The X-Men film franchise was starting to get tiresome, in my humble opinion. And that's coming from a guy who was a major fan of the comics back when he was a kid. (I think I stopped reading around the time I was 11 or 12, after illustrator John Byrne moved on to other titles.) So it was with reluctance that I deigned to catch this prequel, which on paper seemed like beating a dead horse: yet another superhero origin story in a time when studios are finding it hard to make an engaging comic book movie that isn't an origin story (which is why "reboots" have supplanted sequels).
But the allure of its Cold War era setting - 1962, with its streamlined aesthetic ala Mad Men and the early Bond movies - proved irresistible. And now, after seeing X-Men: First Class, I am quite happy to say that it works. It's not perfect, but for a comic book movie, it's close enough.
The film introduces us to the first wave of "out of the closet" mutants, led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who seeks to recruit those like him in order to stop an evil mutant (Kevin Bacon!) from destroying mankind. He forms a shaky friendship with a powerful but angry concentration camp survivor named Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender of Inglourious Basterds), whose magnetic powers will soon earn him the name of Magneto, the great X-Men villain.
The two actors deliver surprisingly moving performances, as well they should - their characters, after all, will wind up turning into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. In fact, the entire cast (including recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as a young, horny Mystique) is fine, save for a stiff January Jones as villainess Emma Frost. It's ironic, as the Mad Men actress should be the one performer familiar with the film's early '60s milieu.
And actually, this is the only other major problem I have with the movie: Despite its Kennedy-era setting, the hair department clearly dropped the ball, and the shaggy do's on the young cast look like a 2011 interpretation of late '60s hairstyles. It's distracting. Couldn't these folks be bothered to get their hair cut? The wardrobe is also not quite exactly of the era - costume designer Sammy Sheldon, who has worked with director Matthew Vaughn several times now, should have done more homework.
But these are minor quibbles in a film with expertly-paced action pieces (Vaughn previously directed the impressive Kick-Ass), evocative cinematography by John Mathieson, and an engaging storyline by a gaggle of writers. It's also a nice chance to let old X-Men fans enjoy seeing some of the '70s characters like Banshee, Sebastian Shaw, and Havoc up on the screen, along with some newer (read: lesser) characters.