Prequels give Hollywood one last chance to resurrect exhausted movie franchises. But origin stories such as "Hannibal Rising" and director Rob Zombie's "Halloween" only proved that some characters are best left in cold storage.
"X-Men: First Class," an attempt to reboot the successful "X-Men" trilogy, makes audiences feel as if they just met Professor X and his merry band of mutants. Add one pitch-perfect cameo, and "First Class" stands as the superhero film to beat in a summer teeming with colorful heroes.
Director Matthew Vaughn of "Kick-Ass" fame doesn't mind plumbing dark material to reset the saga. The story's prologue features a child watching his mother's execution by a Nazi thug.
"First Class" is set primarily in 1962, when the Cold War was raging and a mind reader named Charles Xavier (James McAvoy as a young Professor X) was starting his obsession with mutants.
When Charles learns about a CIA mission to stop a fellow mutant (a well-cast Kevin Bacon) from pushing the superpowers into nuclear war, he is only too eager to help. And that means finding more mutants to rally to America's side.
Meanwhile, the boy tortured by his mother's death is all grown up and eager for revenge. Erik (Michael Fassbender), who possesses a mastery of all things metal, reluctantly joins forces with Charles' mutant brigade. But what does Erik really want in return?
The mutants-as-pariahs theme, which felt tapped out after "X-Men: The Last Stand," the third film in the "X" trilogy, blazes anew in "First Class." Credit a sensitive turn by Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone") as the shape-shifting Raven, a mutant ashamed of her cobalt blue skin. Even better is Nicholas Hoult's Hank McCoy, a scientist cursed with beastly feet.
They don't fit in anywhere save Charles' mutant troupe, and their self-confidence blooms once they're with their own kind.
Not all the new mutant characters are ready for their close-ups. "Mad Men's" January Jones is merely adequate as Emma Frost, a dishy dame with powers far beyond her impressive decolletage.
But try taking your eyes off Mr. Fassbender as the man destined to become the villainous Magneto. The Irish actor's initial scenes are so frightening they could have been swiped from a horror franchise.
"Let's just say I'm Frankenstein's Monster," he growls while hunting down anyone associated with Mr. Bacon's character. Mr. Fassbender's ascension to the A-list after "First Class" may be the surest bet this summer.
The Cuban missile crisis gets woven seamlessly into the X-universe, with footage of President Kennedy reinforcing the historical context.
What should please comic book devotees is how "First Class" plugs into the existing "X-Men" features. The film solves some nagging mysteries and opens up a few more, all thanks to a script that is clear-eyed and bracing.
While the naive Charles sees only the best in humanity, Erik cannot ignore the hate and distrust that their powers inspire. Their friendship, based on mutual respect as well as necessity, grounds the story's impressive action sequences. Their bond also makes the fanciful makeup on display easier to swallow.
Mr. Hoult's Beast persona looks like a fur ball plucked from a washing machine.
"X-Men: First Class" bullies past cynical motivations to deliver a smart, engrossing story that might just kick-start a whole new "X" franchise.
TITLE: "X-Men: First Class"
CREDITS: Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Mr. Vaughn
RATING: PG-13, for intense action, partial nudity and strong language
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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