'X-Men: First Class': Early adventures in the days of JFK
Finally, the Cuban missile crisis explained.
Toward the maelstrom climax of X-Men: First Class - set in 1962, with President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev squaring off in a nightmare game of nuclear chicken - the truth about what really happened off the southern tip of Florida is revealed. The dramatic action sheds a whole new light on those dread-filled days that October, when the world looked like it would be covered in mushroom clouds - and for that, director Matthew Vaughn and his team should be thanked. Of course, history books will have to be rewritten, but, hey, that's life.
This was also the time, it should be noted, when James Bond was combing nearby Caribbean waters for Dr. No, and, in fact, it looks as though Vaughn went combing through early 007 films, too, to come up with the look and style of X-Men: First Class. Jennifer Lawrence, the hoodied Ozarks girl of Winter's Bone, in miniskirts and go-go boots? Yup. Michael Fassbender, brooding Rochester in the new Jane Eyre, in mod turtlenecks and sideburns? Check.
An elaborate origins story with more datelines than an issue of Condé Nast Traveler (Oxford! Miami! Argentina! Poland!), X-Men: First Class has some fun trying to explain how Professor X, Magneto, and all those mopey mutants came to be. It's a mess of backstory to contend with: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is graduating from Oxford, a budding, brainy geneticist who picks up babes by complimenting them on their "groovy" genomes. Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender) is a concentration camp survivor determined to track down the Nazi sicko who exploited his magnetic mind powers. Kevin Bacon, an evil gleam in his eye and a Berlitz class worth of German in his mouth, plays Sebastian Shaw, the sinister Teuton. Sending millions of Jews to their death only whetted this guy's appetite for destruction.
And there's Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue-skinned beauty who becomes Mystique; and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), the science whiz who becomes Beast; and Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), whose sonic scream gives him the moniker Banshee, and January Jones, all vintage va-va-va-voom as a telepath. (She's pneumatic and psionic.) Not to mention Azazel and Riptide and Angel, whom we won't mention.
As prequels go, then, X-Men: First Class has its hands full. Oliver Platt and Rose Byrne show up (the latter in lingerie, to blend in with a bevy of lap-dancing call girls) as CIA agents trying to figure out what's up with these weirdos - and to help with the exposition. For a time, Vaughn - who seemed considerably less encumbered with his previous superhero outing, Kick-Ass - keeps things afloat. McAvoy and Fassbender are serious actors, and seem to be having a serious good time inhabiting these extraordinary Marvel Comics creations. But there's just so much you can do with lines like "You're not alone, Eric, you're not alone" and "the president's about to make his address!" before you get sucked into the vortex.