A dozen years ago super-hero movies seemed to be dead. Superman and Batman had each run four films, in both cases driving their franchises into the ground and exhausting whatever inspiration and goodwill they started out with. Stan Lee had been in Hollywood for the better part of two decades trying to get a movie made, any movie—Spider-Man, Daredevil, Captain America, you name it.
Then out of nowhere came Bryan Singer’s mutant ensemble movie X-Men (2000), and it changed everything. It revitalized the super-hero movie and launched the current age of comic-book adaptations that, far from flagging, is still picking up steam. Yet few of the ongoing avalanche of Marvel and DC productions have been on a par with Singer’s sharp little film. The genre has become routine, and few entries offer any surprises.
Even prequels and reboots are becoming almost routine: Counting Mark Ruffalo in the upcoming Avengers film, there have been three different Bruce Banners in ten years, and other characters—including Spider-Man, Superman, and Daredevil—are being or may be rebooted. Then there was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tepid X-Men prequel partly set, like X-Men: First Class, in the later mid-20th century.
Yet, surprisingly, First Class, produced by Singer and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) from a story co-written by Singer, isn’t more business as usual. First Class does what few franchise films do today: It takes risks, offers surprises. Consider Thor and the latest Pirates of the Caribbean: both competently pleasant films, and short enough not to wear out their welcome, but not a surprise between the two of them. First Class is comparatively long, but it feels satisfyingly complete rather than overstuffed. By the time it’s over, we know Charles Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto), and Mystique in particular as we’ve never known them before.
Casting is crucial, particularly for Professor X and Magneto. From the first scenes of X-Men, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen effortlessly created a sense of an old kinship gone tragically awry. Happily, James McAvoy (The Conspirator; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and Michael Fassbender(Jane Eyre; Inglourious Basterds) are up to the task.
McAvoy not only commandingly fills the shoes Stewart was never allowed to stand in, he persuasively reveals unguessed youthful follies in the telepathic Xavier’s past—nothing as startling as Chris Pine’s headstrong, immature James T. Kirk, but in that direction—that nevertheless illuminate the Xavier we know from later continuity.Even more surprisingly, the film reveals a touching history with the shape-shifter Mystique, or Raven Darkhölme, vulnerably played by Jennifer Lawrence (mesmerizing in last year’s Winter’s Bone and now tabbed to play Katniss Everdeen in the upcoming Hunger Games movies). In this telling, Raven becomes a kind of foster kid sister to Charles, though her feelings for him may go beyond that. From their youthful first meeting we see that Charles, a child of privilege, instinctively associates his privileges with responsibility, and naturally takes the initiative in helping others.