‘X-Men: First Class’ on HBO Max and HBO Now

X-Men: First Class (2011) is both a reboot and a prequel to the big screen comic book series about a team of mutant superheroes with new, younger models of the series elders Charles “Professor X” Xavier (James McAvoy as a flirtatious, precocious incarnation of Patrick Stewart’s more professorial figure) and Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, bringing a dark anger to the part created by Ian McKellan). Call it a pre-boot.

Though it opens in World War II, the story proper unfolds in the early sixties. Future enemies Charles and Erik are initially friends and colleagues, bonded by a dedication to protect others of their kind as they build the first incarnation of the mutant superteam to take on a Nazi war criminal turned supervillain (Kevin Bacon as the arrogant Sebastian Shaw) with a plot to take the world. Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Okay, it’s not really that cheesy and its sixties setting and sleek retro-designs gives it the zing of an early Bond film. I’d like to say that the casting of Mad Men‘s January Jones as the icy Emma Frost adds to the atmosphere but she does little more than model fetish gear and strike dramatic poses with all the humor and engagement of a mannequin.

Rose Byrne is better as the FBI agent who scouts out Xavier (who uses genetic observations as pick-up lines) and tries to protect the team from a nervous government sweating out Cold War tensions heated up by Sebastian Shaw’s political interference and Jennifer Lawrence is superb as the young blue-skinned shape-changer Mystique, trying to reconcile her identity crisis with Xavier’s sometimes oblivious idealism.

Not to oversell the film, but it’s what makes First Class hum as well as it does. The conflicts of the contemporary X-Men films are all defined here—from the complicated relationship between Charles and Erik to the wary relationship to the human race (by the end of the film, it’s hard not to agree with Erik that the humans have declared war on mutantkind)—with equal parts comic book philosophy and pop psychology. And, of course, some really big special effects. Matthew Vaughn, who previously dropped out of X-Men: Last Stand, helps make up for (inadvertently) leaving Brett Ratner to complete the original trilogy by bringing a snappy sleekness to this one. While it never reaches the intelligence or character richness of the first two X-Men films, it’s still a superior superhero spectacle.

Rated PG-13

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Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Fandango, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
X-Men: First Class [Blu-ray]
X-Men: First Class [4K UHD]
X-Men: First Class [DVD]

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There are no supplements on the DVD but the Blu-ray includes the eight-part behind-the-scenes featurette “Children of the Atom,” two interactive featurettes, extended and deleted Scenes, and an isolated score among the supplements.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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