After a couple of missteps, the X-Men franchise returns with a vengeance in the latest prequel, “X-Men: First Class.” This is a smart and entertaining film, able to transcend the comic book genre and evolve into a good Cold War thriller.

“First Class” tells the origins of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), better known as X-Men leader Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), X’s soon-to-be archnemesis Magneto.

The film begins with Erik’s mother being killed in a German concentration camp by a ruthless soldier named Sebastian Shaw.

Flash forward to 1962, and Shaw continues to be a merciless tyrant. His latest plan centers on trying to start World War III while secretly assembling an army of mutants to help overthrow humans.

Charles is recruited by a government agent (Rose Byrne) to gather his own group of mutants, with Eric eventually joining forces with the group. While Charles sees this as a chance to promote peace and unity between mutants and humans, Eric has other ideas - he intends to kill the man who killed his mother.

With the Cuban missile crisis as the backdrop, director Matthew Vaughn does a good job of making this more than just another comic book film. Vaughn, who also directed the underrated Daniel Craig thriller “Layer Cake,” carefully crafts a tense and intriguing spy film that, like “The Dark Knight,” elevates the source material to another level.

McAvoy and Fassbender also give the film a boost of credibility, with Fassbender bringing a silent rage to his character in a memorable, star-making performance.

While “First Class” obviously aims higher than the standard comic book film, that doesn’t mean fans will be disappointed. The film is full of cool mutants, ranging from Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique to Nicholas Hoult’s amusing, nerdy turn as Hank McCoy, who eventually becomes Beast.

The film even makes good use of the usually uninteresting January Jones, taking her rather dim personality and transferring it into a fun villainous turn as Emma Frost.

Kevin Bacon is very good too, providing the perfect foil for the film’s heroes.

“First Class” also offers a few surprise moments that fans will appreciate, but it’s probably a little too intense (and violent) for younger audiences (Vaughn also directed “Kick-Ass,” so that shouldn’t come as a surprise).

The film does get on the acceptance soap box a little bit, but not nearly as badly as the last two in the series. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise first-rate film. We’re still only a month into the summer blockbuster season, but “First Class” has risen to the top of the class - setting the bar high for future potential blockbusters.

DVD dandy of the week

This week’s dandy is “Hall Pass” (B-), the latest from Bobby and Peter Farrelly that takes a rather convoluted premise and stretches it into a slightly entertaining comedy. With the help of a rock-steady cast, some truly laugh-out-loud moments and a surprisingly soft center, this is easily the best film by the Farrellys since “There’s Something About Mary.”

In “Hall Pass,” Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis play Rick and Fred, a pair of happily married men who also can’t help but look at other women and wonder “what if?”

That becomes a reality when, fed up with their husbands’ lustful ways, Rick and Fred’s wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) give them a “hall pass” - one week off from marriage with no consequences for any of their actions.

The men see this as a chance to sow their wild oats and set out on a quest to have as much sex as possible - only to realize that maybe the hall pass isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

I was surprised by how well the premise actually plays out, with a pretty smart setup.

Wilson and Sudeikis have solid chemistry together, with Sudeikis getting some of the film’s bigger laughs, but Applegate and Fischer are also very interesting and provide this testosterone-driven comedy a nice counterbalance.

There is also a good extended cameo by the reliable Richard Jenkins as an aging bachelor who seems to know everything about picking up women.

“Hall Pass” does stall a little bit in the middle third, trying to buy time before it fades into a predictable finale, and some of the gross-out moments fall flat. Still, I found myself laughing more than I winced, and I was also surprised at how the film managed to balance a sweet center with a rather raunchy exterior.

This is far from a perfect comedy, but it is one that is just good enough. Farrelly fans (if there are any left) should be pleased and anyone else looking for a few laughs will be pleasantly surprised.

“Hall Pass” is rated R for crude and sexual humor throughout, language, some graphic nudity and drug use, and will be available Tuesday on DVD.

— To get sportswriter/movie reviewer Micheal Compton’s up-to-the minute thoughts on all things movies, visit his blog at mcompton.wordpress.com or his Twitter page at twitter.com/mcompton428. You can also email him at mcompton@bgdailynews.com.

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