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X-Men: First Class (2011)

Action/Adventure Rated PG-13

Franchise reboots are starting to feel like resuscitation attempts taking place on the side of the road in the wake of a car accident. The studio suits dial 911 on a flailing franchise, the emergency filmmakers are called in and we gape in passing at what is, in most cases, a grisly sight.

For X-Men: First Class, the fourth film in the Marvel series about mutant superheroes (the fifth if you count X-Men Origins: Wolverine), director Matthew Vaughn hauls out a pair of defibrillator paddles: James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Essentially a prequel, First Class goes back to trace how mutant protector Professor X (McAvoy) and mutant megalomaniac Magneto (Fassbender) went from being friends fighting for a common cause to bitter enemies.

McAvoy and Fassbender almost revive this thing. Professor X believes mutants and humans con peacefully coexist, and McAvoy’s genuine enthusiasm makes such idealism contagious rather than naive. Fassbender (most recently Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre) is even better as Magneto, once known as Erik Lehnsherr. As in the original X-Men, we first meet Lehnsherr as a boy imprisoned in a World War II death camp, where his ability to control metal makes him lab fodder for the Nazis. The movie then jumps ahead to his post-war days as a one-man assassin tracking down his former captors. (With his steely stare, Fassbender turns X-Men: First Class into a pop variation on Munich.) Paired, and in opposition, McAvoy and Fassbender nicely personify two ways of responding to prejudicial violence: with compassion or rage.

But oh, the rest of the movie.

Whenever McAvoy and Fassbender aren’t on the screen (which is too often), X-Men: First Class devolves into superhero camp. Take, for instance, the villains. When Kevin Bacon showed up early on as a scientist working with the Nazis (he’s the one responsible for the abuse suffered by Magneto in the camps), I thought at first it was a goofy cameo. Then, when the film flashes forward to the 1960s, Bacon reappears, flush with Nazi gold and bent on inciting war between Russia and the United States. Based in Vegas, flashing mutant sideburns and mostly mustering an evil grin, he’s less of a super-villain and more of an atomic Wayne Newton.

At Bacon’s side is poor January Jones, who seems to have been cast solely because we’re used to seeing her in ’60s-era costumes on “Mad Men.” As Emma Frost, a mutant with telepathic powers, she wears some of those but is mostly, inexplicably, in her underwear. Swishing around and delivering lifeless line readings, she’s like an Austin Powers fembot played straight.

As part of its resuscitation effort, First Class recasts some of the series’ more prominent roles with younger actors and introduces a few new characters. None of them stand out, not even Jennifer Lawrence, who has now followed up her harrowing work in Winter’s Bone with two flat performances in a row (this and a bit part in The Beaver).

At least Lawrence’s Mystique has a cool ability (she can instantaneously adopt the form of another person). That’s more than you can say for poor Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Banshee. All this kid gets to do is scream at a very high pitch. Perhaps realizing what a lame power this is, his comic-book creators also enable him to fly (don’t ask).

We get Angel, as well, a girl with butterfly wings, and Havok, who shoots gamma rays or laser beams or something like that from his body, much like fellow X-Man Cyclops will do later. When this youth brigade takes the forefront, turning a secret CIA base into a romper room, the movie might as well be called X-Men: Little Rascals. As each of these “new” characters showcased their powers in an impromptu talent show, I couldn’t help but dread the potential sequels that were obviously being suggested.

Can we put a “do not resuscitate” order on those?