Charles Xavier (aka Professor X) and Erik Lensherr (aka Magneto) are two young men discovering their powers. Banding together with fellow mutants to stop a threat to the world, a rift grows between the two forces, leading to the founding of Professor X's X-MEN and Magneto's Brotherhood, and the beginning of their eternal war.
The short version is "X-Men: First Class" is an excellent return to form after several mis-steps, capturing everything that made the series great and jettisoning must of the unnecessary stuff. That's all you really need to know, but if you need more, keep going.
The problem with prequels is a lot like the problem with sequels, in that you want to remind viewers that this new iteration is related to a previous story while at the same time charting your on course and not falling into the pit of simply repeating what audiences liked the first time around. Prequels have it even tougher because they're endpoint is already known, leaving filmmakers to try and find an unlikely route to get there in order to create suspense.
"X-Men: First Class" then is a shining example of how to chart that course without giving up anything in the process. After a brief trip to the mid-40s to remind us of the vast differences in the upbringing of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) in cushy upstate New York and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) in a Nazi concentration camp, we're off to the Jet Age of the 1960s, where grown up Charles and Erik are about to be thrown together to stop the machinations of mutant mastermind Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
Director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick Ass") and his screenwriters, including original series mastermind Bryan Singer ("Superman Returns") have returned to what made the series work in the first place, the interaction of the characters between each other and the world they live in and how that ultimately drives the plot. And they do that by getting rid of quite a bit which had worked before, but it's not missed.
Considering how much the "X-Men" franchise has to date relied so heavily on Hugh Jackman and the Wolverine character in general as its centerpiece some people could be justifiably concerned in a film without that character driving it. But it turns out sending him off on his own is the best thing that could happen for the X-Men franchise.
Despite the best efforts of the various filmmakers involved in the series, including Singer himself, it's always been a tough fit to squeeze the man-against-himself struggle of Wolverine into the societal discrimination allegory of the X-Men series. Without him, the filmmakers have been able to focus on what is really the heart of the story, the choice between how to deal with discrimination in the form of Xavier and Lensherr's own relationship. Given its own space to breathe, the relationship is finally allowed to come to the fore the way it always should, dramatizing the films central message with often poignant tragedy.
Vaughn and his writers have envisaged Xavier and Lensherr as near opposites of one another, as cast to suit, pinging of soft-spoken McAvoy against the tall, growling menace of Fassbender. While the acting is all around excellent in an "X-Men" film that is finally allowed to be a true ensemble, it's Fassbender who holds things together and McAvoy often comes off somewhat less in their shared scenes. He embodies the Magneto-to-be in a way that outshines even Ian McKellan. He is the best kind of villain figure, the one who's motivation and actions you can completely understand, even if you don't agree with him.
Submitted to the cruelest torments as a boy by Sebastian Shaw's Nazi puppets as part of his own quest to find fellow mutants with whom to rule the Earth, adult Erik just wants one thing: revenge. Revenge against everyone who ever allowed those awful things to happen, revenge against the normal humans who are terrified of him, and ultimately revenge against Shaw himself.
In one of those fatal meetings that Vaughn wisely resists the urge to over-dramatize; Erik's quest to find Shaw leads him to the depth of the slippery kingpin's Hellfire Club at the same time as Xavier and his foster-sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) lead beautiful CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to the same point. Though Erik could care less, MacTaggert and Xavier have discovered Shaw is at the heart of a plan to start a war between the USSR and America, wipe each other out, and leave the planet to the mutants. A plan that rests on installing nuclear missiles in Cuba.
If some of that sounds historically familiar, it also reveals the other realization that makes "First Class" go. The filmmakers have planned "First Class" out less like a standard superhero fantasy (though there is plenty of that by the end) and more of a classic 60s spy romp. Just that instead of gadgets, James Bond has super powers. The story zips along quickly from Geneva to Las Vegas to Oxford to Moscow, unraveling the secret world of mutants and the length of Shaw's reach with its fair share of spies, underground lairs and submarines popping out of yachts. But with mind reading and shape shifting. And Bacon as it turns out makes a great villain; completely controlled and resisting any urges to chew up the scenery.
As to be expected from a good spy romp, "First Class" lives in ambiguity. While there are heroes, they're relationships with the villains are complex and not entirely negative. The closer Erik gets to Shaw the more he realizes how alike they are and despite hating the fact he accepts it. Mystique, his future right hand woman, has grown up her whole life with Xavier and truly loves him and it's heartbreaking to watch him unknowingly drive her away as much as Magneto draws her in. Tragedy is the name of the prequel game here and Vaughn takes full advantage of it.
Or as full as he can. For all the good it does, "First Class" can't seem to escape some of the franchise recurring weaknesses, the mutants themselves. Someone somewhere along the line decided long ago that what the "X-Men" movies were really about where people with superpower using them, and that's fair enough. But that point of view has frequently been taken to absurd lengths, to the point where some of the installments have been burdened with nameless, faceless characters whose only point is to represent a character from the books and use a superpower but who could be removed entirely from the film and not be missed. It's a point of view which ruined "The Last Stand" and the franchise still refuses to part with it.
Once Xavier and Erik realize what Shaw is up to they begin to gather their own team, but outside of young Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) most of the teenagers they've gathered do nothing but serve as the grounding for the effects creating their powers. They get a few moments here in there to define themselves, but not much. They're better off than Shaw's henchmen, however, who do nothing but stand around and look menacing. All except for literal ice queen Emma Frost (January Jones) who is so wooden she's the only one of the supporting characters you wish would just stand in the background.
That said, what "First Class" does, it does well; juggling drama and pathos with humor and fun. Despite the depths it plumbs and the complex character relationships that don't always work out much of it is just a fun ride. And when the first team of X-Men finally does don their classic blue and yellow suits and fly out to try and stop the Cuban missile crisis before it gets going the effect is ultimately joyful in the way a summer adventure film should be.
After giving in to its worst instincts, the return of Singer and the addition of a director with a real eye for character and performance have created the shot in the arm the "X-Men" franchise really needed. Maybe one day they'll let them remake "The Last Stand."