Before "X-Men: First Class", the X-Men film franchise had almost entirely deflated. After director Bryan Singer left the series in 2003, the resulting entries, Last Stand and Origins Wolverine, were middling at best. Fox Studios has done the smart thing with the story's overly treaded ground (in fact, it's the same thing I do when a piece of writing just isn't working): They scrapped it! And started over from the beginning. They've brought in a new director, Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), a new tone, a new era, and an almost entirely new crop of mutant warriors. Luckily, the two who've made a return are, in my opinion, the best: Magneto and Professor X. And, being a prequel and all, we get to follow these two ideological nemeses from childhood to friendship to an even more action-packed falling out than Anakin and Obi-Wan.
I have to admit, when I first saw a pint-sized Magneto (then named Erik Lehnsherr) walking the wet dirt road to Auschwitz and an even punier Charles Xavier stalking his kitchen for a midnight snack, I thought I was doomed to endure an X-Men version of the Muppet Babies. But the adult counterparts replace these miniature genetic wunderkinds rather quickly. And in fact, the depiction of their youths is the easily the most important element to defining their characters. The teeny psychic Charles takes in a homeless, blue skinned shape-shifter named Raven (soon to be Mystique) out of the kindness of his ten-year-old British heart. Erik, at the same time, watches his mother get shot down by a Josef Mengele wannabe-type Nazi scientist, who takes an interest in Erik's ability to magnetize himself to all things metallic. From the get-go, we know why Xavier dedicates his later life to geniality and understanding, just as we know why Magneto dedicates his to anger and retribution.
By the time they're adults, Charles (James McAvoy) has become a geneticist at Oxford working to figure out the science behind his own altered existence. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is on a global vendetta to eradicate all remaining traces of Nazi-dom, including the murderous Angel of Death who killed his mother -- a guy named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Since the two protagonists are only in their twenties, Vaughn and his screenwriters have a whole new (far out) milieu to work with. Charles eloquently hits on Oxford coeds with hilariously rehearsed Greg-Bradyisms like, "I think that mutation is pretty... groovy." And by the time he links up with Erik, the overarching conflict becomes the fight to stop global Cold War annihilation. Scenes in eccentrically over-decorated debriefing halls reminded me of Kubrick ("There's no fighting in here! This is the war room!"). And the subtitle, Super Secret Covert Base, made me think of Dr. Evil's underground volcano lair.
Despite the film's Holocaust portrayal (which was a little exploitative for my taste) and its ever-present ruminations on "being different", its tone is playfully close to those aforementioned films. Inside jokes about Xavier's hair and cameos by previous X-Men participators made "First Class" a lively semi-goof on its own mythology. Then Xavier starts recruiting mutants for a secret CIA program and a new "class" of adolescents shows off their powers in sequences of hilariously destructive frat-kid behavior. Other pluses: A fantastic cast that has Oscar nominees McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence (as Raven) shining in roles balancing sprightliness and private contemplation. The film's acting trophy, however, goes to Michael Fassbender whose wrathful trance of a performance is so tactile it's warming.
"X-Men: First Class" moves at a splendidly energetic and enjoyable pace, but I can't help feeling like there's probably a better movie in there somewhere -- one with less characters, less banal and redundant dialogue about feeling like a freak (all the series' insightful themes are rendered effectively idiot-proof); and more discourse between Charles and Erik's polarizing viewpoints regarding the better and worse angels of our nature. As I've always seen the two characters as a representation of peoples' inclination to treat others as less than human (both in the small and the extreme). Charles believes in the possibility of redemption. But Erik was on the front lines during humanity's darkest hour and is not necessarily wrong for considering the world's cold treatment of what it doesn't understand. More than any previous installment "X-Men: First Class" needs to ask: Which side are you on?