X-Men: First Class (12A/PG-13, 131 mins)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Bryan Singer kick-started the franchise in solid fashion before going on to the high-water mark of X2 and stepping aside for the somewhat anti-climactic Last Stand and the thudding futility of Wolverine, a failure because it existed only to cover already well-trodden ground.
There’s also the lingering whiff of Episodes I-III of Star Wars to provide a warning note that prequelising a beloved franchise is fraught with peril and can be, at best, pointless, and at worst guilty of tainting the memory of the very thing it’s trying to revive.
Praise the summer movie gods though, because X-Men: First Class manages, near as dammit, to avoid the obvious pitfalls inherent in trying to shoehorn a reverse engineered mythology to emerge as an immensely satisfying movie event that’s both rollicking fantasy blockbuster and deeply compelling character drama.
This prequel begins, as the very first film did, in a concentration camp in Poland in 1944. This is where young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) discovers that he has the power to move and control metal objects, which brings him to the attention of a Nazi scientist (Kevin Bacon) intent on harnessing this ability.
Zipping forward to 1962, the adult Erik (now played by Michael Fassbender) is still on the hunt for Bacon, who has reinvented himself as an arms dealer named Sebastian Shaw. Meanwhile, telepathic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just graduated as a professor of genetics at Oxford and is recruited to help CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), with the existence of mutants having only just come to the attention of the authorities.
This is a lot to get chucked at us in the early stages, but it’s done in a controlled manner that’s all about getting us to the first meeting of Charles and Erik, two of the most powerful mutants around, but with diametrically opposed philosophies.
The beating heart of the film is the relationship between Charles and Erik, referenced to noteworthy effect in the first film, where Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as avowed enemies Professor X and Magneto shared poignant scenes that hinted at the tragedy of their fractured friendship.
It needed a pair of tremendous actors following in the footsteps of Stewart and McKellen to make this work, and McAvoy and Fassbender prove themselves unerringly capable. McAvoy begins as smooth and charming but grows in gravitas as the film progress while Fassbender is simply mesmerising, seemingly getting better with each role and once again demonstrating that he was born to play James Bond.
With Charles driven by his belief in the goodness of mankind and his longing to help Erik, who is fuelled by anger and hatred from the start, it’s a powerful underpinning to several scenes of astonishing emotional impact.
So rich is the characterisation that it’s almost a shame to point out that probably the only thing preventing the movie soaring to a five star triumph is the feeling that just one key scene cementing Charles and Erik’s relationship is missing, that their eventual schism would be all the more heartbreaking if we were more fully able to believe in their friendship.
But that’s a minor niggle, and though Charles is recruiting young mutants in the fight against Shaw, it’s far more than just a teen spin on the X-Men world, which it only occasionally slips into when we’re with the youngsters for slightly too long a spell in the middle.
Setting it during the Cuban missile crisis yields fertile ground, with Shaw intent on starting World War III so that humanity destroys itself and mutants can become the dominant species. The analogous possibilities of this are endless; the rise of fascism, ethnic cleansing and homophobia - it’s all in there without being sledgehammered.
There’s a sensational cameo that shouldn’t be spoiled for you, a few nice in-jokes, and while it’s not all action there’s very little down-time. When the action does come it’s colossal and the result may well be the finest visit yet to the X-Men universe.