It lost me a bit, to be honest. Oh, it's good. I'm not calling it a failure or anything. Many of its elements are excellent and it really hits its bootstraps in the last act. I'll get more from it on a rewatch when I know what deserves my full attention and what can be tuned out.
However I also think it's flabby in the middle and its ostensible villains (Kevin Bacon, January Jones) feel like placeholders.
You might not have heard of this series. X-Men is a funny book that publishes 100000000000000 different titles a week through a company called Stan Lee Comics. It got made into films with expensive actors, so Fox dumped them and made a prequel instead. It's also a gay metaphor, with everyone wearing tight spandex and talking about how they're different and the difficulties of coming out of the closet and being accepted by straights. (Occasionally it draws on other minority experiences, e.g. black people, but mostly it's gay.) Their most important gay relationship is between Magneto and Professor X, who in this film get very, very close indeed. Professor X is always on the lookout for a bit of rough and likes hanging around schools.
I think those are the basics. (For accurate information, grab a fanboy.)
Before I get going, I did like the film. I'm just puzzled by why at the same time I felt underwhelmed. Maybe it's just that the original three X-Men movies were all events (even #3), with the original X-Men kick-starting the modern superhero movie. These days though, long underwear's everywhere... and they've got kind of bland. Of course I'm looking forward to The Avengers and there are other titles that I get the impression are standing out from the homogenised crowd, but in general it feels as if someone's put them all in a blender. Thinking about it a bit more, I suspect it might be specifically the new Marvel age films. Even the supposedly good ones (e.g. Iron Man) didn't strike me as something that mattered.
To its credit, X-Men: First Class isn't homogenised. The last act is where the film really comes out to play, turning the X-universe upside-down in a way that can only happen, oddly, in a prequel. Even before that, there's plenty of good stuff... but we've seen much of it before.
1. MAGNETO = WOLVERINE
Michael Fassbender is the best thing in the film, by miles. However he's playing Wolverine. Different character, but the same formula. He's a dangerous badass who's hanging out with the X-Men and making them ten times more entertaining. Fassbender even looks a bit like Hugh Jackman. The main difference is that Wolverine's a hero with a bad attitude, whereas we know Magneto really is a villain. He just happens to have a shocking childhood backstory from World War Two and he's teaming up with Xavier because he really, really wants to kill Kevin Bacon.
If Fassbender weren't so damn cool, I'd be getting sniffy. However I didn't care. Fassbender's a joy to watch, giving the role everything and hence giving the film its wit and soul in exactly the way Jackman used to do. In some ways, he's even cooler than Wolverine, because with Magneto there's absolutely no limit. He's not wearing the Hero Straitjacket.
2. KEVIN BACON = MAGNETO
Kevin Bacon and his Hellfire Club near as dammit killed the film for me.
So, you've got Bacon playing some super-mutant who sees himself as the saviour of mutantkind and is trying to bring about the human apocalypse. Does this remind you of Magneto, perhaps? I'd have been more impressed if I'd never seen Ian McKellen's take on similar material, but unfortunately I had. My problems here are...
(a) He's ill-served by the script. He's the leader of comic book villains, perpetrating villainy that's hardly more sophisticated than TV Comic. The film makes no attempt to show you the world through their eyes. He's not given ten per cent of McKellen's Magneto's richness and philosophy, instead just Doing Bad Stuff like every other villain ever.
(b) Kevin Bacon's performance is kind of boring. I didn't care what he said or did. He's not incompetent and he's hitting all his marks, but he's just sort of... there. He's the film's big bad villain, yet he's also strangely underwritten and extraneous to the main Magneto-Xavier story. Bacon needed to bring more to the party, forcing the character to our attention. He doesn't. This role desperately needed an A-list star, yet I suspect Bacon (as with everyone else) was chosen because he wouldn't cost squillions.
(c) Oh, and on top of all that he disappears for huge chunks of the film. In Singer's original X-Men, I always felt the threat of Magneto, whether or not he was on-screen. You understood the danger. Here, though, they dropped that ball. The middle of the film turns into whiffle with Xavier and Magneto at school. This is a movie about the friendship of two men, how together they founded the X-Men and cooperated on finding mutants and helping them uncover their potential, only for fate to push them down tragic paths. It's about the choices that we make. However you can't do a comic book movie without knee-jerk end-of-the-world nonsense, so heeeeeeere's Kevin Bacon!
