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The X-Men... again

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POSTED June 3, 2011 1:04 a.m.

It used to be a blockbuster movie franchise got a reboot every decade or so, but with audience attention span obviously dropping to virtually nil, what’s here today is ...well, back today.

A brand-new Spiderman will be swinging into theaters a scant five years after the Tobey Maguire starring series. The Hulk has been reincarnated with three different actors since ‘03. And there’s already talk of who will play James Bond after Daniel Craig. No doubt, a hip new take on Harry Potter with a hip hop Hogwarts is in the offering soon.

Which brings us to X-Men: First Class.

After snorefests X-Men: Last Stand and the Wolverine spinoff, the original template for the modern super hero movie is shaking the dust off. No, it doesn’t reach the heights of 2003’s X2, but this prequel is a stylish, sophisticated new take on the super hero team of mutants (humans born with special powers) hated and feared by the same humanity they have sworn to protect.

Hurtling back in time to 1963 (the year the X-Men comic was first published), we witness the group’s genesis with mind-reading leader Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) – not yet a member of the Hair Club For Men nor sporting his trademark wheelchair – recruited alongside a handful of other mutants by the CIA to stop Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw and his cadre of evil mutants from starting World War 3.

A memorable line from the original X-Men movie poked fun at the “yellow and blue spandex” favored in the comic book source material, but this team has no qualms of sporting the costumes in all their Day-Glo grooviness alongside enough retro accoutrements to rival Mad Men (incidentally Men’s January Jones stars as the lingerie-clad villain White Queen).

And dropping the story smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights era, leaves director Matthew Vaughn and the screenwriters plenty of opportunities to embrace the social critique always inherent in the X-Men mythology.

The kicker this time around though is the good guys number among them, Magneto, the X-Men’s Number One nemesis, but at this stage still pondering a job career that doesn’t involve human subjugation. When both American and Russian navies put aside their differences and set their targets on the heroic but “different” mutants, you begin to wonder if Magneto’s eventual turn to the dark side isn’t such a bad idea.

Even though audiences are familiar with the X-Men Universe, we’re still dealing with is an origin movie, and such skirts the typical pitfalls. Too much time is given over to exposition, when you’d rather just see some mutant on mutant whup-ass. And with so many characters (literally) flying across the screen, the film spreads itself a little thin in giving all the leads enough time to shine.

Michael Fassbender is a star in the making as Magneto, but First Class is lacking the knockout performance Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine gave to the earlier films. Everyone’s favorite clawed Canadian is sorely missed in his familiar starring role.

Still, these are minor qualms. First Class definitely does justice to both the comic book and the films which have preceded it while striking its own unique pose. The movie is sure to be one of the summer’s biggest hits satisfying both the fickle geek fan base and your average theatre seater – no small accomplishment in a season hemorrhaging with cinematic derring-do. Three stars out of four.

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