Two years later, director Matthew Vaughn, fresh off nerd cred from making the adaptation of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass comic book, is tackling a reboot of the X-Men franchise that throws out the continuity of the other films in the hopes of starting a new trilogy during the origins of the X-Men. Taking place in the 1960s, the film traces the origins of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Leshnerr (Magneto) when they were actually allies, not enemies, as they form the original X-Men. The result is a staggering breath of fresh air, the likes of which haven't been seen since Batman Begins.
I'm on the record of being a fan of Vaughn's crime thriller Layer Cake, but really loathed Kick-Ass. But X-Men: First Class is such an intelligent, taught, slick return to form that I am completely ready to forgive him for his previous film. His direction here is incredibly assured and stylish, pumping new blood into a franchise all but headed for the morgue. Like Nolan did for Batman, Vaughn does the impossible and makes X-Men feel fresh, relevant, and exciting again.
Perhaps the film's biggest triumph is the casting of James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Leshnerr, and how it handles the Martin Luther King Jr/Malcom X relationship between the two. The two actors have such great chemistry and play off one another so well that their friendship never rings false for even a moment. The best scenes in the film are without question the ones between them. In particular, there is a moment during the time when the mutants are all training where Xavier helps Erik unlock power he didn't know he was capable of, but through compassion, not pain and anger. Rage has driven Erik all these years and helped him harness his abilities to an extent, but only through calming his mind and focusing on that center between rage and serenity is he able to acheive what he is capable of. It's a beautiful moment that is elevated due to a powerhouse performance from Michael Fassbender. Fassbender really emerges as the true star of the film and as its emotional center. There is something to be said about a film and a performance that makes you truly feel something and empathize with a character who later in life becomes something of a genocidal madman.
The rest of the cast is no slouch either. If there's one thing the film gets absolutely right, it's casting. X-Men films, by nature, are large, ensemble driven films, and this is a great ensemble. By that same token, not every single character will get equal time for character development, but those who do really shine. Jennifer Lawrence is sexy and vulnerable as Mystique, Nicolas Hoult is perfectly nerdy and angsty as Hank McCoy aka Beast. Kevin Bacon is something of a mini-revelation as Sebastian Shaw. Shaw is a character not many unfamiliar with the X-Men mythos will have heard of, but he's such a fascinating and compelling villain that one can't help but love just how evil he really is. Kevin Bacon plays up the villainy and coolness of the character with such ease that it's mesmerizing.
On the spectacle side of things, the film is so beautifully choreographed and directed that one can't help but be in awe of just how well the action scenes play out. The final battle is epic and directed nearly to perfection, never outstaying it's welcome or becoming numbing, with plenty of moments that will leave you wow'ed. But this is because we actually care about the fate of the characters. Like the best of the franchise before it, X-Men: First Class succeeds because it focuses on character over spectacle, but never forgets to have great spectacle as the icing on top. But were it not for the fantastic emotional center of the film, it would just be empty and dull. Who knew Magneto lifting a submarine out of the ocean could have such heartfelt emotional impact? You've seen the money shot I'm talking about in the trailers, but nothing can prepare you for just how epic and beautiful it is on screen and in context.
The X-Men are finally astonishing again. Between Matthew Vaughn's slick direction, the strong script & emotionally invested story, fantastic action, and a perfect cast led by a star-making turn from Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class joins the ranks of Batman Begins as a reboot that returns a franchise to it's roots, while establishing new and exciting ground. I haven't been this excited for a sequel since the end of Batman Begins 6 years ago. Long live the X-Men.