Kick-Ass, in which the choice to put on a mask and fight crime had as much weight the paper the source material graphic novel was printed on. The detailing of Vaughn to the venerable X-Men franchise seems an unlikely choice, given that the saga of mutants fighting for and with humanity hasn't exactly left much room for irony. X-Men: First Class purports to be the group's origin story, and returning to the material's early-1960's roots is welcome change from the usual superhero mayhem in anonymous big cities. I had a little trouble imagining James McAvoy as Charles "Professor X" Xavier turning into the Buddha-like presence that Patrick Stewart provided in the original trilogy, but it's fun to see Xavier as a young man on the make using his powers to pick up women. The telepathic Xavier learns he's not the only mutant after a childhood encounter with the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who's considerably more uptight about her differences since she's forced to constantly conceal her true form. The poignancy of Mystique's situation gets some needed fleshing out here thanks to Lawrence's unshowy work; the character actually transcends the action-figure Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) that Bryan Singer created in his X-Men films.
But what of the series' great theme, the conflict between Xavier's desire for coexistence with humanity and the conviction of Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) that humans will rise up against what they don't understand. Fassbender is wonderful as the man destined to become Magneto; he plays the arc of the character coming to grips with his own powers perfectly and is more man than superman until the story resolves itself amidst the chaos of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The choice to revisit Lehnsherr's childhood in the concentration camps was a good one; the Nazi experiments carried out on Lehnsherr by the cruel Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) are the inciting incident in Lehnsherr's belief that people will always fear what's different. Much time is spent on the recruitment and training of a squad of young mutants, most notably Nicholas Hoult as the scientist who will become Beast. These scenes are nimbly played and feel comfortable; we're rooting for these kids and this troupe of appealing young actors. I wish I felt the same about the storyline around Shaw and his attempt to facilitate a nuclear war. Shaw's world is where the movie's production design lets down, his submarine is too glitzy in a bad, Bond-villain kind of way and Bacon plays the role like a bored playboy. January Jones has been receiving all kinds of heat for her turn as the telepathic, diamond-morphing Emma Frost, and while the performance is surprising for its stiffness and unsexiness I can't fault Jones entirely. There is nothing on the page for Jones' character, and like all the movie's women except for Lawrence and Rose Byrne (as CIA agent Moira McTaggart) she's only there to move the story.
X-Men: First Class is ungainly at times, and I don't know that it was entirely necessary. Yet there is more than enough that's good here to warrant a return to this part of the X-Men universe. What role might Xavier play in the Civil Rights Movement, and what was Magneto doing during Vietnam? We're in for a run of big, loud superhero movies at least through 2012, though I have hopes for Captain America. First Class is a sober and thoughtful palate cleanser with just the right amount of mutant spirit.