Short version: Great film, fun experience, best if you read very little about it beforehand to avoid spoiling some of the surprises. I won’t be revealing any here for that reason.
X-Men: First Class is a prequel to the other X-Men movies, establishing how Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X, aka Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) first met, developed their theories on how mutants and humans should interact, and ended up on opposite sides. After a section that follows Erik from childhood and his travels around the world, hunting down the villain, most of it is set in 1962, as said villain (Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, who’s come a long way from that kid who just wanted to dance) is working to engineer the Cuban Missile Crisis. His theory is that radiation makes mutants, so more would be good for his crew, as well as killing off the inferior humans.
Given that the film focuses on the two male leads, it’s nice that they are so attractive to look at. Their “brotherly” relationship at times tips into melodrama, providing plenty of fodder for the slash fiction that will undoubtedly result. (The male bonding when they first meet and wind up clinging to each other is particularly notable.) The movie can be a bit overwrought at times, especially when hitting the emotional high points of Magneto’s childhood during the Holocaust or Mystique’s fear of abandonment due to her unique, blue-skinned and -scaled appearance, but I expect that kind of demonstrative effect from my superheroes, larger than life in more than one way. (I did laugh at how telepathy apparently requires one to put a hand to one’s temple. All the time.)
James McAvoy as Charles Xavier
Speaking of Mystique, she was a lot cooler in the first movie, flying helicopters and going undercover and holding her own fighting Wolverine. But much as the first movie was Rogue’s, this film is about a young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) coming of age. Lawrence does an admirable job as a girl with both amazing abilities and obstacles (including a young Xavier clueless in many ways) to face. She’s more substantial, in both talent and real-woman shape, than in previous portrayals.
The young team, the new first X-men, consist of Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Caleb Landry Jones (Banshee), Edi Gathegi (Darwin), Lucas Till (Havok), and Zoë Kravitz (Angel). All were interesting, in their ways of discovering themselves and their powers, and well-played. I also quite enjoyed seeing Oliver Platt. Although the age was wrong for the story, he’d make a wonderful adult Beast. Instead, he didn’t even get a name, credited as “Man in Black Suit”. (But think Fred Duncan — thanks to KC for explaining that character to me.)
Magneto, Banshee, Xavier, Moira, Mystique, and Havok
I was mostly confused when it came to the “other side”, Shaw’s gang of evil mutants. Aside from Emma (more on her later), there was a Nightcrawler-like red devil-looking teleporter named Azazel (Jason Flemyng). (I had no idea his only comic appearance, as explained in that link, was that horrible Chuck Austen story where the demon can’t get to earth without kids to make portals, so he comes to earth to impregnate women to make the kids to allow him to get to earth. Yes, you read that right.) The other guy never even got a name that I heard — he is being credited as Riptide (Álex González), although the power here is making tornados, not spinning or growing spikes. Neither is given a motive, personality, or even much chance to speak.
I enjoyed the period setting and locations, as well as the international feel, although the clothes were too modern. (In general style, they were more 1966 swinging London than 1962; in details, they were clearly present-day.) The pacing of the film was jumpy and episodic, with lots of cuts from scene to scene that could have been rearranged in many sequences and worked just as well. When it came to the parts that needed to match the first movie, they did, in all the meaningful ways. Plus, this movie has the best cameo ever. I will say no more.
Michael Fassbender (Magneto) and James McAvoy (Professor X)
My biggest complaint was this: When it comes to how the women are treated, we’ve stepped backwards. While the first film had significant female members of the team, this one approaches them as sidekicks. Mystique follows Charles around, then Erik. Angel is a stripper “rescued” by the boys with a pretty power that could have been very useful (for rescues during a particular airborne attack, if nothing else) but is never shown as such.
You could blame this on the time period, but I don’t think that explains it all. Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), for example, starts the movie as a go-getter CIA agent who strips off her dress to infiltrate the Hellfire Club in a cheeky scene that shows her determination and quick thinking. By the end, she’s a moon-y romantic mumbling about a kiss and giving her bosses justifiable reason to say “women shouldn’t be agents.” Is hanging around with mutants that discouraging?
Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw) and January Jones (Emma Frost)
And then there’s Emma. January Jones, as always, is flat and wooden, a horrible actor who gets by pointing her (padded) breasts around. If a different actress had played Emma Frost, she wouldn’t have been as much of as sidekick, a pretty accessory for Shaw to order around. The character does have both sets of powers — mind-reading and diamond form — which I found unnecessary and distracting to the concepts the movie was trying to discuss.
Given that the reviews so far have been very good (87% positive on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing), an opinion with which I concur, I’m surprised to see it not doing as well as hoped, financially. (Born out by the 40 or so people I saw it with at a Friday night show, in a theater that could hold 300.)
Nothing else big opened this weekend. It’s a good comic movie that lives up to the source material, with plenty beyond the superheroics to attract additional audience. Is it a pure lack of marketing? I suspect it may not have entered the consciousness of many people who would like it. I hope the good word of mouth — like mine, go see it! — gives it legs, and it continues to build over the summer. I liked it more than Iron Man 2, for example, and I think X-Men: First Class is a fine companion to the original film.