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‘X-Men: First Class’ review: Checkmate! McAvoy and Fassbender are super heroes

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play chess as Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr in "X-Men: First Class."
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play chess as Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr in "X-Men: First Class."
20th Century Fox photo

X-Men: First Class

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I love a good origin film and this — this is a good origin film.

“X-Men” is the Pixar of the action genre; it rarely misses. The four main films — “X-Men,” “X-Men 2,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men: First Class” — have all been good to great, never forgetting to add humor and heart to the special effects and ass kicking. The scripts are usually well written. The actors are usually well cast.

And, no, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” does not count. The secret in the sauce is never to focus too much on one character — especially angry rebels who are better off stealing scenes as supporting characters. (Anyone else worried about “Deadpool”?) Even two hours spent just on James McAvoy’s warm and witty Charles Xavier or Michael Fassbender’s brooding and magnetic Erik Lehnsherr would get old after a while. It’s meant to be an ensemble.

I’ve never read the “X-Men” comics so I was completely unfamiliar with the mutant world before seeing Bryan Singer’s fantastic film in 2000. I remember thinking it was ballsy as hell to open an action franchise with a scene from the Holocaust. Now that I’ve seen all of the films, those references definitely informed and elevated my viewing of “First Class.” The Holocaust. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Are they going to throw 9/11 in there someday?

I can’t imagine seeing “First Class” without the past films in my mental Rolodex. The story would still make sense, but it would lack the anticipation and foreboding of knowing how things will turn out. (Maybe that’s why so many people love reading “spoilers” for TV shows.)

I looked for Ian McKellen’s chilling blue eyes in Fassbender’s. (I also listened for one accent, but he didn’t seem ready to pick just one between British, Irish and even some American.) I found Patrick Stewart’s calm leadership in McAvoy. Both relatively young actors have great bromantic chemistry as well as the remarkable ability to create three-dimensional characters with limited time to do it.

Jennifer Lawrence is the new “It” girl for a reason. She brings a sexy but relatable sweetness to the insecure blue Raven, who eventually becomes Mystique. And, honestly, if I had to choose between following around McAvoy or Fassbender, I think I’d make the exact same call.

Not all of the supporting characters fare so well. Some of the young “X-Men” class seem cast more for looks than anything else (Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Banshee, looks like a hipster Ron Weasley and not anyone from the 1960s) and January Jones’ Emma Frost just reminds me of chilly Betty Draper. (It doesn’t help that her look is very ‘60s and a lot like Jones’ “Mad Men” character.) Kevin Bacon gets major props for acting in several languages, but he’s still Kevin Bacon and it’s hard for me to buy him as a badass villain like Sebastian Shaw.

Rose Byrne’s CIA agent Moira MacTaggert is the token human who hangs with the mutants and she’s also the tie into the bigger picture of U.S. vs. Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (We should’ve known mutants were involved in that!) But the role is kind of perfunctory and I was wondering what MacTaggert’s place was in the bigger picture of the “X-Men” universe. I just looked her up and they went off the reservation a bit with her story.

Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Kick-Ass") is the fourth director to take on the series, after Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood (for "Wolverine"). Unlike, say, the "Harry Potter" series, the films don't vary widely with each new director. The story and characters are paramount and — as with “Harry Potter,” “The Lord of the Rings” and other series I actually have read — whether they match the source material or not is less important to me than telling a good story. Go ahead and make it your own, just tell it well.

Overall, “First Class” tells its story well. It’s not a completely action-packed 132 minutes but the philosophical conversations add to the depth of the story instead of weighing it down. To me, it's the strongest film of the franchise to date. Is it as good as "Batman Begins" — a truly great origin story — or "The Dark Knight"? Close, but not quite. Still, I’m looking forward to Professor X and Magneto’s next chess match. (And I don't even care who wins.)

Gina Carbone wants someone to cast Michael Fassbender as Jon Hamm’s brother in something. Anything. She can be reached at opus619@gmail.com.

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