Ah, to be young and a mutant. To be able to read minds, to soar high above the clouds, even to shape-shift into a supermodel one lonely night at the bar. Sounds like a blast? Think again.
The genetic anomalies of “X-Men: First Class” are a conflicted bunch, initially baffled by their superhuman gifts and, ultimately, persecuted because of them.
They are feared, reviled and misunderstood, but when the world seems to teeter on the brink of nuclear holocaust, as it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, they prove uniquely talented as peacekeepers.
Some of them, anyway. The mutants fall into two camps — those like Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who envision harmonious co-existence with ordinary mortals, and others like the reptilian Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who regard man as an enemy yet to be vanquished.
Xavier, better known to “X-Men” fans as Professor X — and played in the saga’s first three installments by Patrick Stewart — has typically been portrayed as the very embodiment of benevolence, a soothing father figure to mutants seeking to live in the world rather than dominate it.
Here, he’s a dashing cad, dropping witty, well-rehearsed pickup lines over a glass of scotch, but in McAvoy’s ever-curious clairvoyant, we witness the rise of a born leader.
It’s inevitable that Xavier and best friend Erik (Michael Fassbender, a formidable talent) will part ways, their youthful bond eventually severed by clashing philosophies.
Embittered by the horrors of a childhood in Auschwitz but still less jaded than Magneto, the super villain he will become, Erik channels his powers best in anger. That he casts a disdainful eye on humanity is unsurprising, but here, in an origins tale heavy on exposition, he is less monster than misguided soul.
Together, for different reasons, he and Erik take on Shaw, who plans to accelerate the extinction of mankind by playing Russians against Americans at the height of Cuban missile crisis paranoia. (Bacon, as the sociopathic puppet-master, is delightfully slimy, and too little seen in the movie’s later passages.)
Despite director Matthew Vaughn’s audacious attempt to cram volumes of backstory into a perfectly sturdy stand-alone adventure, “First Class” never feels labored or constrained by Marvel mythology.
Thanks in part to a cast of hungry, energetic stars with presence to spare — and to a story, co-written by Vaughn, that never stops gathering momentum — it is a winning slice of fantasy fiction.
After a perfunctory “Last Stand” (2006) and the overall sloppiness of “Wolverine” (2009), it’s exactly what the professor ordered to make the heroes of “X-Men: First Class” seem super again.
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence
Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Running time 2 hours 12 minutes