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“X-Men” fans have certainly had reason to be more than wary about the prequel “First Class.”
Prequels in general can be an odds-defying gamble. The few that succeed (“Batman Begins”) can reinvigorate a franchise. But at their worst, they can be the film equivalent of your parents “friending” you on Facebook — it may spring from good intentions, but feels all kinds of wrong.
The road is littered with abominations spliced from superior cinematic genetics: the ill-planned “Star Wars” prequels, the ill-conceived “Hannibal Rising,” and the the just plain ill “Dumb and Dumberer.”
But fans of the “X-Men” saga suffered a recent sting of prequelitis with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009, and this was before the stench had yet to clear from the franchise’s tumescent third film, 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.”
When it was announced that the franchise was going to head back to the early years of the film world’s favorite mutants, I personally had visions of “X-Men” going the way of “The Muppet Babies,” and burrowing the franchise even further into oblivion in exchange for cashing in on the all-important youth market.
And while it can at times struggle to find its tone, “First Class” restores the “X-Men” name to the solid footing of the first two films.
Starting solemnly in a WWII concentration camp, the film (re)introduces us to a young Erik Lehnsherr (played by Michael Fassbender), the man who will become Magneto. At this time, we also witness the more-privileged upbringing of Charles Xavier (played by a charismatic James McAvoy), who is on his way to become a professor by studying, appropriately genetic abnormalities.
Their lives intersect at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with various mutants splintering off between using their hidden powers for good or for revenge. New names to the series include Sebastian Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon), a former Nazi who is the fuel for Megneto’s vengeance, diamond-skinned baddie Emma Frost (played by a lifeless January Jones), and the cacophonic Banshee (played by Caleb Landry Jones), among others.
By turning the clock back to 1962, director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) infuses the film with a retro feel straight out of a Cold War-era James Bond film, and the impending missile strikes grounds it in reality. The cast is all over the map in terms of acting, with McAvoy, Fassbender and Bacon representing at the top, to Jones, who grinds things to a halt in every scene she enters.
Vaughn demonstrates an obvious affection for the lore of the comic book on which it is based, and his action sequences soar — quite literally, at times, during a climactic missile launch. He also shows a firm grasp on the group dynamics and the melodrama that ensues, providing each lead ample room to share his or her initial grappling of their abilities.
The only time the true strain is felt is when the film tries to crochet in its various ties with the previous films, throwing bones to the devotees on the series. There are several throwaway connections scattered throughout. Some work well (hello, Hugh Jackman), but most land with a thud (do we really need bald jokes just yet and do we have to witness the division of Magneto and Xavier before the end credits?).
None of that, though, takes away from the film’s overall achievement of dusting off after its previous stumbles and proudly letting its roots show.