‘X-Men’ franchise returns to form with ‘First Class’

That elusive "X" factor may be tough to define, but you know it when you see it — and "X-Men: First Class" definitely has it.

That’s good news for a once-shining Marvel Comics franchise that showed definite signs of decay once the second sequel ("X-Men: The Last Stand") and first spinoff ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine") hit screens in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

"First Class" turns out to be even more of an origin story than "Wolverine" was, tracing how the telepathic Charles Xavier becomes the idealistic Professor X — and how Erik Lensherr’s childhood traumas in a Nazi concentration camp inspire his transformation into the malevolent, metal-bending Magneto.

"First Class" also demonstrates something of a mutant identity all its own, blending familiar comic book details with the feel, and trappings, of early James Bond movies. (That makes perfect sense, considering this movie takes place during the Cold War era, when 007 himself made his big-screen debut.)

A prologue introduces our "First Class" heroes as youngsters, contrasting Xavier’s lonely existence as a child of privilege with the horrors Lensherr endures at the hands of a fiendish Nazi doctor (gleefully nasty Kevin Bacon) who’s eager to explore his own mutant powers — and young Erik’s.

Flash forward a few decades, to the early ’60s. The studious Xavier (James McAvoy) has emerged as an authority on genetic mutations — including his own, and those of his shape-shifting friend, Raven ("Winter’s Bone" Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence).

As for Lensherr ("Inglourious Basterds’ " Michael Fassbender), he’s become a globe-trotting Nazi hunter, determined to track down his childhood tormentor. Who, naturally, has morphed into Sebastian Shaw, an international mystery man intent on world domination. Shaw would be a perfect Bond villain — if only Ernst Stavro Blofeld hadn’t gotten there first. (If you’re from the "Austin Powers" generation, think Dr. Evil.)

Shaw’s even got a Bond girl to keep him company: the icily fetching Emma Frost ("Mad Men’s" January Jones), who’s as good at reading minds as Xavier is. If only her intentions were as good.

But Lensherr’s not the only one on to Shaw’s machinations. Intrepid CIA agent Moira MacTaggert ("Bridesmaids’ " Rose Byrne) stumbles upon one of his hideouts — an ultra-private Las Vegas lair, appropriately named the Hellfire Club, where he hatches a plan to heat up the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. After all, a nuclear war will leave him free to lead mutant survivors of what will destroy the "normal" part of the human race.

Naturally, MacTaggart needs more information on mutants to get to the bottom of things. Which in turn leads her to a leading expert on genetic mutation: one Charles Xavier, who winds up as a CIA consultant — and ultimately joins forces with Lensherr to recruit fellow mutants who will lead the fight for truth, justice and the American way. (Oops, wrong comic book franchise.)

Raven’s in, of course. So is young scientific genius Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), otherwise known as Beast. There’s Angel (Zoe Kravitz), who can breathe fire — and fly. Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), with his ear-splitting wails, is a solo sonar system, while Havoc (Lucas Till) creates exactly that when he aims his wild bolts of energy.

If they can harness their disparate powers, they might be able to defuse the inevitable nuclear showdown . To say nothing of the equally inevitable clashes between Lensherr and Shaw — and Lensherr and Xavier.

With a story by Sheldon Turner ("Up in the Air") and original "X-Men" director Bryan Singer and a screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz ("Thor"), director Matthew Vaughn and "Kick-Ass" co-writer Jane Goldman (whew!), "First Class" easily could have fallen victim to dreaded too-many-cooks script syndrome.

Yet Vaughn and his collaborators keep things rolling, shifting smoothly between settings and characters — and neatly sorting out various elements, and characters, as the movie sets up its dominoes before toppling them in controlled bursts of action.

If anything, "First Class" seems so intent on maintaining momentum that it sacrifices some of the intriguing subtext that always has set the "X-Men" movies apart. Just as "Superman" flies, in part, on the conflict between the title character’s dual identities as alien and down-to-earth reporter, so "X-Men" gains gravity with its focus on its "different" characters, some of whom want a mutants-only existence, while others strive for a place alongside "normal" humans.

It’s the great debate that ultimately divides Professor X and Magneto. Yet "First Class" doesn’t make much room for it — which seems a shame, considering how well the earnest, brainy McAvoy and the intense, brawny Fassbender embody their contrasting roles.

They’re far more compelling than their younger counterparts, who seem too contemporary for a movie set during the Cuban missile crisis. Sorry, folks, but "whatever" wasn’t teenage slang during the Kennedy administration, women didn’t wear miniskirts and men didn’t sport long sideburns.

Still, I suppose it’s foolish to expect verisimilitude in a comic book movie — especially one as entertaining as this proves to be.

Besides, they’ll have other chances to get it right, now that "X-Men: First Class" has regained its mojo — or, more accurately, its "X" factor.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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