An odd thing happens once X-Men: First Class draws to a close. For a little over two hours, director Matthew Vaughn’s triumphant revival of the mutant superhero franchise provides more than enough visual splendor, in the form of elaborate action sequences powered by airtight and expectedly lavish special effects. One hero uses a yacht’s anchor to slice through the massive ocean liner like a kitchen knife through American cheese; later, the same character, Erik “soon to become Magneto” Lensherr (played by acting powerhouse Michael Fassbender), caps off a CGI-laden climax—during which he lifts a submarine out of the ocean using his magnetic powers—by controlling airborne missiles like a mad puppet master.

complex-review-x-men-first-class-1Yet, by the film’s end, those aren’t the scenes or components that resonate; rather, the lively characters, revelatory performances, and ambitious script are what sticks in the mind. In that sense, X-Men: First Class is a thinking man’s summer blockbuster, hitting all of the prerequisite eye candy beats without distracting itself from telling a rich story through intricate characterization.

In other words, it’s nothing like the property’s last endeavor, the soulless, Brett Ratner-directed, 2006 disappointment X-Men: The Last Stand, and everything like the first two installments, X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003), both helmed by Bryan Singer (a producer on X-Men: First Class). And, in even more words, it’s exactly the shot intelligent life that the long-running Marvel Comics brand needed in order to reclaim big screen superhero glory.

X-Men: First Class Takes The Mutants Back To The Essence

Wisely, Vaughn (following up last year’s subversive anti-superhero treat Kick-Ass) and screenwriters Jane Goldman (who wrote Kick-Ass, as well), Zack Stentz, and Ashley Miller have rewound the X-Men saga back to its fascinating origins. After a brief yet darkly rousing preface set in a Nazi-run Polish death camp, X-Men: First Class jumps right into 1962 to show the polar opposite lives of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the aforementioned Lensherr; while Xavier finds life to be “groovy” as he completes his collegiate duties and bags women using his mind-reading abilities, Lensherr’s a humorless badass seeking vengeance against the ageless and all-powerful mutant, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, delightfully hammy), who killed his mother back in Poland.

The CIA catches wind of Xavier’s mutant studies and recruits him to help apprehend Shaw, who’s weaseling his way into the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is how he crosses paths with Lensherr. Together, they form a renegade mutant task force of sorts, comprised of young mutants in need of training yet all highly effective with their respective abilities. There’s Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier’s longtime best friend who can morph her body to resemble anyone she makes contact with; Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), a Doogie Howser-like scientist embarrassed by his oversized ape feet; Sean/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), a snarky kid whose high-pitched inhuman screams help him to fly; and Alex/Havok (Lucas Till), a tough guy who can hurl giant sonic-boom rings.

There are others, as well, but the lines of allegiance to either good (Xavier’s crew) or evil (Shaw’s posse) are quickly blurred, all while Lensherr himself quietly nurtures a hatred for humans that could potentially make him the next Shaw, once he kills the son of a bitch, of course. With so many characters in play and several subplots alongside the overarching stop-Sebastian-Shaw mission, it’s highly impressive how well X-Men: First Class balances the lot.

Some storylines are weaker than others, namely a budding romance between Raven and Hank, though that’s not the fault of Lawrence and Hoult (both immensely talented newcomers), but rather the schmaltzy approach to their flirtations—it’s borderline Twilight cheese. But, fortunately, the Raven/Hank bits are minimal, ultimately registering as secondary to the contrasting dynamics of Xavier and Lensherr’s unstable friendship. X-Men: First Class thrives when it's focused on their inevitable falling out, which, as any self-respecting comic book head knows, leads to the rivaling identities of Professor X and Magneto.

Still Don't Know Michael Fassbender By Name? That's About To Change

The slowly tearing bond shared by Xavier and Lensherr would’ve been intriguing for X-Men fans regardless, but under the mutually expert control of McAvoy and Fassbender it’s the a hefty reason why X-Men: First Class is the best comic book movie since The Dark Knight in 2008; yes, it’s even better than Thor, which we loved.

Both actors are magnificent, leaping off the screen in different ways. McAvoy, perhaps the movie’s biggest surprise, plays the young Professor X with an undeniably cool suaveness; Fassbender, tasked with portraying a tortured soul who’s equally sadistic and vulnerable, goes the opposite route, embodying the future Magneto with a sturdy disposition.

complex-review-x-men-first-class-2In the end, though, X-Men: First Class is a Fassbender showcase, being that he’s given the most crowd-pleasing scenes, such as a Quentin Tarantino-esque bar fight during which he does some rather gnarly things with a knife. Having already proven that he’s by far the best “new” actor in Hollywood, with his scene-stealing work in big-time fare like Inglourious Basterds complementing phenomenal indie work (Hunger, Fish Tank), the Germany-born thespian shows that he’s no slouch in glossy blockbusters, either. Dude’s officially a star.

As is X-Men: First Class director Vaughn, who manages to mesh a blockbuster’s popcorn necessities (sick effects, genuinely funny comic relief) and brainy appeal (i.e., a story that doesn’t insult the audience at every possible turn) with the panache of, dare we say, Christopher Nolan. The English filmmaker treats the material as more than a superhero movie; enlightened by the script’s revisionist Cuban Missile Crisis history, Vaughn takes pleasure in capturing the intrigue and debonair action of the best James Bond flicks of old, which sets X-Men: First Class apart from its Comic-Con-pleasing predecessors and peers.

Who Needs Another Wolverine Movie? We Want A Second Class, Pronto!

X-Men: First Class is by no means flawless. A few of the performances, in fact, are at times distractingly off, the worst being that of January Jones; as Sebastian Shaw’s telepathic sidekick Emma Frost/White Queen, the physically hot Mad Men star plays a character who’s authoritative and dominant in the comic book series with robotic vapidity. Yes, she’s a delight to look at, frequently clad in nothing but white two-piece lingerie, but Jones downgrades the character into X-Men’s version of an Austin Powers Fembot.

But, like the mishandled Raven/Hank portions, the film’s few examples of unimpressive acting can’t take away from the overall victory that Vaughn has reached with X-Men: First Class. Without totally disregarding the previous X-flicks (two smartly inserted cameos interlock First Class with its precursors), the origin story fans have needed since ’03’s X2 set the X-bar seemingly out of direct-sequel’s reach, rewards those who’ve been down with the mutants from day one, broadens the material enough to welcome in unknowledgeable viewers, and atones for the sins of X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s horrifically botched spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Finally, it’s once again cool to fuck with the X-clan in multiplexes.