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There’s a scene early on in X-Men: First Class where one out mutant defiantly tells a closeted one that they should be “mutant and proud.” The garish aphorism is repeated near the end of the film, and in between we’re treated to a too cute by half reference to the US military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

Aside from these two uncharacteristic slipups, First Class’ execution is damn near perfect, every bit the taut amalgam of pulp social commentary and visceral action that X2 pulled off eight years ago and that the series has struggled to recapture since. That the few on the nose stumbles stick out so much is a testament to how deftly the rest of the movie spins its delightful revisionist take on how a bunch of genetic freaks in spandex helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.

See, it was the X-Men and not President Kennedy that jerked the world back from the brink of nuclear war in 1962, and it wasn’t even really that the Soviets were jonesing for a fight – they were manipulated and bullied by the Mengele-inspired Nazi doctor Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon.) And yes, an alternate take on a Cold War flashpoint with Kevin Bacon gnashing on scenery as the evil puppetmaster behind it all is as totally fucking ridiculous and awesome as it sounds.

Shaw’s a big proponent of mutant superiority, to the point where he wants to wipe out humanity in the fires of war and repopulate the earth exclusively with his own kind. He was also a big proponent of torturing little kids in concentration camps, an activity perhaps not quite so benign when the kid in question can manipulate magnetic fields and is now grown up and hunting down ex-Nazis Mossad-style.

As the future Magneto Michael Fassbender is the gift that keeps on giving stealing every scene he’s a part of. With his single-minded quest for vengeance belied by an inner anguish he makes one wish George Lucas could call for a do-over with his last two Star Wars prequels and cast Fassbender in the Anakin Skywalker role. He would’ve knocked it out of the park.

He’s matched by Jame McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, whose take on Professor X is one we’ve yet to see: sagely, but also impish and filled with idealistic naivete. The simmering Martin Luther King/Malcolm X-esque dynamic essayed by McAvoy and Fassbender does justice to that of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in the earlier films; both actors disinvite unflattering comparisons by never trying to directly ape their predecessors. Fassbender has Magneto’s rage but not his heartlessness. McAvoy shows Xavier’s compassion but lacks his world-weariness. They play these younger versions of the characters as still in their formative years, recognizable in whom they’ll grow to become but with a ways to go before they get there.

It’s these three actors and two dynamics (Magneto/Xavier and Magneto/Shaw) upon which First Class’ human element thrives. The other mutants, the team’s young guns are all likeable enough, though none save for Beast and Mystique are fleshed out much (though the movie’s weirdly metrosexual take on Riptide is… distinctive.) This is for the best; none of them is all that integral to the plot, and too much exposition would rob it of the same hurtling narrative momentum that was also X2’s hallmark. No, First Class is expertly paced, balancing its set pieces with involving character beats and a genuinely humorous sense of humor (pay attention, Iron Man.)

First Class delivers what every comic book movie should aspire to deliver: engaging characters in a high-stakes adventure with spectacle that’s actually spectacular. If there’s one moment in the film that embodies these qualities above all it comes during the Big End Setpiece, when Magneto rips Shaw’s submarine up from the ocean depths. Not only is the moment visually inspired, it’s emotionally engrossing because it’s earned, set up by an earlier scene where Xavier, seeing his (then) friend struggle to focus his power enough to move a satellite dish helps him to reach an inner calmness somewhere between anger and serenity, between pleasure and pain. He moves the dish.

It’s a wonderful scene. X-Men: First Class is a wonderful movie. It’s fun, funny, smart, self-aware (for the very most part) and recalls its influences without ripping them off (James Bond and The Boys From Brazil most notably.) It’s the rare summer blockbuster that does the genre proud. See it.

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