Having missed Bryan Singer's X-Men when it released in cinemas in 2000, I have tried (and failed) repeatedly to watch the first film in the Marvel Comics-inspired trilogy; never getting much further than about an hour in each time. Try as I might, I just can't engage with the mutants-versus-mutants-versus-humans struggle which is at the centre of these films. That's odd, because I'm convinced the adolescent me would have loved it. Damn you, adulthood!
X-Men:First Class is a prequel to that trilogy, an origin story of how some of the characters from the trilogy came to be, and an explanation for the animosity between the two factions of mutants, led in the future by Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, respectively, in the trilogy).
I had hoped that First Class would provide the opportunity to re-engage with the films from a new angle. And the early signs were promising, beginning with the cast: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult and January Jones. Unfortunately, the problem I had with the original X-Men (a failure to engage – admittedly, not entirely the film's fault), hampered my enjoyment of First Class.
Which is not to say that it is a bad film. I'm sure fans and non-fans of the X-Men will enjoy director Matthew Vaughn's (of Kick-Ass fame) origins story, where most of the action unfolds in 1962-63 and a world more concerned with US-Soviet aggression (the Cuban missile crisis is adopted as a major plot point) than the emergence of mutants. Or rather, humans the next step up the evolutionary ladder, as Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) believes them, including himself, a powerful telepath, to be.
Xavier and his proxy sister, Raven (Lawrence, fresh from an Oscar nod but under used here), are enlisted by Agent Moira MacTaggert (Byrne) and the CIA when she stumbles upon the existence of mutants during a stakeout of suspected communist spies; Moira finding Xavier when she goes in search of a genetics expert to explain what she's just uncovered.
Those communist-sympathising mutants are led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is determined to bring about World War III and mutually assured destruction for the human race. Traversing the globe in his submarine, Shaw has the whiff of a bond villain, an impression not helped by January Jones as Shaw's brassieres-as-outer wear right hand girl, Emma Frost. A telepath with a diamond-encrusted defence mechanism, Jones' Frost comes off more like an Austin Powers parody of a Bond villainess (though to be fair, the costume and production design of First Class are wonderfully retro and shiny shiny).
Also in search of Shaw is Erik Lehnsherr (a terrific Fassbender), a survivor of the Nazi death camps and in possession of the power to bend metal to his will (hence his moniker Magneto). Erik teams up with Xavier and his group of young yet keen mutant recruits to bring down Shaw, but it's these two alpha males' differing opinions of human nature and the place of mutants in human society which will drive a wedge between them.
Given that X-Men: First Class ends some 30 years prior to the first X-Men film, we can assume there will be at least one more sequel (probably two, since all franchises inexplicably must be trilogies), and perhaps it will expand and advance upon this competent set-up in much the same way X-Men 2 (X2) is widely considered to have done for its predecessor.
I'll leave it up to the fans to decide where this film ranks in the X-Men's cinematic oeuvre, which I guess must include Wolverine (2009), a film I have had the misfortune of watching from beginning to end (and there's going to be a sequel - eek!). But in a year flooded with superhero films, First Class is, thus far, ahead of the bell curve.