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Originally published Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 6:28 AM

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Movie review

'X-Men' prequel is at the top of its class

A review of "X-Men: First Class," a successful chapter in the comic-book franchise, starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbinder, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones and more.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'X-Men: First Class,' with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Oliver Platt, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Zoë Kravitz, Jason Flemyng. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, from a screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Vaughn. 131 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity, and language. Several theaters.

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The best so far of this summer's sorry crop of franchise movies, "X-Men: First Class" takes us back to where it all began: It's 1962, the Cold War is raging, and a pair of young mutants become unlikely friends. The telepathic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), an academic and idealist later known as Professor X, saves the life of Erik Lehnshurr (Michael Fassbender), aka Magneto for his ability to control magnetism, an angry mutant haunted by horrific events of his childhood as he learned to harness his powers. Assembling a band of fellow mutants, they come together to fight a common enemy as the Cuban missile crisis plays out.

This sort of prequel is a tricky thing to pull off; we who've followed the "X-Men" saga on screen know that by the end, certain factions will be formed, certain characters will be forever altered, and somehow magically McAvoy and Fassbender will turn, respectively, into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. (Alas, we don't get to see that, though McAvoy does utter a perhaps too-prescient line about going bald.) So it's impressive that director Matthew Vaughn (who co-wrote the script with three other writers) maintains a nice sense of suspense throughout, as the mutants are assembled "Ocean's 11"-style and the film marches toward its inevitable conclusion.

And though "First Class" has its share of well-honed action sequences, it shines in the same way the previous films did: through fine casting (with one exception) and carefully crafted characters. Mc-

Avoy smoothly combines Charles' youthful self-absorption with a genuine sense of goodness; Fassbender (recently seen as Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre") as his counterpart shows a smooth, elegant nastiness waiting to be channeled. "Let's just say I'm Frankenstein's monster," he says, looking decoratively into the dusty light of an Argentina bar in which he confronts figures from his past. "I'm looking for my creator." (Everyone in this movie does have a tendency to pose as if they're in a fashion magazine; note how the young X-guys and -gals are always standing at attractively composed angles.)

Jennifer Lawrence brings genuine poignancy to Raven/Mystique (we listen as she chooses her mutant name, which is exactly the sort of name a dreamy teenage girl would pick), desperate to hide her true identity from a world that won't accept her; Nicholas Hoult is her charmingly geeky counterpart as Hank/Beast, as they indulge in a little mutant teen crush. (This includes a romantic scene involving blood and Twinkies, as well as the line "You have the most incredible cellular structure I've ever seen." Ah, young love.) Kevin Bacon hisses malevolently as villain Sebastian Shaw; Zoë Kravitz as Angel manages to look cute while spitting firebombs; and even a certain former X-star turns up, for a funny three-word cameo. The only disappointment in the ensemble is January Jones, who looks marvelous as the wicked Emma Frost but intones all of her lines with the same blank petulance that so suited her character on "Mad Men."

All in all, a fine return to form for a franchise that stumbled with "X3" and "Wolverine." "X-Men ... I sort of like the sound of that," muses McAvoy at the end. So do a lot of us.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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