There may be strength in numbers, but that’s not necessarily true when it comes to superheroes.
The X-Men films have always felt crowded. The latest reboot, “X-Men: First Class,” is a solid summer popcorn offering — but again, sometimes it is overwhelmed by a surfeit of superheroes.
When Superman, Batman, Spider-Man or Iron Man — the star performers of the last three decades worth of comic-book movies — are on the job, there’s never any doubt about who does the actual heavy lifting in vanquishing the bad guys. If there’s a problem, these spandexed pros get to work and fix it themselves. They never outsource or delegate.
In contrast, each X-Man (and X-Woman), thanks to being genetic mutants, has a single superpower. To beat back evil, they collaborate and cooperate, each contributing where and how they can. You can read minds? OK, you tell us what the bad guys are thinking. You’re the one who can bend metal? Please, break through their fortifications. And, you, you’re the one who throws fire bolts? Okay, go ahead and blow ‘em up now.
Arguably, “X-Men” is the most politically complex and radical of the popular comic franchises. Its mutant hero, Professor X, believes that mutants and humans can get along — a position that is a symbolic stand-in for favoring racial and, now, sexual equality and harmony. Moreover, whereas Superman, Batman and the others of their ilk are all rugged individualists, the X-Men adhere to collective responsibility and action. (Surely, there’s a doctoral thesis in there somewhere. Just thank me in the acknowledgements.)
The downside to the X-Men ethos? The more X-Men there are in a movie, the more confused and diffuse the storytelling becomes. This was particularly true in 2006’s third in the series, “Last Stand,” directed by Brett Ratner. The film introduced a slew of new teenage mutants, each eager to show off their particular talent, causing the film to devolve into a superhero version of the crowded audition episodes of “American Idol.”
(Quick X-Men refresher course: The first film, “X-Men,” came out in 2000, followed by “X2: X-Men United” in 2003, both directed by Bryan Singer. The fourth film, 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” ditched the multitude of mutants to concentrate on the early days of the series’ most charismatic character, Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman.)
“X-Men: First Class” is a reboot of sorts. This one wisely concentrates — and is at its best when it does so — on the growing friendship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). As every fan knows, these two young men, both mutants, will eventually grow into fierce rivals after an ideological split.
Xavier, who believes that mutants and humans can get along, will become the wise, wheelchair-riding hero, Professor X, while Lehnsherr will turn into helmet-wearing baddie, Magneto, who argues in favor of mutant superiority and separatism.
In the early ‘60s, the two young mutants join forces to battle Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a megalomaniacal mutant who is plotting to start a war of mutual destruction between the U.S. and the arch-enemy Russia — that would be the Cuban Missile Crisis — so that he himself can rule the world. (Lehnsherr and Shaw have a back history: Lehnsherr, who is Jewish, was imprisoned as a boy in a concentration camp where Shaw, a Nazi scientist, tortured him.)
In preparing to battle Shaw, Xavier and Lehnsherr assemble their own mod squad of young mutants, each with a distinctive power (sprouting wings and flying, emitting supersonic screams, possessing monkey feet, etc.). But even as the Xavier and Lehnsherr train these recruits, the men’s philosophies on the proper role for mutants in society begin to differ.
The fun here — besides a nifty cameo with Jackman — is watching the pieces of the X-Men mythology click into place. We learn how blue-hued Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) came to embrace proudly her mutant self, how Xavier became a paraplegic, how Magneto acquired his protective helmet, and the like.
Director Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake,” “Kick-Ass”) shows a felicitous knack for concentrating on character — at least as far as Xavier and Lehnsherr are concerned — and punching up humor in scenes whenever possible. It helps that McAvoy and Fassbender are both talented actors who seem fully committed to their roles.
As “X-Men” films go, this one gets the job done and is certainly better than “Last Stand” or “Wolverine.” But there are still just too darn many X-Men and — other than Xavier, Lehnsherr and Mystique — too few of them are interesting enough to hold our attention.