There's a specific feeling I get only when watching a blockbuster film that's working, a feeling almost like vertigo, being lifted out of my seat by the power of special effects and pounding score and explosions that are used really, really well. There are a lot of moments like that in X-Men: First Class, a rousing and full-throated adventure that's technically a comic book movie but influemced by everything from battleship war films to 60s-era James Bond. Even with a script that sometimes loses its grip on subplots and sells short more than a few characters, it's exactly what a comic book movie ought to be, full of energy and wit and actors who seem to know exactly how much fun it is to be a superhero.
If there's any magic ingredient that makes X-Men: First Class, a notoriously rushed and sloppy production, it's the dynamite chemistry between James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, playing telepath Charles Xavier and magnet-powered Erik Lensherr in the early, ambitious days of their partnership. We meet each of them briefly as children, Charles growing up privileged in Westchester and taking in a fellow mutant girl (Raven, a.k.a. Mystique, played later by Jennifer Lawrence), and Erik suffering in a Poland concentration camp. The two finally meet in the early 60s, after a spectacular and fiery action sequence, and discover that they are fighting a common villain: Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), another mutant who has gathered an underground group called the Hellfire Club and is bent on wreaking global nuclear havoc. Strait-laced Charles has teamed up with the CIA to avert this disaster, while feral and angry Erik hunts Shaw alone for far more personal reasons; despite their reservations Erik and Charles agree to team up, recruiting any other mutants they can find and building the only army capable of stopping Shaw.
McAvoy and Fassbender are the undeniable center of X-Men: First Class, the push-pull relationship between Charles's logic and Erik's paranoia boiled down to a friendship between two men who know they need each other. It helps to have seen this relationship crumble into fierce rivalry, as played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Bryan Singer's X-Men films, but Fassbender and McAvoy so fully inhabit their characters that you don't really need it; you get what they see in each other, just as you get that this relationship can never hold. But the group vibe that's such a highlight in the original X-Men films is present here too, largely among the younger mutants who build a quick rapport at the encouragement of Raven, who soon dubs herself Mystique and helps come up with nicknames for all the other new recruits. Charles doesn't seem that interested in being known as Professor X, but Erik is clearly intrigued by the intimidating potential of Magneto.
Matthew Vaughn, adapting beautifully to the zippy adventure style, directs in a way that reflects the contrast between Charles's optimism and Erik's darker impulses; the action is entirely bloodless and almost always spectacular, but scenes with Erik and especially Shaw and his cronies are shot with the kind of shiny, cynical zing very familiar from Vaughn's last film Kick Ass. Shaw comes very close to becoming a campy villain, holing up under an iceberg in his mod submarine with his fashion plate sidekick Emma Frost (an appropriately frozen January Jones), but both Vaughn and Bacon nail his undercurrent of real menace, and between him and Erik you understand how problematic and maybe impossible Charles's dream of a utopian mutant-human future may be.
There are tons of hints sprinkled throughout about the future for these mutants that we've already seen, from jokes about Xavier's hair to some very well-placed cameos, but X-Men: First Class never suffers the kind of turgid explication that crippled the Wolverine movie; Vaughn and his bevy of fellow screenwriters knit these characters so well into the real world that you don't need to know Beast from Banshee to understand their motivations. That's a rare, rare thing in comic book movies, particularly when elsewhere in the Marvel movie universe every film seems to be geared not toward its own characters, but toward a larger mythology that requires hours of research to understand. Though it is certainly the kickoff of a new franchise, and lugs around a story more sprawling than it needed to be, X-Men: First Class feels spry and self-contained, a blast of colorful and passionate enthusiasm with just enough weight to matter. It feels phenomenal to have these mutants back.