt), who's delighted to bring them in from the cold and set them up in a secret black-budget facility. Soon Xavier and his new friend and colleague Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), who can manipulate magnetic fields and is hunting one particular Nazi scientist, gather the young mutants Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz). But Shaw has his stronger, better, faster "Hellfire Club," with Janos Quested/Riptide (Alex González), the teleportational mass murderer Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and, most prominently, his lover and lieutenant, Emma Frost (January Jones)—who aside from telepathy and being able to turn into diamond hardness has the power to make men madly say, "Oh, my God!" whenever she's onscreen in her skimpy fetish outfits or lingerie.

Vaughn and his primary collaborator, writer Jane Goldman, made their previous film, Kick-Ass, both audacious and down-to-earth, and here, as there, they never dumb anything down or think the audience won't understand some reference, historical or otherwise. One particular hallmark of that craft and care is the way virtually every fantastical element gets a perfectly organic justification. Don't want to wear that uniform? Well, unless your body can withstand high g-forces or comes already armored, Skippy, you'll probably wanna wear it.

The visual effects and all the tech credits are top-notch, and none of that would matter were the emotions not so haunting and genuine and human. Not an epic adventure yarn like Thor, nor a Gothic fable like Christopher Nolan's Batman films, nor even, for all its big-toys-for-big-boys planes and gadgets, an Iron Man techno-thriller, this is a drama about two men, and the family and political consequences of their falling out. X-Men: First Class is indeed first-class, and I'd wager I'm not the only critic to use that obvious but irresistible phrase.

As a bonus, Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn make uncredited cameos as their characters from earlier X-Men films.