Despite still pulling in powerful revenue, the X-Men movie franchise has been in a critically dire place for a long time now. The Last Stand was enough to oust director Brett Ratner from the helm while Origins: Wolverine was more or less panned outright. So, the original 2000 adaptation's director Bryan Singer got to come back on board as a producer for First Class with director Matthew Vaughn and go the prequel route, which has resulted in a fun if formless summer blockbuster anchored by a couple standout performances. Plainly, in X-Men: First Class there's a lot of story to tell and not much time to tell it, so the film basically doesn't. But what it lacks in depth or characterization, it more than makes up in a handful of thrilling action sequences.
First Class starts, appropriately enough, in the exact same place as the first film. We meet a young Erik Lencher, a Jewish boy being rounded up with his family in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. As he's wrenched away from his mother, he uses his emergent mutant powers to bend the gates of the camp, which gets the attention of a German scientist named Schultz (Kevin Bacon). After various tortures and indignities, Schultz creates a vengeful adversary in Erik and sets him on the path to become the iconic villain Magneto.
Meanwhile, a young and still able-bodied Charles Xavier makes friends with a mutant girl named Raven, soon to be shape-shifter Mystique, and gets recruited by the CIA to help them track a band of rogue mutants who are trying to start a war with the USSR. With the help of Hank "Beast" McCoy and a secret government facility, Xavier, Lencher and some civilian mutants go about training to stop the rogues before the world is consumed by nuclear war.
As always, fans of the comics will enjoy a fair amount of winking references to familiar characters from Stan Lee's expansive universe of heroes, villains and also-rans, but those looking to get to know most of the mutant characters in First Class will be disappointed. Really only Xavier, Lencher, Raven and Hank get actual personalities and even then only Lencher gets a real backstory. As a result, Michael Fassbender brings a depth to the soon-to-be Magneto that veers a little closer to the conflicted character of the comics than Ian McKellen's fun but flat villain from the first three movies.
Movie-goers will certainly get a ticket's worth of impressive visuals and strong action sequences in First Class. The boffo finale surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis is everything the previews promised and more, giving each of the principle characters something to do and couching the stakes in big, truly scary events. It's a fun ride and the script (mercifully) doesn't try too hard to remind us that the story takes place in the 60's. X-Men: First Class is popcorn, but it also doesn't seem to aspire to be much more than that.