“X-Men: First Class”

Whose bright idea was it to cast January Jones in this? Oh, sure, I get it. The 1960s prequel idea is easier to sell because of the popularity of “Mad Men.” Jones went from also-ran status (I remember her from “American Wedding”) to star because of her role as Betty in “Mad Men.” There is a problem: Jones is so wooden as Emma Frost that I was checking the screen for splinters. Frost, as recently rewritten by Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon, is a smart, funny, and — sigh, I’ll say it — bitchy character. Jones is bland, bland, and more bland. She fills out a white Playboy getup nicely, but I doubt she’s the only actress who can pull this off.

But hey, the first three “X-Men” had Halle Berry as Storm, and she was dreadful,* so one lame performance does not drag this movie down. It’s actually pretty fantastic, precisely because it can’t lean on popular characters. The closing action sequence is the best of any of these films,** and yes, that’s partly because Matthew Vaughn doesn’t have the crutch of tossing Wolverine at things. Flying looks cool. Teleportation looks cool. Tossing missiles with the power of magnetic field manipulation looks cool. All of these actions are deployed. Caleb Jones, who plays Banshee, is a real delight — the sonic scream plays much better on film than it ever did in the funny papers.

Since I mentioned Jones, let me salute Vaughn et al for figuring out what the producers of “The Practice” once figured out — when in doubt, replace your cast with a bunch of unknowns and has-beens. Kevin Bacon is rescued from whatever the hell he’s doing to play a perfectly creepy (forcing Frost to get him ice from an iceberg!) Sebastian Shaw, whose kinetic energy absorbing power looks damn cool. The whole young cast is fantastic; Beast and Mystique have a genuinely sweet meet-cute romance that erases some of the weirdness of the Mystique-Xavier relationship.

So, see it. And read on if you want more nitpicking.

– It’s really quite odd that this and the horrendous “Wolverine” end the same way — with the hero catching a bullet that sets up the physical flaw that will define his character.

– Why does every X-movie have a silent hitman character on the villain team? In “X-Men,” it’s Sabretooth, who just looks menacing. In “X-Men: The Last Stand,” it’s the transexual fishnet-wearing guy thing. In this, it’s the wind power guy who looks like Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas.***

– At first I rolled my eyes at the killing of the one black character, but the more I thought about it, the more I enjoyed the cliche. After all, Darwin is introduced in a montage of far better known characters. Banshee! Havok! Guy You’ve Never Heard Of! Also, apparently there’s a post-credit sequence in which Darwin resurrects himself, but I didn’t see it.

– In “The Last Stand,” a non-crippled Xavier scouts Jean Grey. In “Wolverine,” a young blonde mutant basically has Frost’s diamond power. I assume this movie has retconned both of those movies. Hooray!

*Speaking of Whedon, he is responsible for Berry’s infamous line “Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning? IT EXPLODES.” But the leaden delivery is all Berry.

**You remember how the first and the second both involve huge, stupid MacGuffins that shoot lots of special effects? That sucked.

***Oh, it’s Riptide. Whatever.