X-Men is the franchise we have to thank for the last decade's numbing proliferation of comic-book superhero movies. So we should hold it to a higher standard. Like Professor X scolding his first colloquium after a spate of adolescent superhuman rowdiness leaves the house a mess, we should expect more.
Such as? How about all the superheroes finally together in one movie, each with at least one good trick and one good one-liner? If anyone could make that happen, it'd be dauntless X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn and his mighty screenwriting team, whose collective credits also include Kick-Ass, Thor, the first two X-Men films and even, if IMDB is to be believed, a "production polish" of Snakes on a Plane.
X-Men: First Class has some artificial flavors—corn, cheese, Kevin Bacon bits—but also some natural advantages in James McAvoy as the learned telepath Charles Xavier, later Professor X, and Michael Fassbender as his tormented friend Erik Lehnsherr, later Magneto. The reluctant shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), later Mystique, tags along for comely companionship and cliché mitigation.
It's fun to see a randy Professor X hitting on pre-mod Oxford birds by working his innate nobility and genius gene theory, while Magneto extracts information and dental fillings in order to go suavely about hunting down hidden Nazis. It would be fine to spend the whole movie with just these two wily Brits—each well-adapted to the Ian Fleming-style espionage thriller already under way and presided over by Rose Byrne's CIA agent, who sets a tone by stripping down to lingerie in her very first scene—but we have a class to assemble, and the professor's and Magneto's competing styles of tutelage to discern.
We have subplots and subcharacters and new franchise trajectories to establish, mutant superpowers to demonstrate (prehensile toes, dragonfly wings, weird fiery hula hoops) and January Jones' already-baffling career to further enable. (Yes, she's the one said to be made of diamond.)
The 1960s setting does clarify the movie's top priorities: apocalyptic brinkmanship and groovy clothes. Sure, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a nice touch, but there was also that whole Civil Rights thing going on, which should matter to the mutants. If this world has room for Magneto and Professor X, it also should have room for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Not to mention other superheroes—why not just bring 'em all on? All the Marvel guys, all the DC guys, all the other guys—and gals. It could be a total prequel-reboot-crossover-ganza! X-Men: First Class doesn't disappoint exactly, but it doesn't raise the bar either. For all its restless recombinations of allies and opponents, it only stokes our hope for a superhero movie to end all superhero movies. Well, the season is still young.
X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
With James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Bill Milner, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones and Lucas Till
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14