The year is 1962, people; and in case you forget, here’s a bunch of mobsters and playboy bunnies listening to rock and roll. Holocaust survivor Erik Lehnsherr is on a quest to track down the man responsible for his mother’s death, a sinister mutant supremacist using the name Sebastian Shaw. Meanwhile, promising scientist Charles Xavier is at Oxford (background glimpses of the Sheldonian and Rad Cam sure to generate involuntary squealing) preparing his thesis on, you guessed it, mutation. He is approached by Moira MacTaggert, a CIA agent who has witnessed Shaw’s shenanigans first hand and begs Xavier to help stop Shaw from provoking a nuclear war between Russia and the US. With Xavier and Lehnsherr’s paths now fully intertwined, the two set about training a group of young mutants to avert global disaster.
After a few uncomfortably clunky scenes early on, the film really gets going once the set up is out of the way, tightening into a briskly-paced actioner with some nice nods to the comic mythology and to the previous films – one brief cameo will have any fanboy/girl melting into their chair with glee. McAvoy and Fassbender are fantastic in the leads, particularly McAvoy’s refreshingly cheeky characterisation of Charles Xavier, although we really needed more screentime to buy the deep friendship they are supposed to have. The Swingin’ 60s vibe is used with welcome self-restraint (Fassbender knows how to wear a turtleneck), with the exception of Shaw’s groovy villain submarine, rather too reminiscent of Austin Powers for my liking. Kevin Bacon is clearly loving the role, though, hamming it up like nobody’s business, and making Xavier’s bunch of earnest youngbloods look a little dull in comparison. Of these, the only standout is Nicholas Hoult doing a fabulous impression of Phoebe’s boyfriend David in Friends; but he gets slightly frittered away in a banal plot strand about accepting who you are, yadda yadda.
At one point, Erik Lehnsherr, soon to become infamous as Magneto, tells an anguished Mystique: ‘You want society to accept you, but you can’t even accept yourself.’. And if you miss that line, don’t worry, because there are about ten more practically identical scenes. Apparently paranoid that we might not get the message, the movie hammers the ‘Be yourself’ mantra into your head until your ears start to ring. So, subtlety may not really be X-Men: First Class’ strong suit, but be assured that its combination of pace, energy and two devastatingly assured lead performances make it one of the better summer blockbusters of the past few years.