X-Men: First Class is a film that works on many levels. In some aspects, it might be the best X-film since X2: X-Men United (which isn’t saying much, I know). There are a lot of things they get right in the film and the stuff they get wrong aren’t fatal.
The film details not only the first class of mutant students trained by Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), but also the first meeting, eventually friendship, and breaking apart of Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
Set during the early 1960s when the Cold War was at its height and mutants were just discovering there were others out them like themselves, a mutant named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) wants to jump start a nuclear war to rid the world of all those pesky humans so mutants like him can take over. He comes up with a great idea to do this–start the Cuban Missile Crisis. Xavier, who believes in peaceful coexistence with humans, wants to stop him. Lehnsherr, who doesn’t necessarily disagree with Shaw’s motives, wants him dead for an entirely different reason.
The main focus is the Xavier and Magneto storyline. It gets most of the attention and some fine acting from both McAvoy and Fassbender. Where the film excels is presenting the characters and the ideologies in a multidimensional light. You want for Lehnsherr to get his vengeance but yet again are put off by his methods. Xavier’s longing for belonging is seen as admirable but also a bit demeaning to those mutants that do not really fit in. Neither point of view is presented as being wholly wrong or totally right. There are flaws and assets to both sides.
Mystique gets more screen time in this film than she has been in other installments, and, as played by Jennifer Lawrence, is more well rounded than the lackey she is presented as in the other films. Lawrence portrays Mystique as a woman whose blue skin has irreparably damaged her self esteem. So, she goes looking for this esteem in the men she meets, be it her adoptive brother (yes, you read that right) Xavier, the geeky Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) or, finally, Lehnsherr. Credit to Lawrence to bringing out the vulnerability in the character and making it believable.
Bacon hams it up just enough as Shaw to make his outlandish, Bond-worthy threat believable. January Jones as Emma Frost, however, performs her part as if she was a sorority sister with a headache. Emma Frost is one of the more complex and interesting characters in the comics, but you’d never know it from Jones’ somnambulistic performance. As for the rest of the cast, the mutants on the side of good are given enough challenges to overcome to have mini-character arcs but aren’t fleshed out much further, and the evil mutants follow in the long tradition of the franchise as being lackeys, nothing more, nothing less.
The film also features a lot of humor, a cameo or two, and a satisfying chunk of action to keep you entertained.
But all in all, the film is a good entry into the franchise. You will be left with questions afterwards about certain contradictions this film bring up in relation to the other films (most notably, how could there be a late 20s/early 30s Emma Frost here AND a teenage Emma Frost in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is set decades later). But still, X-fans will have a satisfying franchise to follow until the present day version of the mythos gets its act back together.