I’m generally sick of remakes and relaunches and reboots — it seems borderline obscene that it only took 10 years for Sam Raimi’s awesome Spider-Man movies to get kicked to the curb in favor of new blood — but this revamped X-Men origin story is kind of fun. Set a couple of generations ago, when fear of the Cold War still cast a long shadow over the swinging 60s and memories of the Holocaust still festered like an open wound, it’s a period piece into which has been injected a tale of two mutants.
One of them is Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, pitched somewhere between James Bond and Doctor Who), a serious intellect, a powerful telepath, and a bit of a dandy who owns a massive spread in Westchester County where he trains a small mutant army that uses its powers for the protection of civilization. The other is Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, doing that smoldering thing he does so well), better known as Magneto, a Holocaust survivor and an antihero who can manipulate, twist, and destroy metal telekinetically. What makes Magneto a supervillain? He doesn’t trust humanity. In the society that his friend Charles swears to protect, Erik sees only prejudice, bigotry, and cruelty against the differently abled. Why would the most powerful beings on earth stand for it? Erik won’t.
As long as X: First Class (so help me, that’s the on-screen title) is charting the dissolution of the uneasy partnership between Charles and Magneto, it has its narrative fulcrum and its emotional center. When Charles realizes he’s losing his friend to the pursuit of chaos and destruction, McAvoy sells his gentle heartbreak. All through the film, Fassbender seethes with his character’s anger and sense of injustice. You can feel Erik harnessing a massive reserve of self-restraint, humility, even, as he cooperates with Charles to thwart the schemings of the Hellfire Club, a secret society of supervillains that’s working behind the scenes to catalyze World War III, from the ashes of which they expect to rise triumphant.
Despite the amusing presence of Kevin Bacon, in his element as the smug bad boy Sebastian Shaw, and January Jones, mostly in her underwear as the chilly Emma Frost, the movie loses its charm as it loses focus on that crucial doomed friendship. Throw in a gaggle of teenaged mutants with their assorted personal crises, a half-baked effort at some spy-movie stylishness, and a whole lot of folderol about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the result is a little shapeless.
The wham-bam finale is particularly distended, with some fan service that makes me groan, but director Matthew Vaughn lands a few punches on action beats elsewhere, like a decent scene depicting the Hellfire Club’s raid on a government facility where the mutants are holed up. (In a disturbing climax, bodies eventually fall from the sky with sickening thumps.) I was also impressed by the cheekiness with which he staged an early scene at a Playboy-Club sort of establishment run by the bad guys, forcing the no-nonsense CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) to strip to her skivvies in order to infiltrate the inner sanctum. (After all they put up with in the name of being good sports, both Jones and Byrne deserved better roles than were written for them.) Zack Snyder’s R-rated comic-book adaptations leave me cold, but Vaughn seems just good enough at this stuff that he makes me want to see a for-mature-audiences version of the X-Men, replete with copious blood-letting, mutant sex, and riotous invective, maybe on HBO. A boy can dream, can’t he?