It’s 1944 in Poland, and a young Jewish boy imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto watches helplessly as his mother is shot point-blank in front of him by Nazis.
In Westchester County, USA, another young boy awakens to suspicious noises and creeps downstairs to find his mother at the fridge, only to see her shape-shift to a blue-skinned alien form before his eyes.
Both boys, we soon learn from this portentous introduction, are mutants, each with his own special ability beyond the range of normal human interaction.
X-Men: First Class, an adaptation of the best-selling Marvel Comics franchise, spins out the story of the group’s origins, mixes it in with a goodly bit of revisionist history, and manages to do a fairly good job at holding our interest throughout.
Michael Fassbender plays Erich Lensherr, the boy whose mother is shot by his German captors in the opening scenes.
Fassbender previously put in memorable performances as a mercenary in last year’s comic-based, Western-themed Jonah Hex, and a British soldier undercover as a German captain in Inglorious Basterds.
Lenherr grows up to travel to Argentina, seeking to extract revenge on the man who shot his mother after unsuccessfully trying to force the young Erich to utilize his budding powers of telekinesis.
Erich eventually adopts the super-hero identity of Magneto, with a healthy distrust for humans and their propensity to persecute mutants.
Meanwhile Raven, the shape-shifting blue-skinned woman at the fridge, takes on the identity of Mystique. She is able to assume the likeness of just about any human at the drop of a hat, and has superior martial arts skills.
Mystique is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who turned in such an amazing performance in last year’s Oscar contender Winter’s Bone.
The young boy she confronts – and who later becomes her foster brother – grows up to become Professor Charles Xavier.
In his adopted identity as Professor X, he is the leading force in gathering together a disparate group of mutants into a school, and later a working team.
Professor X is played by Charles McAvoy, last seen in the 2010 hit film The Conspirator.
Together these three play vital roles in the formation of the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants, and are crucial to the film’s plot development.
Although there is a further pantheon of superheroes, each with their own unique talents and powers, director Matthew Vaughan (2010’s Kick-Ass) is careful not to stereotype them all in goody-two-shoes roles.
Indeed there are anti-heroes here, as the Magneto character has a falling-out with former best friend Xavier.
Their conflict forms the backdrop to an untold story behind a larger conflict, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which almost brought the world’s two superpowers to the brink of nuclear confrontation.
Magneto plays a large role in engineering the Russian’s placing of atomic warheads in the Caribbean, and Xavier rallies his team in a CIA counterintelligence effort to defuse the crisis.
The resulting drama as the two factions square off to play their separate parts in a global game of geopolitics is absorbing to watch, and lifts the film out of the comic book film adaptation genre’s usual stance of historical irrelevance.
X-Men: First Class plays at 7:00 and 9:30 pm at the Qwanlin Cinema, and is rated PG for violence.
Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.