By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The "X-Men" franchise is back in theaters worldwide this week after a two year break and set to adapt its superhero themes into box office muscle with a strong story, fresh crop of actors, zippy visuals and broad appeal.
The fifth film, "X-Men: First Class," will likely re-energize the series, guaranteeing more "X-Men" movies and making it the early contender to beat among a group of big summer comic book films such as "Green Lantern" and "Captain America", film experts say.
"This one will likely be among the top three performers of the summer because, just like a good old James Bond movie, it should appeal to a broad base of moviegoers -- even if they haven't seen the four previous films," said Deadline Hollywood columnist Pete Hammond.
"X-Men:First Class," is another spin-off prequel to the original movie adapted from the fictional Marvel comic series of the same name.
It focuses on the formative years of mutants Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) and Magneto, also known as Erik Lehnsherr, played by Michael Fassbender, in the days before they became mortal enemies.
The 20th Century Fox film opens in the German concentration camp Auschwitz in occupied Poland in 1944 with a young Lehnsherr, who is separated from his parents when he first encounters the villain Sebastian Shaw and discovers his powers for the first time.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, another Briton, and with a reported production budget of $120 million, early reviews for the tale of misunderstood freaks have been glowing. According to aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a rare 98 percent "fresh" rating.
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That bodes well after some unfavorable critical reaction to "X-Men: The Last Stand" in 2006 and "X-men Origins: Wolverine" (2009) -- although they still managed to gross more than $459 million and $373 million respectively at the worldwide box office.
"Much as 'Casino Royale' rebooted the James Bond franchise in a fresh and dynamic way, 'X-Men: First Class' injects new blood into a franchise that, for all its profitability, had become anemic," said The Hollywood Reporter.
Critics describe the new "X-Men" as visually stylish and a welcome return to the roots of the series. The cast also includes Kevin Bacon as Shaw, Jennifer Lawrence as shape-shifting waitress Mystique, and Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggart.
"X Men has been successful because it keeps reinventing itself and incorporating the most likable and intriguing group of ensemble characters of any comic book franchise," Hammond said.
Fassbender, whose performance has earned buzz for his prospects as a future James Bond, told reporters he believed the success of the franchise lay with universal themes that highlight self-respect and tolerance.
"The whole concept of 'X-Men' is a very mature idea -- in terms of most superhero comics in general -- that there is this alter ego that makes up for the geek inside.
But that idea of alienation is a universal thing, whether it be for religious beliefs or ethnicity or sexual orientation," Fassbender said. "It touches on a nerve that people can relate to."
Fassbender said that unlike some other blockbuster movies, the audience was forced to ask questions.
"Nowadays, especially with big commercial films, it is much too easy for the audience and they get spoon-fed," he said.
(Editing by Jill Serjeant)