x-Men: First Class is a preboot in the spirit—if not quite the quality—of J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek. (A “preboot” is a prequel reboot, FYI. I did not make that up.) Just as Abrams brought a fresh breath of mixing-things-the-fuck-up to Star Trek, so Matthew Vaughn (director of Kick-Ass) has lovingly torn up and recombinated X-Men. Case in point: There’s actually an X-Men: First Class comic series, and Vaughn claims he’s never read it. When asked about the series and concerns about his lack of faithfulness to it, he said, “I didn’t give a shit, to be honest.” And also, probably, “In your face, nerds.”
But whether by default or design, X-Men: First Class somehow manages to get a shitload right in recapturing the feel of the original X-Men—a very 1960s series, built on themes of prejudice, racism, and teen alienation. If you can forget the thousand or so violations of X-Men canon here (Charles Xavier was bald even as a young man; he set up his school in Westchester, New York, not England; Mystique and Xavier weren’t quasi-siblings; etc., etc., mother-fucking ETCETERA), it’s hard not to love the beauteous ’60s-ness of Vaughn’s creation. The music, the clothes, the furniture, the go-go dancing, everything.
Vaughn even calls X-Men: First Class his “Bond meets X-Men” movie, and he’s basically got two Bonds here: James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is Roger Moore, the sweeter and nerdier Bond (bordering on Austin Powers at times, as he picks up “coeds” with a repeated line about their “groovy mutations”), and Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr (aka, later, Magneto) is a trim, stylish, and steely Sean Connery, an international man of ass-kicking. The tension and budding brotherhood between the two gives the movie a fairly convincing center.
But in a twist on the superhero genre, X-Men: First Class actually starts to get crappier after—not during—the exposition: The first hour or so is a lot of fun, with some light, fast-paced globetrotting and cloak-and-daggering. A pouty, sweet-but-troubled Jennifer Lawrence is the proto-Mystique, unrecognizable from her thin desperation in Winter’s Bone. January Jones as Emma Frost—apparently cast primarily for her abs and white-leather-clad butt, judging by the camerawork—is once again perfect at capturing cold, dim haughtiness.
Unfortunately, eventually X-Men: First Class is forced to actually, you know, advance a narrative—in this case, a patched-together alt-history in which an evil mutant (Nazi Kevin Bacon!) somehow (I’m still trying to figure this out) instigates the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with archival JFK newsreel—and as the plot holes begin to multiply, the action gets more formulaic and disjointed.
In the cinematic firmament of X-Men movies, X-Men: First Class probably doesn’t glow quite as bright as the first two, but it’s certainly better than anything since. So what to do if you are a liker of X-Men movies? You should definitely go—because for all of Vaughn’s bluster and his spaghetti of continuity, fans will find some very cool and funny nods to the comics and even the other movies. Here’s hoping the obviously set-up preboosequel is even better.