Pearl S Buck once said, "If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday." And that is exactly what the makers of X-Men: First Class endeavour to do in this prequel to the X-Men series - a trip down memory lane that explains the lives, beliefs and relationships that made Professor X and Magneto the men they are.
Circa 1944. When young Erik Lehnsherr's (Bill Milner) mother is separated from him at a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, he expresses his anger and helplessness by bending the metal gate. Quick to recognise a gift, scientist Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) recruits the young boy.
In New York, a young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) discovers the destitute shape-shifter, Raven, (Morgan Lily) in the kitchen of his family's mansion. The telepathic Charles immediately adopts her as his sister.
Circa 1962. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is an embittered young man seeking revenge for the death of his mother. Dr. Schmidt is now Sebastian Shaw, the President of the Hellfire Club, hell-bent on taking over the world.
Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is on his way to becoming a Professor at Oxford, England. His foster-sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is his only friend.
They have one thing in common - they are all mutants, possessing individual superpowers as a result of their defective genes. And there are others, as they discover on their journey to cause or avert (depending on which side they are on) a major crisis that could lead to World War III.
As Matthew Vaughn has candidly admitted in interviews, he hopes X-Men: First Class will do for X-Men what Batman Begins
did for the Batman movies. It does. And unlike the other movies in the X-Men series, the characters of this movie are neither too black nor white. For the first time, you empathise with Magneto, even when he mouths villainous dialogues like "Peace was never an option". Michael Fassbender portrays Magneto splendidly, with an apt balance of malevolence and vulnerability. Watch out for the scene where he unlocks a forgotten memory.
Professor X has always been the morally-upright leader, but before he was confined to the wheelchair, he was a ladies' man, and also a bit confused about his role in the Universe. Nobody else but James McAvoy, with his blue eyes and boyish charms, could have brought this character alive, with such intense conviction.
Kevin Bacon, with his upturned nose and deep dimples, is the perfect villain. Nothing fazes him. When the filmmakers tell you that Sebastian Shaw is the man responsible for the crisis that almost led to a face-off between USA and the USSR, it seems plausible. Largely because Bacon pulls off the role with tremendous flamboyance.
Mystique is one of the deadliest mutants in all the X-Men movies, but Jennifer Lawrence plays the role of a vamp-in-progress with Ã©lan, highlighting the anxiety and lack of confidence of a young girl who is worried about her appearance and tries her best to conform to society's norms.
January Jones plays Emma Frost, or The White Queen, the unconventional femme fatale. Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira MacTaggert has the least to do, and is almost invisible. Oliver Platt as a CIA agent is wasted.
According to the director, the production design was inspired by the James Bond movies of the era - secret chambers, large levers, stylish costumes and exotic locales, to name a few elements. Never over-the-top, the cinematography is par excellence.
The script is near-flawless, as is its execution. There is never a dull moment. Besides the broader storyline, sub-plots such as how the Beast (Nicholas Hoult) came to be, why Mystique worships Magneto, and how Magneto acquired his headgear, make X-Men: First Class a must-watch, bringing to life the famous quote by Norman Cousins - "History is a vast early warning system".