How do you revive a flagging franchise that sinks deeper with each new installment? You go back to the beginning. It’s the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, and the paths of two mutants are about to cross. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a young professor—an expert on genetic mutations with a number of mental powers. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is a Holocaust survivor who can manipulate metal—he has a vendetta against a Nazi officer responsible for his mother’s death. That’s right; they’re the future Professor X and Magneto. The Nazi officer, now an energy-absorbing mutant known as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), is bent on sparking off a nuclear war and it is he who unites Charles and Erik in a fight to save the world. Backed by the CIA, the two go in search of other mutants who can stand alongside them.
Prequels are funny things, but the good ones manage to create tension and uncertainty even though their endings are predetermined. With its brisk pace and well-explored narrative threads, X-Men: First Class remains entertaining throughout its hefty 133 minute run-time, but it’s McAvoy and Fassbender who make it shine. Their friendship is real, their camaraderie genuine, and you wonder throughout the film where the rift will begin. The same can’t be said of the supporting cast however, with the exception of the unstoppable force that is Bacon’s Shaw. January Jones deadpans her way through the film as Emma Frost, Jennifer Lawrence shows none of her talent as Mystique and Lucas Till’s Havok is precision-engineered to cater to angst-ridden teenagers.
As good as First Class is, one can’t help but feel that it could have been better. It’s firmly character-driven no doubt, but not enough screen time is devoted to defining moments and allegiance shifts, making them seem senseless. Mutants have minds really different from ours, because they’re capable of switching sides with less thought than choosing a pair of socks. But hey, we get a majestic score, a self-referential cameo from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, an epic final battle and an enticing set-up for a new X-Men trilogy. It’ll drive fanboys wild, but this blockbuster has merits as a standalone film.