*X-Men: First Class (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
"Best comic book movie evah!"
So my inner fangirl screams. Meanwhile, my rational brain glares upon her with indulgent pity: "Of course X-Men: First Class isn't the best anything ever. It's just a very well-done example of a genre that most often gets by on the generosity of its audience."
My inner fangirl sneers back: "Pfffttt!"
Like other great, recent comic films, First Class embraces its inherent cheesiness as a complement to, not a distraction from, its profundity. It is so gloriously itself and treats its characters with such wonderful admiration that you utterly and instinctively sympathize with them. Who wouldn't want to be a mutant, even given the abuse they suffer at the hands of "normal" society?
It's been nine years since the bitingly trenchant X2: X-Men United smacked us with its metaphors for a terrorized, terrified nation facing a seemingly unknowable enemy. First Class feels like the other bookend on the post-9/11 decade, for even though it rewinds the X-Men franchise to the 1960s, it couldn't be more pertinent to today.
A mutant baddie, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, never more villainous), is attempting to manufacture a nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union, in order to wipe out the "normal" humans and create more posthumans like him.
The exact year? 1962. Yup: This is the "real" story of the Cuban missile crisis, and that alone makes this a deliciously odd tale tinged with satire, placing First Class somewhere in an alternate realm just to the right of reality, at the intersection between Dr. Strangelove and an Oliver Stone conspiracy fantasy.
And boy, is it swank. Director Matthew Vaughn has given us an X-Men movie that's less like his superhero sendup Kick-Ass and more like his elegant crime drama Layer Cake. This is a groovy, cinematically iconic 1960s that's stylish, snazzy and effortlessly cool in attitude. It could almost be a lost early James Bond flick.
Shaw is a particularly Bond-like villain, with his destroy-the-world ambitions and his bevy of beautiful lady sidekicks. January Jones as Emma Frost doesn't have a lot to do beyond looking gorgeous in her white bikinis and diamond-hard mutant body shield, but she does that well.
The heart of the movie is the push and pull between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, excellent as always), who can read minds and control the thoughts of others, and Erik Lehnsherr (the riveting Michael Fassbender), who can make metal do his bidding. We saw, in the first X-Men movie, the endpoint of their relationship, at which they are bitter enemies on either side of a hard line, divided over how best to interact with unmutated humans: Lehnsherr, then called Magneto, sees violent conflict as the only option, while Xavier wants to work peacefully together. Here, we witness the beginning of their powerful friendship and complementary working partnership. Though they are in contention instantly and we know where they'll end up, the film manages to avoid the feeling of inevitability that comes with prequels and preordained endings.
For all its heaviness, First Class is a film that's sweet, funny and pleasingly fast-paced. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, Charles' adopted sister and a shapeshifting mutant, is delightful, particularly when she begins to enjoy a "normal" teen crush experience with another mutant, Hank (Nicholas Hoult). There are also some hilarious and just-right cameos.
It's not Shakespeare — silly inner fangirl — but, as breezy, thoughtful summer comic-book movies go, it's damn close.