Much like the inventive 2009 "Star Trek" reboot that chronicled the early days of Spock and Kirk, "X-Men: First Class" goes back to the beginnings of "X-Men" when Professor X and Magneto first meet. Gifted scientist Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who, because of his own genetic make up, has a gift of telepathy, and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who, possesses the power to control magnetism when provoked, join together to stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). The powerful energy-absorbing mutant has hatched a plan to have mankind succumb to its own demise so mutants can take over the world.
The imaginative story is set in the 1960s at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, and uses real historical events fused with fiction to heighten the tension. In "X-Men: First Class," Shaw has figured out a way to escalate the Cold War crisis to trigger an all-out war.
Setting the film in the 1960s also lends the atmosphere a bit of James Bond mystique. It's the dawn of the Space Age -- no cell phones, no 21st century high-tech gadgetry, just submarines and super powers. There are other themes from the era that are fascinatingly interwoven including human themes of Civil Rights. Here the question of man's equality creates audience sympathy for the mutants, outcasts who are feared and hated because they are different. It's also a bit of a tribute that the film is set in the 1960s -- the Marvel Comics series was first created in 1963 by Stan Lee with Jack Kirby.
Of course, what's most intriguing in this Part One is how the X-Men came to be the X-Men. How did Professor X end up in a wheelchair? And how did X and Magneto become archenemies? Those of you who aren't concerned about these burning questions can just enjoy the magnificent effects and the mastery of the story.
Fassbender as the headstrong Erik is the focal point of the film. "X-Men: First Class" introduces Erik with a scene that opened the original "X-Men." He's a youngster held at the Auschwitz concentration camp in the 1940s and has been separated from his parents. "First Class" takes the opening a step further with the evil Dr. Schmidt pushing Erik to the limit so that the boy's strong mental powers become a force to be reckoned with.
The film moves forward 20 years later, where Erik is out to seek revenge for what he had endured at the hands of Dr. Schmidt. One of the best scenes (reminiscent of "Marathon Man") is when Erik visits someone who may know the whereabouts of Schmidt, but in order to make the man spill his secrets he must use his magnetic powers to do a bit of dental work on the gentleman.
"X-Men: First Class" also introduces other heroes and villains (and villainesses), some from past "X-Men" films and others primarily from the pages of the comic books. Here, we meet some new recruits as teenagers: Blue-skinned Mystique, a changeling who can appear as her human self, Raven, or assume the appearance of anyone else, has been taken under the wing of Charles. In the original film trilogy, she is played by Rebecca Romijn, part of Magneto's Brotherhood. Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence from last year's "Winter's Bone" plays the young Mystique with an innocent charm.
There's also the big-footed Hank (Nicholas Hoult), whose secret to how he became Beast is revealed; Alex Summers (Lukas Till), aka Havok, who emits super-heated energy waves; Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones looking an awful lot like Harry Potter's Ron Weasley), aka Banshee, whose unique sonic blasts carry him into flight; and Armondo Munoz (Edi Gathegi), aka Darwin, who is able to adapt to any situation or environment. Zoe Kravitz (musician Lenny Kravitz's daughter) plays Angel, who sports an insect-like tattoo on her back that actually sprouts real wings, which enable her to fly.
Shaw's Hellfire Club villains and villainesses include Shaw's right-hand woman, Emma Frost, played by a seductive January ("Mad Men") Jones; the demonic Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and the tornado creating Riptide (Alex Gonzalez). So where's Wolverine? Now that's a surprise.
"X"philes will rejoice that the franchise is back in full force after a slump while anyone out for a little fun will herald this super, superhero extravaganza that kicks off the summer movie season with a resounding bang.