There’s something special about origin stories. While sequels have their own compulsive power for studios and filmmakers—mostly the lure of a built-in audience—“becoming” stories, where characters go through their greatest transformations, are so inherently compelling that comics, films, and TV shows frequently restart franchises from scratch just to get a new crack at an old origin. That certainly explains X-Men: First Class, which packs around a dozen origin stories into one crowded, world-spanning, two-hour-plus action film designed to launch a new X-Men trilogy.
And yet director Matthew Vaughn and his many screenwriting partners (including X-Men and X2 director Bryan Singer, with a “story” co-credit) manage to maintain admirable coherence and propulsive pacing throughout. Tossing out the previous X-Men movies’ continuity, they jump back a generation, beginning in the 1940s, with mutant leader Charles Xavier as a neglected but fantastically rich telepathic child who befriends the shape-changing intruder Raven, and Magneto-to-be Erik Lehnsherr, a concentration-camp prisoner with control over metal, a power that gains him the possessive, evil attentions of mutant mastermind Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Charles’ childhood of privilege and power leaves him smug but bent on helping other troubled mutants; Erik’s youthful misery focuses him utterly on revenge against Bacon. As adults played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively, they both get involved in a drive to recruit more mutants to counter Shaw’s outsized supervillain plotting, which weaves through the real history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with footage of JFK’s speeches sprinkled throughout.
First Class’ cast is a sprawling collection of recognizable faces playing roles that will be familiar to comics readers, notably Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, and an embarrassingly rigid January Jones as scantily clad telepath Emma Frost. Vaughn and company navigate the complications of all their stories by breaking the movie down into a few heavily underlined, well-established X-Men themes, particularly adolescent confusion and self-rejection (clarified and externalized by expression through physical deformity and accompanying immense power) and the difficult decision of whether to strike back against a harshly judgmental world, rally to improve it, or try to integrate quietly into it. And, once again, the touchstones of modern Marvel movies emerge: in-jokes and deep-geekery references for die-hard comics fans, broader gags for the mainstream, and breathtaking special-effects setpieces for both ends of the spectrum. First Class embraces a few embarrassing clichés: the few non-Caucasian characters are all dead or evil by halfway through the film, and a handful of already-ridiculous lines get infused with operatic, laughable portent that clash with the movie’s otherwise more humanistic take on the superhero genre. But First Class largely does what it sets out to do, by turning out another crowd-pleasing comic-book film designed to bring in new fans while gratifying the old ones.