A fresh-faced Anakin Skywalker leaving his mom to train with the Jedi, a young James Kirk racing his motorcycle across the desert, even a teenaged Indiana Jones swiping a gold crucifix from the bad guys– there’s just something fun and interesting about seeing where our favorite characters got their start.

Now we get X-Men: First Class, a look back at where the popular comic book heroes (and anti-heroes) came from, and it’s just as fun as those stories– and as exciting as anything to hit theaters so far this year.

Before Professor X needed a wheelchair and before Magneto donned his famous helmet, it turns out they were just a couple of wide-eyed kids who weren’t sure what to do with their mutant powers. Yes, we all know the two end up on opposite sides, but now we (at least the non-comic book inclined) finally find out why. It’s a movie that not only breathes new life into a (let’s face it) sagging franchise, but it also stands on its own as a riveting bit of filmmaking. Sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious, but never dull, X-Men: First Class is the perfect way to kick off the summer movie season.

The story begins in 1944, as a young Erik Lehnsherr is torn from his family inside a German concentration camp in occupied Poland. As they’re marched away, Erik reaches out in anguish, telepathically bending the wrought iron gates off of their hinges. Unfortunately, the evil Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) witnesses the fiasco and leaps at the chance to harness Erik’s powers for his own good… er, evil.

Fast forward to present day (in this case, 1962) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) has grown up and is devoting all his time to hunting down Shaw. While meanwhile, at Oxford University, a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) are figuring out ways to harness their own powers, as Charles authors a thesis about mutants’ place in society.

When Erik and Charles cross paths, they form an instant bond, but right away we can see how the two differ greatly in their approach to their respective gifts.

Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, X-Men: First Class is never short on action or suspense, with some of the most whiz-bang special effects this side of Transformers. But it’s also loaded with quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, including a great set of scenes following Xavier’s recruitment of several other mutants to a hidden CIA compound. After all, they’re just kids who are finally among peers, and what’s more fun than getting a chance to show off by literally spreading your wings to fly or destroying a bronze statue by shooting a bolt of energy out of your chest?

McAvoy and Fassbender are both brilliant actors and worthy successors (or precursors, I suppose) to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, who originated the roles in the first series. Fassbender, particularly, does a superb job in making his downward spiral to the Dark Side believable. I doubt Bacon hasn’t had this much fun with a role since he terrorized Meryl Streep in 1994’s The River Wild, and keep your eyes open for a certain side-burned hero who makes a brief, hilarious cameo appearance. The weakest link is a rather milquetoast January Jones as Shaw’s right-hand woman, the sultry Emma Frost; instead of coming off as an evil henchwoman, she instead seems rather bored to be here, and but for the fact that she spends the entire movie in skimpy lingerie or outfits with plunging necklines, she would be completely forgettable.

Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) who co-wrote the script with Thor‘s Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz, along with Jane Goldman, proves a worthy successor to the X-Men franchise. Even though it clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, First Class never lags. Instead, Vaughn takes us back to the early 60s and easily conveys the high tension that dominated the era. The movie is a globe-trotting (Argentina, Geneva, London, Las Vegas, Moscow), rip-roaring good time, and even the, um, fashion, along with a soundtrack loaded with tunes that would make Austin Powers shimmy only add to the fun.

Diehard X-Men fans may be disappointed with the radical departures from the original comic book stories, but film fans can just sit back and enjoy the ride: X-Men First Class is the right way to do a superhero movie.

4/5 stars