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Mutants, mad men & mods

After a close call with franchise death (diagnosis: anemia), the X-Men film series has bounced back to life with its fifth instalment, rescued with a straight injection of pop.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, X-Men: First Class reaches back to the early 1960s for an origin story of mutants, mad men and mods that takes some of its cues from James Bond and more than a few costumes from Austin Powers. Like Mad Men, this new X-Men indulges in period nostalgia as it gazes into the future, using the backdrop of the Cold War (and its turtlenecks) to explore how the past informs the present (while also blowing stuff up).

Like the first X-Men, this one opens in the 1940s in a Nazi concentration camp, where a young Erik Lehnsherr tries to destroy a metal gate that’s separated him from his parents with what appears to be the power of his mind and his anguish. It’s a futile endeavour, but one that attracts the attention of a tea-sipping sadist first called Dr Schmidt and later Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, enjoying himself), whose venality earns Erik’s wrath. His anger and Shaw’s evil drive a story that leaps from World War II to the Cold War when, as the United States and the Soviet Union play a rigged game of chicken, the adult Erik (Michael Fassbender) will brood across a chessboard at a future nemesis, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).

First Class relates how these dreamboats became the antagonists who were played by Ian McKellen (aka Magneto) and Patrick Stewart (Professor X) in the first films and, with the rest of the characters, were eventually swamped by ever noisier special effects. Written by Vaughn with a clutch of others, the new movie is lighter in tone and look than its predecessors, and appreciably less self-serious than those directed by Bryan Singer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also feels less personal, though Vaughn gets satisfying performances and copious tears, along with sex appeal, from his leading men. Vaughn doesn’t bring conviction to the story’s identity politics (say it loud, I’m mutant and I’m proud), but he gives Fassbender and McAvoy room to bring the brotherly love.

After parallel introductions of the young Erik and the young Charles (in Westchester County, where Charles is joined by Raven/Mystique, played as a teenager by Jennifer Lawrence), the scene shifts to 1962. A few cranks of the plot later, and assorted fiery and smoking-hot mutants with handles like Angel (Zoe Kravitz) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are soon walking on and flying over a world stage alongside Soviet generals, American men in black and Shaw, now fortified with superpowers and a cool number, Emma Frost (January Jones, sullen, bosomy). Vaughn, whose last movie was the modestly scaled Kick-Ass, keeps the mutants, locales and narrative elements from blurring together and sometimes gives the proceedings a nice jolt, as in a forcible tooth extraction seen from inside a gaping mouth.

The defining virtue of the first X-Men movies was the seriousness that Singer brought to this saga of mutants uneasily sharing fates and plotlines with humans. His signature unsmiling approach at times tipped into overkill, like cement shoes on a drowning bunny. Yet his moody lighting and characters also worked as a countervailing force to the camp that has often clung to comic-book movies ever since George Clooney ran amok in a Bat codpiece. Movies like the original X-Men turned the ethos that shaped what’s been called the Dark Age of comic books into blockbuster gold (Spider-Man and the rebooted Batman shortly followed) and fed harder-edged small flicks like Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, which push and pull between comic-book super-parody and super-solemnity.

X-Men: First Class is plenty serious, mostly in its ambitions for world box office domination. With its spy-on-spy globetrotting, old-fashioned villains (we’re back in the USSR for a few scenes), flirty but prematurely swinging minis and fan-boy bits (look for an eye-blink-fast tribute to Basic Instinct and a cameo from the cult actor Michael Ironside), the whole enterprise has an agreeable lightness, no small thing, given its rapidly moving parts. The weighty themes post-Holocaust defiance and post-Stonewall pride are still in play but less laboriously.

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