Sitting at a varsity bar has never been easy for a genius. With most of his prey either dimwitted or drunk, the temptation to break into routine -- to talk about his own condition while masking it with a clever wink, an in-joke meant purely to amuse himself -- is irresistible. It's hard not to second-guess someone when you are, shall we say, better informed.
A younger Martin Luther King Jr, more aware than his peers, might well have faced the same urge, and his comic-book counterpart Charles Xavier succumbs thus, not just to flirting but also cheating at it.
It is this thoughtful and fully-fleshed insight into often-neglected sides of a character that marks out Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, an immaculately sculpted and highly potent mix of several, several origin stories that manages to both introduce and reacquaint while keeping things constantly both thick and tasty. If superhero movies were drinks, this one's a backstory milkshake. Mmm.
And while that would be enough in itself, Vaughn aims for more. Never a director to skimp on style, he slathers it on lovingly. Self-assured and very well-performed sequences are cut globetrottingly, with the finely-tailored obvious efficiency of a Sean Connery waistcoat. The brunt of action takes place in the 1960s, with the Hellfire Club aiming for a nuclear world-wipe.
The humour is mostly dark, cruel or, at its best, teasing. And an incredibly jawdropping femme fatale wears what appears to be a diamond bra -- before she turns into diamond herself. No, this film also certainly has a martini side, albeit one both stirred and shaken. Dirty, even.
And now that -- thanks to fine masters Guillermo Del Toro and Christopher Nolan and the rascally Robert Rodriguez -- we do make superhero films with clearly grown-up sensibilities, it's interesting to see Vaughn fold some Tarantino into his mix. This film borrows more than a leading man from Inglourious Basterds, using subtitled scenes with menacing brutality, barely concealed action-movie timebombs ticking just behind the slightly SMERSH accents.
The film's standout achievement though -- wit and sly references and comic-book innuendo aside -- is its pace. Vaughn has always been a gifted filmmaker, but he surpasses himself with the sheer elegant consistency of this film's narrative, striking a gorgeous balance between setpieces and slow-motion, between brooding moments and frenetic bursts of action.
Even the finest of superhero films have troughs in the storytelling, inevitabilities that threaten to deflate the excitement before a great scene comes along and we gladly throw out the ballast to watch the film soar again. Not so here. Thanks perhaps to some critically quick scenes coupled with a baker's dozen of intriguing, fresh characters, this film hardly ever flags. The pacing truly is extraordinary.
James McAvoy, he of the eternally pursed lips, plays Xavier with just the right amount of commonsensical good-nature, pragmatism overtaken by optimism as he believes in the world getting along. He's sincere and earnest and the man you would rely on to captain your side, but the charm rests strongly on the other side.
Michael Fassbender plays Erik Lensherr, the Malcolm X in this equation, a man with a brutalised past gunning for revenge and more. Not just is this radical viewpoint easier to buy into than Xavier's hopeful one, but the film subverts the good/evil equation even further by making the extremist a far sexier character. Magnetic, truly.
Ah, and the mutants. There's the lovely Jennifer Lawrence playing a young Mystique with pluck and pout well in place, the fascinating shapeshifter getting comfortable with her own skin. There's Nicholas Hoult as the suitably endearing Dr Hank McCoy, the articulate scientist who eventually becomes Beast.
There's Jason Flemyng's visually striking scarlet teleporter Azazel, right out of a nightmare. There are a bunch of young ones we only see briefly -- and some in very, very cool cameos -- but each makes an impact.
None more, of course, than the sometimes diamond-skinned Emma Frost, played by January Jones and making men around the world instantly hate Don Draper. Stunning, mesmeric and cold as crystal, she's the stuff of unconcealed fantasy. Go ahead, swoon.
Kevin Bacon is an inspired choice as villain, playing his Sebastian Shaw with unruffled ruthlessness. While as an evil German scientist at a concentration camp or a man steering America and Russia into the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bacon delivers a thick, hammy performance its hard not to get seduced and, crucially, irritated by.
More a Bond baddie than the cosmic supervillain the X-Men would normally face, Shaw's the right choice for this film where he matters less than Charles and Erik and their formative decisions, figuring out which side of the mutant apartheid fence to stand on.
As the man in a suit said to the other man in the suit, It's the little differences. Xavier, more coach than professor for most of this lovely installment, is quite a lot like Erik, and the two have a kinship far beyond mere mutation. Yet he'd never crack a diamond neck, even if the situation begged for it. The chemistry between McAvoy and Lensherr is so natural it seems inevitable, and Vaughn steadies the film on their mighty shoulders.
So just how good is X-Men: First Class, then? Clearly one of the finest superhero films of all time, better even than Bryan Singer's stellar work in the series, and yes -- I make this unfair comparison merely because the film I'm about to mention has become the gold standard in modern superhero movies -- yes, it is better than The Dark Knight. You'll see.
As a Marvel nut, I had so many fangasms I've taken longer on this review than any I can remember, and yet this is a film you should watch even if you aren't a comic book person at all. The spirit of the comics is intact, and Stan Lee would be proud.
As should the mutant inside every one of us. Little or not, wear your differences loudly and fearlessly, and remember what they say about big feet.