I’m not even going to hazard an assertion as to whether X-Men: First Class (Fox/Marvel Entertainment) is a reboot, a prequel, or a spinoff of the four- or five-part (depending if you count X-Men Origins: Wolverine) film franchise based on the Marvel comic. No matter what I say, some Marvel stickler will be mad about it. Suffice to say that the “first class” of the title refers not to the mutant superhero team’s preferred mode of air travel, but to the formation of its first graduating class. Appropriately for the season of its release, this is a graduation movie, but instead of caps and gowns, the seniors wear a mismatched array of shiny helmets, outsized prehensile feet, and royal-blue scaly skin.
As all self-respecting summer blockbusters should, X-Men: First Class begins at the gate of a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. A young boy, Erik Lensherr (Bill Milner), is being separated from his mother by SS guards. After demonstrating telekinetic powers—in his desperation, the boy bends a metal gate with his mind—Erik is brought before a sadistic Nazi officer (Kevin Bacon, whose first appearance on-screen gets a laugh from his sheer Baconitude). Very bad things ensue, eventually resulting in the adult Erik (played by Michael Fassbender) vowing to use his extraordinary powers to find and kill the officer, who is now operating as international supervillain Sebastian Shaw.
Meanwhile, on a lavish estate in upstate New York, a wealthy boy named Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) makes an astonishing discovery: A little girl with the ability to shape-shift appears in his kitchen. Charles, who was born with the ability to read minds, realizes he’s not the only kid on earth with a genetically mutated superpower, and the two grow up together as siblings.
The adult Charles (James McAvoy) becomes an Oxford prof specializing in genetic mutation—reason enough for him to be sought out by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who’s attempting to convince her agency higher-ups that supermutants are for real. The audience needs no convincing, once we’ve gotten a load of Emma Frost (January Jones), a James Bond-style villainess made entirely of crystal, and other freaks of nature including a stripper with wings, a goth-looking dude who uses smoke as a weapon, and someone whose superpower appears to be … being the devil?
That’s a lot to keep straight, and we haven’t yet gotten to the romance between Charles’ shape-shifting adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and a monkey-footed mutant science whiz (Nicholas Hoult). X-Men: First Class is so stuffed with subplots that even the action sequences contain cutaways to romantic contretemps: On the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, Raven takes some time to process her self-esteem issues.
This narrative multitasking slows the pace to a sometimes agonizing degree, but it also allows the director, Matthew Vaughn, the leisure to develop the movie’s only substantive relationship: the contentious friendship between touchy-feely Charles Xavier and steely, monomaniacal Erik. For a couple of superpowerful mutants nicknamed Professor X and Magneto, these guys are astonishingly emo. They play chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and debate the ethics of vengeance. They weep together over a shared recollection of Erik’s dead mother, then cheer when the recovered memory gives Erik the strength to move a satellite dish with his mind. These ludicrous but endearing moments of bro-bonding are all that sets this otherwise stock-issue superhero movie apart from its mass-produced brethren.
McAvoy and Fassbender, two smart, elegant heartthrobs who are usually more at home in a very different kind of literary adaptation, bring a frisson of intimacy to their scenes together. They don’t seem like lovers, exactly (though it’s not hard to imagine a Magneto/Professor X slashfic site springing up in this movie’s wake). They seem like good friends separated by a genuine ideological rift: Should mutants enlist themselves in the cause of serving humanity, or break away to form a militant separatist society? By the movie’s end, the ground has been laid for a worldwide man vs. mutant battle that will no doubt unfold in the next X-Men installment. May the best humanoid win—as long as Fassbender and McAvoy get another chance to shed their helmets, lock azure gazes, and cry.