First, a little history.
It was Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) that more or less heralded the massive superhero movie renaissance we're currently enjoying (or mired in, depending on your tastes), and while it was hardly the first or even the best superhero flick ever made, X-Men showed that these "ultra-geeky" properties could be turned into wide-appeal blockbusters that'd tickle the fans while amusing the newcomers -- and in this game, you have to bring in the newcomers. As ardent as the comic book fans are, they're not enough to turn a $200 million-budgeted film into a global sensation. And the race was off. Various studios jockeyed for a widely disparate and colorful group of heroes to call their own. Marvel is the king of the hill, but DC is certainly no slouch in the department of universally-admired characters.
Between July 14, 2000 and June 3, 2011 we've received five X-Men films, three Spider-Mans, three Blades, two Hulks, two Batmans, two Iron Mans, two Fantastic Fours, two Hellboys, two Punishers, a Superman, a Thor, a Ghost Rider, an Elektra, a Daredevil, a Catwoman, a Green Hornet, a Spirit, a Jonah Hex, a Constantine, and all of those crazy Watchmen. (And my research reminds me that the first Blade film predates the first X-Men movie, and so that flick also deserves some credit for getting this ball rolling.) Bottom line: what used to be the exclusive domain of Willis and Stallone is now the land of superheroics. Frequent advancements in special effects can be thanked for the technology, but it's filmmakers like Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau, and Guillermo del Toro who should be thanked for bringing the child-like fun of comic book panels to the justifiably demanding movie crowds.
The X-Men franchise has had a lot of ups and downs, starting with the highs of the first two unexpectedly smart films, suffering through a clunky third chapter and a truly insipid prequel about one of the squad's most popular members -- and after the dire state of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, even the hardcore X-fans may have been ready to put this series out to pasture. Fox and Marvel had other ideas, logically, and happily the result is one of the slickest, slyest, and freshest superhero adventures in quite some time. Thanks in large part to director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass), this weekend's X-Men: First Class is easily the best installment since X2 ... and maybe the very best of the franchise so far.
As you could probably tell from the title, we're back in "prequel" territory once again. First Class isn't exactly a "reboot," so "prequel" is what we'll go with. It doesn't really matter, truth be told, as the new flick works just as well on its own as it does a part of the films that came earlier. Which is to say that, yep, old-school X-Men fans will find a whole lot to like, and the generally disinterested parents who get dragged out to see First Class may find themselves pleasantly surprised with the flick, even if they wouldn't know Professor X from Lex Luthor. As a guy who knows a little about the X-Men history and a lot about their cinematic exploits, I can safely opine that X-Men: First Class is a grade-A summertime popcorn machine that revs on all cylinders: action, character, wit, and even a welcome degree of warmth and intelligence.
At its core, X-Men: First Class is about the early, colorful and ultimately tragic friendship between Dr. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbinder), and I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that these guys ultimately turn into Professor X (serious good guy) and Magneto (no-nonsense pro-mutant bad guy). But since First Class is also an origin story of the team itself, we'll naturally get a young bunch of new mutants called Banshee, Angel, and Havoc -- as well as youthful versions of old favorites Mystique and Beast, oh and a sexy telepath chick who can turn into diamonds! She's called Emma Frost, and she works for the outrageously evil Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, having a ball!), and they're the ones who give X-Men: First Class its third and rather delicious plot thread: suffice to say that this mega-mutated super-villain aims to kick-start a nuclear war between the United States and the USSR. All he has to do is get some nuclear weapons planted on Cuban soil...
Wait, what's that? You didn't know that the latest X-Men adventure was a mid-'60s period piece / alternate reality fantasy in which the Cuban Missile Crisis plays a pivotal role? Heck yes it is, and that's merely the icing on the cake. "1960s period piece" combined with "X-Men movie" may inspire horrible thoughts of kitschy dialogue and over-the-top production design ... but nope. Director Matthew Vaughn, his three screenwriters, and his various "world creators" do a great job of presenting an alternate version of 1963 that's just enough comic book and just enough reality. This seems like a risky approach to take for a superhero flick, but that just makes the success of the piece even more impressive. X-Men: First Class may not be the very best film in the franchise, but it's absolutely the movie the series needed now: a fresh spark of novelty, a welcome dose of gravity, an unmistakable air of affection for the source material, and a desperately-needed touch of humanity.
Fox is duly forgiven for Wolverine. As long as I never have to watch it again.