Another year, another slew of sequels, prequels and remakes, another bottomless trough of regurgitated grain to keep the Hollywood cash cow fattened and ready to be milked, and milked, and milked again.

But multiplex cinema has a discombobulating effect of taking one by surprise from time to time. While it may be easy — and not unwarranted — to label a venture such as, say, Police Academy 8 a new candidate for the Worst Idea That Any Human Being Has Ever Had, one ought to consider reserving a sliver of possibility that sequel number #546 from franchise whatever-it-is might actually provide half decent entertainment.

X-Men: First Class, the fifth X-Men movie (with more set to come), treads the familiar origins path — a “day one” narrative trajectory screenwriters fill out with new back stories for old characters, and culminate roughly where present day hero flicks ordinarily begin. It’s a process that germinates whenever Hollywood decides to reboot a franchise (read: reset the coffers).

The X-Men: First Class marketing materials look dreadful, images of the cast like plastic coated photo-shopped shoots of bath tub figurines. The trailer smacked of yet another been-there-done-that suck of the proverbial teet but the movie caught the critical community and more than a few reluctant tagalongs off-guard: it’s much, much better than it looks.

Directed by the captain of last year’s hells-a-blazin’ post mod superhero ship Kick-Ass, the story is set in the 60s and uses the Cuban Missile Crisis as a dramatic backdrop that draws the characters together. The world is about to discover that mutants exist; telepath extraordinaire Charles Xavier aka Professor X (James McAvoy) is the best of the best, decent-hearted and a fearless ally of the US government.

He’ll need to be, because nasty pasty Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) wants to take over the world — something not completely unheard of in a comic book movie — and turn it into a place where mutants reign supreme. Xavier locates the world’s mutants and creates a kind of Police Academy where they can refine their abilities into precise humanity saving gifts, for those who don’t fall to the Dark Side.

Amazingly, given the main characters are mutants — blue, red, flying, whatev — the story actually feels like it’s taking place in a world not too far from our own (the historical backdrop helps). Refreshingly, the back stories will intermittently take viewers by surprise, and even seasoned X Men fans won’t be able to second guess all the twists and turns.

The characters are buoyed by performances that range from dopey to thoroughly decent. Kevin Bacon is in fine form, hamming it up in a fun role, and McAvoy nails the quiet dignity of Professor X. “One day I might even go bald” is a nice line for fans.

Two characters — one whose “gift” is to scream piercingly loud and another who shoots laser beams — are badly under developed and in dire need of fuller back stories, but no matter. X-Men: First Class is easily the most entertaining of the five X-Men pics so far. It’s fast, fun and provides a snappy blast of expendable ‘tainment.

X-Men: First Class’s Australian theatrical release date: June 9, 2011.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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