Very good things come to those who wait. After the sinking ship of Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the pounding headache of The Hangover Part II, the omens were distinctly ill for this summer season.
Thankfully British director Matthew Vaughn, who lifted spirits last year with the deliciously foul-mouthed Kick-Ass, repeats the feat with this exhilarating, action-packed prequel based on the hugely popular Marvel Comics.
After the lukewarm reception to spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Vaughn delivers a sleek and satisfying opening chapter that establishes the mythology of the iconic characters and provides tantalising glimpses of where the series can go next.
The film opens in Poland 1944 with young Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) unlocking his devastating power of magnetism thanks to the provocation of sadistic concentration camp commandant (Kevin Bacon).
“We unlock your gift with anger!" he cackles.
At the same time in Westchester, New York, young telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) meets shape-shifter Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence) and they become close friends.
Fast forward to 1962 and Erik is hunting down the commandant to exact revenge for his parents.
“Let's just say I'm Frankenstein's monster and I'm looking for my creator," he tells a henchman.
It transpires that the German officer has re-invented himself as power-hungry globe-trotter Sebastian Shaw, who intends to spark nuclear war between Russia and America aided by mutant sidekicks Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez).
Standing in his way are Charles, Raven and five gifted mutants – Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and Havok (Lucas Till).
At first Charles and Erik work together to defeat Sebastian, their common enemy.
However, a grave rift opens between the mutant leaders, lighting the fuse on the brutal and bloody war between the X-Men and Magneto's brotherhood.
X-Men: First Class is a terrific reinvention, adhering closely to the comics to appease fans while entertaining cinema audiences with a tight script, snappy editing and directorial brio.
McAvoy and Fassbender are assured actors, capable of heartbreaking emotion, and there are plenty of tears here as nuclear war looms.
The only quibble is Fassbender's wavering accent, which jigs from Europe to County Kerry and resonates so strongly of the Emerald Isle by the closing frames that you have to question if the Polish prologue was fantasy.
Supporting performances, particularly Lawrence and Hoult, are compelling and Bacon is a suitably boo-some pantomime villain.
A hilarious cameo by an X-Men favourite results in the film's only swear word, and there are some tongue in cheek references to the future, like when Charles quips, “The next thing you know I'll be going bald!"
We await his shiny bonce with feverish anticipation in the inevitable sequel.
STAR RATING: ****