X-Men: First Class Review

What do get when you mix great visual effects and action, an established set of well-known and loved set of characters played by a well-balanced cast that includes both established heavyweights and enthusiastic newcomers, a plot that takes well-placed liberties with history, and a very good director testing the waters outside of his small-budget action film genre for the first time?

The honest to God answer is one of the best superhero movies of all time.

X-Men: First Class has been met with its fair share of criticism since it was announced a couple of years ago. Most fans were disappointed by the last two X-Men projects. Both The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine were somewhat convoluted projects that neglected the character development and connection to a well-established set of Marvel characters that made X1 and X2 such memorable movies. Directors Bret Ratner and Gavin Hood decided to forget everything Bryan Singer had done for the franchise before them, instead taking pages from the likes of Michael Bay, focusing on action and explosions first, and the characters and plot second.

In X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn takes the best of both worlds and puts on film a movie that stands up with the best of its predecessors in the superhero genre, and one that unravels the messes of its predecessors, blurring the line between "prequel" and "reboot".

I'm sure it's fairly obvious, but in case you didn't know, X-Men: First Class retells the origins of the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants, two opposite but intertwined group of mutants led by Professor Xavier (James McAvoy - Atonement, Wanted) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender - Band of Brothers, 300), and the story of how the two went from best friends to mortal enemies, all for having different solutions for the same issue.

The film also re-introduces us to well-known mutants such as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone) and Beast (Nicholas Holt - Skins), but also gives proper back stories to characters we haven't seen much of - if anything at all - in prior X-Men movies, such as Emma Frost (January Jones - Mad Men), Angel (Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones - Friday Night Lights). Add to this cast the non-mutant Dr. Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne - Damages, Bridesmaids), The Man In Black (Oliver Platt), and an epic villain in Sebastian Shaw (played by the incomparable Kevin Bacon), and the result is a well-rounded cast.

As you can probably tell from the names listed above, the acting may be the weak point of the film - I'm looking at you, half-naked January Jones - but the right actors get the right amount of screen-time, something that's well-managed by the director and writers.

As for the story, like any "origins" story, plot tends to take somewhat of a backseat to character development. It's more important to the franchise to tell us why Magneto is such a prick, and how Professor X and Mystique become the people we know them to be. But a near-perfect 1960s backdrop allow, once again, for a good balance between the two elements. The film takes some liberties with established historical events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, but doesn't turn them into outlandish action spectacles like prior projects of a certain director named above. X-Men has always been about the alteration and evolution of mankind throughout history, so it's seems almost fitting that they'd take a stab at an actual historical event. And like any superhero movie before it, it tends to run a little longer than what most people would like. I get that you need to cool down all the characters, but the 3 or 4 false finishes tend to get a little annoying.

In terms of visual effects, for the most part, they're hits. The mutants look great, the scenery in the action scenes well done, this is really a strong-suit of the film. If I had one complaint, it would be how Beast looks when he transforms, but hey, you can't win them all. Also, some people have complained about the costumes the X-Men wear during the 3rd act action sequence, but consider it an Easter Egg to the X-Men comics (and there are plenty of Easter Eggs for fans in the film, including a couple of great cameos).

But as mentioned above, the real treat in this film is the acting. Yes, you'll have the "weaker" (albeit appropriate) performances from the likes of January Jones, but this is really Michael Fassbender's and James McAvoy's film, and they both own it. It's about them, and it's about their characters struggles. Everyone else in the film just enhances this, including great performances from Rose Byrne, who's truly breaking out this year, and Kevin Bacon, who couldn't be in enough films if he tried.

Nearly everything about this film just works. The action and effects work. The plot works. The characters and the actors playing them all work well. It's definitely not the perfect movie, but then again, no one's perfect, and that's sort of one of the themes of the X-Men franchise. The end result is an incredibly fun movie with a solid plot that will leave fans of the series, both hardcore and casual, happy and wanting more.

This is definitely one of the year's best films so far, and definitely deserves your money and your attention, more than some of the crapfest action films we've come accustomed to. You can tell that everyone involved with this project actually tried to make something worth watching, and the balance is near perfect.

X-Men: First Class received a "freshly popped" score of 9 out of 10 from Better With Popcorn.