X-Men: First Class ★★★★½

Is "X-Men: First Class" a prequel to or a reboot of an established franchise? A little of both, actually. It also happens to be one of the best and most engaging superhero origin movies yet.

The film is set primarily in 1962 and tells the story of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender): how they became who they are, their relationship with each other, and the creation of the X-Men group of mutants. The two first meet after Xavier is asked by CIA officer Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to help the agency track down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is scheming to start World War III in order for the mutants to rule the world. Xavier and Lensherr become friends and start to recruit other mutants in an attempt to defeat Shaw. Already on their team are Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who is Xavier’s foster sister, and scientist Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). But in contrast to Xavier’s diplomatic approach regarding the mutants’ place in society, Lensherr has a more aggressive view on the issue, and friction grows between the two friends.

Working from a screenplay written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and himself, director Matthew Vaughn delivers a superhero movie with real dramatic weight. The films about the X-Men are inherently films about outsiders, individuals who feel isolated or are even ostracized from society because they are unalterably different, endowed with superhuman powers and abilities. Parallels to the situation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people can easily be drawn. In that regard, this movie is no exception.

"X-Men: First Class" also touches on timely topics such as the false dichotomy between freedom and security. Additionally, it’s interesting to note how the film ties in with real-life politics, as the Cuban Missile Crisis plays an important role in the story. The movie occasionally takes on the nature of a political thriller, and the filmmakers have captured the period details very well. And a delightfully surprising cameo by a certain somebody directly connects this film with the preceding entries in the franchise.

The movie is slightly hampered by the same thing that virtually all origin stories have to deal with: time and effort have to be spent on set-up. Relatedly, the young mutant recruits show their abilities to one another and come up with their superhero names in a rather formulaic, somewhat campy scene.

On the other hand, the action sequences in general and the climax in particular raise the pulse and are just as tense and exciting as one could have hoped for. Lensherr’s two moments of triumph in the last act are so viscerally powerful that they gave me goosebumps.

The ensemble cast is stellar. McAvoy succeeds in getting under the skin of Charles Xavier and makes the character his own, instead of trying to imitate Patrick Stewart’s performance in the same role in the previous installments. Erik Lensherr is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and complex characters in the X-Men universe thanks to both his special ability and his personality, and Fassbender gives a standout performance in the part. Furthermore, McAvoy and Fassbender have great chemistry together. I was a little hesitant about Bacon at first, but he turns out to be solid in the role of the sufficiently well-rounded villain.

Film editors Eddie Hamilton and Lee Smith keep the pace up for most of the time, and the 132-minute running time passes by quite pleasantly. Henry Jackman’s terrific music score provides the proceedings with additional energy.

With potent drama, relatable characters, resonant themes, and visual flair, "X-Men: First Class" reinvigorates the franchise. The X-Men deserve to be made more relevant in today’s cinematic landscape, and this movie pulls it off with flying colors.