And it’s even a prequel, for chrissake. As creatively bankrupt as its immediate predecessor, 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” was, this one is a refreshing hit of the reset button. Just when you thought it might be time for the mutants to take a hiatus, this chapter reinvigorates ’em.
Cannily set in the Camelot era of 1960s America, the film follows not the start of mutants, but the genesis of the relationship between two of them: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, “Wanted”) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, “Inglourious Basterds”), later better-known as Professor X and Magneto. How did the best of friends become mortal enemies? Where did they round up all those muties? And how did the professor lose his ability to walk? All are answered in the movie’s epic scope.
“First Class” has nothing if not a lot on its plate, yet director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) skillfully exercises portion control, divvying up screen time among many characters and their stories. Kevin Bacon (“Super”) is great as the piece’s villain, with January Jones (TV’s “Mad Men”) at his beck and call as ice queen Emma Frost. She’s a terrible actress, but wears her barely-there costume well. Rose Byrne (having quite a year with this, “Insidious” and “Bridesmaids”) also makes quite an impression as an undercover government agent who sympathizes with Charles’ cause. Among the kids with extraordinary powers, Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) impresses most, acting years beyond her level of maturity. She is the real deal.
But the real star is the Oscar-worthy, mid-century-mod production design by Chris Seagers. Equal parts 007 sets and martini bars, the retro look of the film is a hefty ingredient in Vaughn’s recipe. Without it, “First Class” may as well have been subtitled “Parcel Post.” Naturally, the Blu-ray brings Seagers’ good things to light, better than theatrical projection did.
Compared to the previous “X-Men” chapters, this disc seems lacking in sheer number of extras. One spotlighted on the box, “Cerebro: Mutant Tracker,” is an interactive database of characters from the franchise; just click one to see a compilation of clips. You have to do a little work to unlock more, but it seems pointless to me. Putting the digital copy on your iPad takes less time and is more rewarding.
Strangely, the release’s most unique feature doesn’t work all that well. Buyers can redeem a code for 10 free digital “X-Men” comics from throughout Marvel’s long-running title, but instead of downloading to your desktop or mobile device, they’re accessible only via the Internet and only for a limited time. Some of them wouldn’t click open for me, and those that would took too long to load for my already dwindling patience.
However, I came here not to praise digi-comics (a concept I still can’t get behind), but the movie they’re promoting. It’s a bar-raiser for superhero cinema. —Rod Lott