Unlike most superhero/comic book movies, there’s an overabundance of story in “X-Men: First Class. There are points in its 132-minute running time when it feels far more like an epic miniseries than a summer blockbuster. It’s surprisingly willing to downplay its big action sequences in order to focus on character development; the action is there, but it just doesn’t feel terribly important.
And yet, for the most part, “First Class” doesn’t feel overstuffed and rushed, or overlong and talky. There are a lot of characters to introduce after all, though director Michael Vaughn wisely capitalizes on the fact that we’ve met most of them before, and so already know a little about their personalities. (This film has been talked about as a reboot; but there’s no reason it can’t function as a prequel to the existing films. Issues of aging are mostly handled by making aging not an issue for the mutants involved.) Of course there’s Charles Xavier and Magneto (played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) and Mystique is back, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who actually allows the character to speak; the film never explains how she becomes mute by the later film; the fact that Rebecca Romijn-Stamos played her may be reason enough. We also meet, for the first time, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy, Zoe Kravitz as Angel and Lucas Till as Alex Summers, among others.
They’re all angsty teenagers with abilites/mutations that make them freaks/superheroes, and this has always been the hallmark of the X-Men franchise; it’s about waking up one morning and discovering you’re different from everyone else in the world. “First Class” plays those themes in a way that may be overly familiar; the debates that go on in this film were awfully similar to the ones in the first film, with not much new added. At times, it feels like actors are just trading places, with James McAvoy stepping in for Patrick Stewart, arguing for peace and reconciliation, while Kevin Bacon plays Ian McKellen, insisiting that mutants are better and mankind is coming to an evolutionary end.
Speaking of Bacon, he leads the bad guys as Sebastien Shaw, a former Nazi who killed Magneto’s mother and thoroughly warped him into the villain he’s destined to become. And, much as in the first film, he’s flanked by mutant cronies who are quite deadly but don’t talk much. (One of them, red-skinned, quick as a cat, reminded me too much of Darth Maul.) The primary one — and the only one with actual lines — is Emma Frost, a telepath who can turn herself to diamond, though that ability doesn’t seem particularly useful. Bacon and January Jones seem borrowed from a Bond movie actually from the sixties; their world-domination plot is appropriately ridiculous, and Jones is as stiff and sexual as a Bond girl/villain. There’s a scene where she undresses and gets it on with a Russian dignitary, or at least a projected image of her does (she’s a telepath, BTW) while she sits and watches, disconnected, disinterested. This seems to be Jones’ approach to the entire film, and from what I’ve seen, to acting in general. Bacon, though, is excellent, playing his villian with lots of whispers and creepy closeness. He’s clearly having fun, and it’s fun to watch him.
“X-Men: First Class” stretches out like a serial comic book, knowing when to ramp up the tension momentarily, when to let things stretch out, and, ultimately, how to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a great revamp for the “X-men” franchise, an entertaining and energetic film that reinterests us in characters that had grown stale and maudlin in the last few films. It’s clearly a setup for more sequels, and leaves me interested to see where things are going next.