Preaching mutant pride with endearing fervor, “X-Men: First Class” proves to be a mutant in its own right—a zestfully radical departure from the latter spawn of a sputtering franchise. This prequel draws new energy from supersmart casting, plus the shrewd notion of setting the beginnings of the X-Men saga in the early 1960s. That allows the youthful mindbenders, forcefielders and shapeshifters, along with their earnest Svengali, Charles Xavier, to reshape the Cold War. (Did you really think it was a Soviet blink that saved the world from nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis?) It also gives the filmmakers a chance to play with such stylistic signatures of the era as split screens, Rudi Gernreich-like clothes and the beginnings of James Bond extravagance.
The film, which was directed by Matthew Vaughn from a screenplay he wrote with Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman, begins these beginnings with a preface that takes place in a World War II concentration camp. There, a Mengele-like Nazi monster takes an interest in a Jewish boy with superpowers. No, not Einstein—he could have been an X-Man, but he was too old. This boy’s name is Erik Lensherr, and he grows up in no time flat to be played by one of the main strokes of casting genius, Michael Fassbender: Erik will become the epitome of weaponized fury known as Magneto.
That’s the fun of prequels, of course—getting to see who everyone was way back when. The most enjoyable revelations include James McAvoy as the telepathic Charles, touching his forefinger to his forehead and seeing deep into others’ brains; and Jennifer Lawrence as the blue-skinned Raven, a tender adolescent having lots of trouble in the area of self-acceptance. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately,” Charles tells her. “You’re awfully concerned with your looks.” Kevin Bacon makes a marvelously despicable villain, Sebastian Shaw: His superpowers barely fit beneath the umbrella of towering evil. Rose Byrne’s CIA agent, Dr. Moira MacTaggert, and January Jones’s Emma Frost, pop in and out of the proceedings to lesser effect, notwithstanding Ms. Byrne’s startling beauty and Emma’s diamond-faceted skin.
Getting to see what everyone can do is fun too, but only up to a point in a repetitive section devoted to recruitment and training. Training sequences always feel familiar, whether the recruits are learning hand-to-hand combat with bayonets or how to focus their flames and beams on various targets. An especially laggardly passage is set at a secret CIA installation, where too many mutants temporarily spoil the froth.