X-Men: First Class is an homage to the James Bond movies from the '60s — you know, back when Bond was fun.
It has the Cold War, an epic confrontation between super powers and a supervillain in a submarine. Director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) has a generally light touch on back-engineering the struggle between the future Professor X and the future Magneto. Well-cast, well-acted and scripted so that its message of tolerance is front and center, this is pretty much all you'd want from two hours and 12 minutes of summer escape.
James McAvoy is young Charles Xavier, the fellow who reads minds and stumbles into the girl Raven (Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence), who makes him realize that he and she are not alone. They are "the next stage in human evolution." It's the 1940s, and in the age of the atom, humanity — some humans, anyway — are mutating.
One of them is half a world away. That's where Erik Lehnsherr (played by Bill Milner, then Michael Fassbender) is a Jew who survives the Holocaust because one Nazi in particular, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), sees his talents and finds a way to train them.
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Cut to years later, when Charles is finishing up his degree at Oxford, and Erik is chasing Nazis to the far ends of the Earth.
"Let's just say I'm Frankenstein's monster," Erik growls to a couple of German expats in Argentina. "I'm looking for my creator."
Pity he isn't looking for Joseph Mengele. Fassbender is marvelously and malevolently focused. McAvoy gives Xavier a comical-clinical interest in his fellow mutants.
They meet when they are given a common enemy by the CIA. It's the early '60s, and Bacon's former Nazi is up to something, recruiting mutants. The most playful scenes in the movie follow Charles and Erik as they go mutant recruiting for the CIA — into strip clubs, for instance. Jason Flemyng, Nicholas Hoult, Alex Gonzalez, Zoe Kravitz and Edi Gathegi (from Twilight) are among the recruits.
As the team is assembled, not-so-subtle reminders of what we're talking about, these mutants with special powers who might displace humans, are tossed in. One guy hid his mutancy. "You didn't ask, I didn't tell," he says.
Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt play CIA agents in charge of mutant relations. Vaughn peoples his supporting cast with veteran character players: James Remar is a general, Michael Ironside a Navy captain, Ray Wise a presidential adviser — and pays tribute, visually, to Dr. Strangelove and Basic Instinct.
That last visual reference comes from January Jones. She plays the villain's mutant sidekick in early Sharon Stone-ish '60s white tart ensembles, and she even has a Basic Instinct interrogation scene. She makes a sexy villain herself. (The women in the movie wear miniskirts a few years before they became popular, and the assembling cast of mutants drop colloquialisms a few decades out of place, but why quibble?)
But one cameo, complete with the movie's only — and perfectly placed — F-bomb, reminds us where this one stands in the firmament. The digital ships, digital sets and digitally enhanced brawls lack a single moment as authentically cool as that first snowy meeting we had with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the original film.
It's all silly summer cinema escape, and if you don't roll your eyes the first or 10th time that McAvoy puts two fingers to his forehead to read someone's thoughts, you plainly got nothing out of Everything Must Go and The Beaver.
But X-Men: First Class still sings the praises of Marvel Studios' marvelous quality control of comic-book movies. It's good, clean summer movie fun, and the money they spent is up on the screen — with actors and effects — so that we won't mind spending our money on it.