First reaction: ‘X-Men: First Class’ offers sleek, smart superhero thrills

I am happier overall with “X-Men: First Class” than with any other film released so far in the “X-Men” franchise at Fox.  And I suspect that when I see it again before my full review, I may find even more to like about it.  Right now, I’m still sort of in shock at how much of it works, and how ambitious the entire thing is.

I’ll have a full review of the film closer to release, and in that, I might get a little spoilery.  But my first impressions of the film are so strong that I want to share the big points without spoiling anything for you.  First, there’s the style of the world, the way the mutants are built into reality, and I think one of the things that makes this such a success is the confidence that’s part of every choice made by Matthew Vaughn and his creative team.  The film is set in the ’40s and the ’60s, and while I wouldn’t call it realistic, I think the impressionistic take it offers on period is even more fun than if they did it as complete realism.  The powers are so matter of fact, so much a part of the world, that it never feels like the film stops to show off.  “Hey, look, this guy teleports!”  Well, no duh.  That’s the sort of movie this is.  People teleport.  The film just takes that as a given, and so action scenes erupt without too much labored exposition or set-up.  We learn how things work as the film needs us to, and not before.  Characters are still discovering their own abilities, still learning how the world around them works.

Michael Fassbender emerges from this one a movie star, no doubt about it.  He’s a great Erik, a great nascent Magneto.  He spends the first third of the movie auditioning for James Bond, and as far as I’m concerned, he can have the job whenever Daniel Craig’s done with it.  He is a hunter, his powers turned to one effort for his whole life.  There’s someone he wants to find, someone he wants to kill.  When he finally crosses paths with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), he’s a raw nerve, totally unable to imagine trusting anyone, never even imagining that there might be more people like him in the world.  Xavier is already hard at work trying to find a way to incorporate mutant society into the mainstream, and he’s starting to make real headway.  He’s working with Moira McTaggert of the CIA (Rose Byrne), which is what puts him in the right place at the right time to meet Erik.  It’s not some cute little wink and a nod, either.  Like the rest of the film, the stakes are high in that first meeting.  There is an urgency to everything these people do that makes this feel like a more significant story than the average comic book movie.

In fact, there’s nothing that I would really call “average” about this.  It uses your expectations about the genre to set you up one way, then time and again, reaches for something a little bit more perverse or a little bit more eccentric or a little bit more heartfelt.  “X-Men: First Class” is almost desperately sincere, and I mean that in a good way.  Everyone in the film plays it like they’re holding nothing back.  Jennifer Lawrence, for example, is just as dedicated here as Raven, the blue shape-shifting mutant who has lived as a sort of pseudo-sister to Charles since childhood, as she has been in any of the indie films she’s done so far.  The way relationships evolve in this film is particularly heartbreaking, because it makes later configurations of people resonate in different ways.  You look at who’s hanging out with who in Singer’s “X-Men” films now, and it hurts.  Nicolas Hoult has been carving out a very strong career for himself since “About A Boy,” and he turns the difficult-and-potentially-ridiculous role of Hank McCoy into something touching and smart.

I like the way history folds into the movie and it is clever without being annoying.  It all makes nice thematic sense, and I think it’s well utilized.  I was afraid it was going to be very “Forrest Gump,” but it’s actually pretty simple and direct.  I think Sebastien Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is a pretty tremendous bad guy, and the way he pushes Charles and Erik to further define their own moral codes makes him more than just This Movie’s Magic Power.  He’s not “just” a bad guy.  He is, in essence, the thing that forces Charles and Erik to figure out who they really are.  January Jones doesn’t have much to do as Emma Frost, but she wears the heck out of some costumes.

Between Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz, this has not been an easy birth, but I am happy to report that it is a successful one.  And this isn’t a case of managed expectations, either.  “X-Men: First Class” is a genuinely good movie, not just a good superhero movie.  Big and bold and aggressively told, it feels to me like this is the first film in a brand-new franchise, and even the few very wicked and enjoyable references to Singer’s films that are hidden in this one don’t tie it down.  This is ground zero, and I think Fox just got it right, really right, in a way I can’t say it feels like they have on any of their Marvel films so far.  With the right support, and with this film’s key creative team onboard, a sequel to this could well be the “X-Men” epic we’ve been waiting for since day one.

For now, this is one hell of a start.

“X-Men: First Class” will be in theaters June 3, 2011.