Reboots are all the rage in superhero movies nowadays, often with mixed results, but X-Men: First Class follows the example of Batman Begins (2005) by shedding the camp excesses that marred X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) for a story with considerably more scope and depth. Crucially, it also never forgets to be fun. Like the original X-Men (2000) the film opens with the same controversial concentration camp prologue in 1944, only here young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner, star of Son of Rambow (2008)), the future Magneto, endures an even more traumatic encounter with mutant demagogue Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who shoots his mother dead. Meanwhile in England, a touching friendship blossoms between child telepath Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) and blue-skinned shapeshifter Raven (Morgan Lily), the future Mystique.
Two decades later in the early Sixties, C.I.A. agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) draws Charles (James McAvoy) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) into the espionage fold. Hoping to forge a team of government sanctioned mutant operatives, the heroes are soon joined by Erik (Michael Fassbender) who is hot on the trail of Shaw and his cadre of evil mutants, including psychic femme fatale Emma Frost (January Jones). Despite different viewpoints, Charles and Erik forge a firm friendship and together recruit an array of young mutants, including scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) who attracts Raven's attention with his work on a serum to restore their "normal" appearance and devises Charles' famous mutant tracking device "Cerebro", butterfly-winged Angel (Zoë Kravitz), sonic screamer Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), energy expellor Alex Summers (Lucas Till), and evolving metamorph Darwin (Edi Gathegi). One of these defects to the other side, while another pays a heavy price for crossing Shaw whom the X-Men discover is escalating Cold War tensions to wipe out humanity and establish a mutant master race.
Original X-Men director Bryan Singer served as producer and co-devised the story with Sheldon Turner, but wisely secured the services of Kick-Ass (2010) dynamic duo Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Working with Vaughn and co-screenwriters Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz, Goldman has crafted an ambitious, intelligent script whose reach occasionally exceeds its grasp but remains consistently compelling and stimulating cinema. Which is more than can be said of many superhero movies. The film was criticised in some quarters for daring to use real historical events like the Holocaust, Nazi war criminals and the Cuban Missile Crisis inside a fantastical framework, with a few going so far as to lambast its more audacious intermingling of fact with fiction as crass. But reflecting real social issues has always been a crucial aspect of the X-Men mythos. Goldman and her co-writers craft clever scenes outlining the incidents that forged the differing attitudes of Professor X and Magneto, whose conflicting ideologies form the crux of the plot. It is an eye-opening and surprisingly touching journey and by the movie's end we do feel as if we understand these iconic characters better and recognise a sense of loss beneath the comic book posturing.
Also criticised was the supposed greater emphasis placed on playful sensuality. Within minutes of the opening scenes, Rose Byrne strips down to her kinky underwear to infiltrate the Hellfire Club ("Here's some equipment the C.I.A. didn't give me!") while all of her equally attractive co-stars remain scantily clad. Again, this goes part and parcel with the X-Men comics but is rather more knowing and tongue-in-cheek. Jane Goldman is a comic and pop culture fan. She understands the conventions she is playing with. Being set in a fantasy vision of the Swinging Sixties, equal parts vintage Marvel, James Bond and The Avengers, the fashions are decidedly sexy (January Jones and Jennifer Lawrence fans will not be disappointed) but Goldman equally ensures these women are vivid, faceted, capable and what's more, fully in control of their own sexuality. Certainly no mere playthings.
Matthew Vaughn imbues the globetrotting action with the style of a Sixties spy movie and stages his grandiose set-pieces with great panache, but never reduces things to the level of a soulless computer game. Angst and emotion remain the heart of the story, including the hitherto unheralded romantic tension between Raven and Charles and his fraught friendship with Erik. The film features engagingly charismatic star turns from James McAvoy (as a flawed idealist who relishes a full head of hair and uses telepathic tricks to pick up girls!), Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence - Oscar nominated star of Winter's Bone (2010) - and a magnetically evil Kevin Bacon. Amidst the sweeping story there are relishably quirky character turns from the likes of Oliver Platt, James Remar, Michael Ironside and an unrecognisable Jason Flemyng, plus an amusing cameo from two celebrated X-Men stars.