This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
X-Men: First Class, the fifth entry in the venerable superhero-movie franchise (and the second effort at a prequel) is a definite step up from the last two offerings, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It isn’t aggressively stupid, and the pacing won’t give one a headache. Most of the film is set in 1962, and the viewer is introduced to the leaders of the rival superhuman factions (played in the earlier installments by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) when they were young men. James McAvoy plays the Stewart character; Michael Fassbender takes over from McKellen. The film charts the development of their friendship, their short-lived alliance, and the conflicts that drove them apart. They also get to train a new group of young superheroes. It’s all in preparation for a showdown with a super-powered ex-Nazi (Kevin Bacon) who manipulates the Cuban Missile Crisis in a plot to take over the world. Director Matthew Vaughn and the gaggle of screenwriters have made a moderately entertaining adventure movie. But the film is a far cry from the first two pictures, both helmed by Bryan Singer. It lacks the poetic storytelling and well-developed character ensemble that gave the Singer-directed installments their distinction. Most of the supporting characters are ciphers--they’re a collection of powers, not personalities--and Vaughn’s half-hearted efforts at using metonymy and other tropes to advance the narrative are clumsy. His judgment in other areas is questionable is well, particularly with the film’s cavalier sexism and the smug, campy performance turned in by Kevin Bacon. But the one thing he gets unquestionably right is the handling of the Michael Fassbender character. Ian McKellen’s droll megalomaniac is reimagined as a Byronic figure. Fassbender plays him with remarkable intensity and charisma. He's the best reason to continue the franchise. The large cast also includes Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, and in a hilarious cameo, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.