Matthew Vaughn kicks some life back into the X-men franchise with this superbly written, directed and acted adventure. In addition to restoring a sense of subtext to the premise (missing since X2), the film is a thrilling, intelligent blockbuster.
It's 1962, and Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is recruited by US Agent MacTaggart (Byrne) to explore how the CIA can benefit from mutant humans. The telepathic Charles grew up with shapeshifting Raven (Lawrence), and they start assembling a team. A key partner is metal-manipulator Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender), who's set on revenge against energy-absorbing Shaw (Bacon), who killed his mother in a Nazi war camp and has powers of his own. And now Shaw has his own mutant team (Jones, Flemyng and Gonzalez) and is sparking a nuclear war between the USA and the USSR.
Reinterpreting the Cuban Missile Crisis in this universe is a stroke of genius that raises this film far above most comic book movies. Not only does it position these characters as players in history, but it gives the story gravitas that organically integrates each action sequence into the plot. In other words, this is proper storytelling, with vivid characters who shift and grow over the course of the film, and a chain of events that flow into a riveting final act.
The film also looks really cool, with terrific effects work that never overwhelms the characters. The climactic Cuban stand-off sequence is seriously thrilling, because we know these characters by now and watching them working together (and against each other) is both intense and involving. Meanwhile, the plot stirs in some provocative observations on both evolution and civilisation.
The film is anchored by terrific turns from McAvoy and Fassbender, who add personality details into every line. Of the mutant team, Lawrence shines as the most complex character, while Till and Jones (as Charles' allies Havok and Banshee) are the most fun to watch. There's also an inspired stream of surprise cameos. In other words, this is the kind of movie you never want to end. Let's hope they keep this standard up for the next one.