A not-insignificant number of cineastes see mainstream cinema as having been in a state of steady decline since 1975, when the stunning success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws changed the rules of the game, inspiring studios to pour increasingly vast amounts of money into the search for blockbusters that will dominate screens worldwide—rather than investing in a larger number of smaller films that wouldn’t hit with such splashes but would give moviegoers more, and more interesting, options.
If you think this has been a bad thing, you’ll almost certainly skip X-Men: First Class. That will be your loss: this is a blockbuster done right, in the tradition of Star Wars, the original Superman, Titanic, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Actually, for my money, First Class is better than the spotty Dark Knight Returns—it doesn’t have Nolan’s visual flair or Heath Ledger’s compelling performance, but its tight plot and pacing keep all the plates spinning from the first frame to the last.
This is the fifth in the X-Men film series, but chronologically the first: it’s a prequel that tells the story of how the mutant superheroes first recognized their mutual existence and came together in two opposing camps led respectively by Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). I won’t give away any of the plot’s fun surprises, but it involves the mutants’ intervention in the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis. First Class is an ambitious movie, setting out to incorporate multiple characters’ origin stories into a collective tale that’s dramatically compelling even though we basically know how it will end.
Top marks in this Class go to screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn, working from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer—the writer/director responsible for the film franchise’s success over the past decade. Vaughn (Kick-Ass) takes the helm here, and keeps the film tightly wound: it doesn’t drag for a second.
This is the kind of film that the Star Wars prequels should have been; George Lucas’s Wagnerian ambition gave those films the kind of highs that First Class doesn’t reach (the nightmarish Darth Maul, Anakin’s cruelly vengeful attack on the Tusken Raiders, the diminutive Yoda’s emergence as an action hero), but also saddled them with awkwardly overreaching effects and cringe-worthy characters like Jar Jar Binks. First Class is disciplined and substantial, and surprisingly thought-provoking without feeling heavy-handed.
Every performance works—almost. Fassbender broods, suffers, and rages far more compellingly than he did as Rochester in Mia Wasikowska’s overmannered adaptation of Jane Eyre, and McAvoy convincingly embodies the steadfast but gentle spirit Patrick Stewart brought to the role of Professor X as an older man. The poignant and pretty Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) is a dramatic upgrade over Rebecca Romijn, who’s played the older version of her character Mystique with physical curves but flat characterization. In the important role of Beast, Nicholas Hoult doesn’t hold our attention as well as his classmates, but he at least looks only minimally goofy. And Kevin Bacon as supervillain Sebastian Shaw? Win.
This summer has been a long time in coming, but it’s here at last—and so, finally, is a summer movie worth leaving the beach for.