The X-Men franchise needed a pickup badly in 2011. With the superhero genre more than coming into its own by this point, with films like Iron Man, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight elevating the genre to new heights, the good X-Men films had become a distant memory. This is why the idea of X-Men: First Class was somewhat of a gamble for 20th Century Fox; is anyone still going to care about these characters after all these years? Did the last two films hurt the series so badly that the brand name can't be relied on anymore? This was also the first film in the series that didn't prominently feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, undoubtably the most popular character in the franchise. Well, I am happy to say that no, X-Men: First Class did not completely tank at the box office. It didn't make back its budget domestically, but it did well enough to keep the series on life support for the time being.
I am also happy to say that despite its flaws, First Class is the best film in the series since X2, and I'm sure that having Bryan Singer back to produce helped get quality control, in terms of the writing, back up to speed.
The film begins with a brilliant recreation of Magneto's holocaust scene from the first film, but decides to show us what happened afterward. Don't get me wrong; we did not need to see what happened after that scene, and this could have been a retcon disaster. But somehow, the extension of the scene establishes a driving plot point for this new film while in no way damaging the effect the scene had in its original form. That's a hard feat to pull off, but First Class handles it with skill.
In this extended scene, we learn that Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, is a Nazi who is fascinated with mutant evolution, and wants to study young Eric in order to better understand the powers that mutants can posses. The scene is creepy, intense, heartbreaking, and only goes to further our sympathy for Magneto.
On the flipside, we meet a young Charles Xavior, who has made friends with a young shapeshifter named Raven (who, of course, would later become the deadly Mystique). We get a sense that Charles has had a privileged life, but not necessarily one filled with much love. It's subtle, and certainly not as powerful as a holocaust backstory, but it works to establish Charles' past in a way that gives us information we never had.
Fast forwarding a few years, Eric (played with perfection by Michael Fassbender) has become a vengeful ex-Nazi killer while Charles (played with almost equal perfection by James McAvoy) is a college graduate enjoying life and partying it up. Eric has successfully hunted down and killed a massive amount of ex-Nazis all over Europe, and Shaw is next on his list. Charles gets mixed up in a CIA mission that happens to coincide with an attempted assassination of Shaw by Eric, and thus the two greatest frenemies in superhero history meet for the first time. They band together and "collect" local mutants using Cerebro, built by a young Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast (Nicholas Hoult). They band together and learn to control their powers together, mostly with Charles' help, thus giving us our titular "first class."
The film culminates in a climactic action scene that centers around the Cuban Missile Crisis that's very fun and exciting. Our group of ragtag mutants faces off against Shaw and his group of "evil" mutants, including January Jones playing the psychic/diamond skin-plated Emma Frost.
A last-minute plot development in this third act does feel a bit tacked on, and I'll be the first to admit that it's a distraction. The character motivation by Charles toward Mystique is muddled, and while it's certainly not as disappointing as anything in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I was left a bit cold by it all.
The thing that absolutely had to work--and it does with great success--is the relationship between Charles and Eric. We are told several times in the other films what great friends they were, and what they had started to accomplish together, and it's nice to see it pay off. The performances of Fassbender and McAvoy are just fantastic, accomplishing the difficult task of not doing an impersonation of Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart while still giving the roles the weight they need. It's so fun to see Professor X hitting on girls and getting drunk like any other college kid.
The other characters, in all honesty, don't have much personality or characterization, and it hurts the film in some ways. There are a few decent scenes showcasing the other mutants' powers and abilities, but we don't get much backstory or reason to care about them. This is a glaring problem during a scene where one of them dies, and it's clearly supposed to devastate the team. It doesn't do much for the audience, though. We didn't know much about the character to begin with. In another scene, a mutant changes over to Shaw's side and you're left wondering, "Why? For what reason did this character that hasn't meant anything to the plot so far change sides, and frankly what does it matter? It doesn't change the plot afterwards!" It stems from the X-Men films as a whole incorporating too many characters for much serious development to happen for most of them. But somehow those first two films made it work...
The supporting cast does a good job for the roles they're given, but no one in particular ever really impresses me outside of Kevin Bacon. While his character certainly could have used more development, there's no question that he's a functional villain with an interesting power (absorbing energy and unleashing it at his own will, which potentially makes him a walking atomic bomb).
I enjoyed seeing a young Beast and Mystique having a small romantic relationship, with some of the themes of discrimination based both on homosexuality (Beast actually says, "You didn't ask, so I didn't tell," at one point), and with racial relations (blue being a go-to skin color of the X-Men characters).
There are a few breaks in continuity from the rest of the series, the most glaring being the disregard for the flashback in The Last Stand, where Professor X (still able to walk) and Magneto, as older men, visit Jean Grey for the first time and invite her to the school. If the ending of this movie places X in a wheelchair and the friendship between the two is pretty much severed when they were young, this flashback makes no sense. It's clearly not supposed to reboot the franchise with a new continuity, given other nods to the previous films and a few cameos (the "Go fuck yourself," moment is one of the best cameos EVER), so what gives? It's simply another reason why the ending of the film doesn't really work. It's easily the greatest fault of an otherwise enjoyable film.
To counteract that, the pacing of First Class is fast and lively, the 60s production design is commendable, and the special effects (both practical and CGI) are impressive. There may be some obvious CGI toward the end, but on the whole, the film looks great. The action scenes may not be as wow-inducing as anything in X2 or The Last Stand, but there's also nothing offensive.
There's an amazing film buried somewhere within First Class, but the end product is simply a good movie. At times, it's even a damn good movie. With some changes to the script, the film could have been at the same level as the first two films. But let's just be grateful that it was much better than the third and fourth. What we have is a better-than-average superhero film that has gotten a bit lost in the overflow of superhero films to come out of recent years. The same was unfortunately true for the next film in the series, The Wolverine.