The only Hellfire Club member who comes off well is Jason Flemyng, unrecognisable under his makeup as Azazel. He's a murder machine! You have to respect his body count. Flemyng is scary. However apart from him, there's (a) Bargain Basement Bacon, (b) the sister of Denise Richards's character from The World Is Not Enough and (c) some guy who can create tornados from the vacuum created by his lack of personality. January Jones has been criticised and it's true that the main thing she's bringing is her cup size, but to be honest I see little difference between her and Bacon. They're both delivering their lines efficiently enough and bringing nothing extra. These are performances to make you cry out for a fortnight's extra rehearsal and for preference a live stage run to get the blood flowing. Alex Gonzalez has an excuse for his lack of impact, but Bacon and Jones don't. Those aren't small roles. They're both front and centre, with oodles of screen time and spurned opportunities to grab the film in both hands.
It wouldn't be so bad if Bacon weren't essentially playing Magneto. Same philosophy, same objectives. We've seen it before, much better.
The only thing I admired about this Hellfire Club is their badass factor. They're monsters! Bacon's character has the scariest power levels we've seen yet, making me wonder if he was invincible. Jones can wipe the floor with Professor X with a flick of her frontal lobes. Flemyng is an abattoir on legs. When these guys walk through the door, you get scared. Thus the super-battles in the last act are easily my favourites of the series to date, because you'd be surprised if anyone involved didn't end up a pile of twitching bloody mince.
3. XAVIER IS, UM, XAVIER
McAvoy is fine as Xavier. It's interesting seeing him when he was a bit of a dick, before he got all serious and responsible. The Fassbender-McAvoy relationship is what's at the heart of this movie... and they sell it. That's the cornerstone. If you didn't have that, you'd have nothing. Because of them, it's a strong film.
However, let's face it, Xavier isn't a particularly thrilling guy. They have fun with him here and McAvoy acquits himself well, but at the end of the day, it's Fassbender you're watching.
I'd never heard of these young 1960s mutants. This shouldn't make any difference, but I hadn't. They were just a bunch of random superpowers and attitudes, played quite well but still the kind of characters you'd expect to like better once they'd appeared in a few more films and you were looking back with hindsight. I can't even remember which one's called which. I enjoyed the stuff with the guy with out-of-control energy blasts.
Beast and Mystique though I'd heard of, naturally. I like what's done with both of them. Clever cameo for Rebecca Romijn. One could argue that Beast's dialogue doesn't sparkle as it should (he's a genius!) and he doesn't do dazzling acrobatic leaps, but this is still a neophyte geek-Beast who's not yet grown into his Beast-ness.
You-know-who's cameo is funny.
Moira MacTaggart I don't mind. It's a thankless role, the normal patsy among the freaks.
I was unconvinced by the period setting. It didn't feel like 1962, despite its use of real history (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and contemporary TV footage. You'd be disappointed by a historical setting this poorly realised in Doctor Who. Sure enough, looking it up, I see that the film's bristling with anachronisms (boots, miniskirts, guns, underwear, etc.) I'm not surprised.
I think it's a little exploitative. You'll see a lot of women in their underwear, even if there's no actual nudity. A stronger 1962 setting could have perhaps made this feel like a statement about sexism in the 1960s, just before the start of second-wave feminism in 1963, but instead it just feels like sexism. (This gets almost disturbing when Xavier and Magneto are setting up a shooting gallery in which a hero will blast naked female dummies to smithereens. That felt almost as if the film was doing deliberate subtext. A comment on how women get drawn in superhero comics, perhaps?)
The movie's meat, as always, is its exploration of what it's like to be different in a world of normal people. That's the bread and butter of an X-Men film. We've seen it before, but it's still strong. "Just let us normal people go." Starting with Nazis gives that more bite too. We see people making choices, both for good and evil. We know how these people are going to end up, but that makes it stronger. I think I prefer this to the Star Wars prequel approach. It's not epic, but instead just sympathetic people facing decisions that have been presented clearly and simply enough that you're on their side even when they're taking the wrong road. Bad things happen in this movie, especially at the finale, and they have power even though they were preordained. Some are irreversible.
In short, there's some great superhero stuff in here. Awesomely badass Hellfire Club villains and Fassbender almost out-Wolverining Hugh Jackman. The film also steps beyond genre convention in the final act, with the story ending up far more interested in its characters than in beating the villain and even in little things like Xavier and Magneto fighting each other with fists, not superpowers. I can see why the film did well. However on this first viewing, for me, it felt too similar to the other X-Men films and, when it came to the Hellfire Club, inferior. Hopefully on subsequent viewings I'll be able to tune them out a bit and focus on all the good stuff instead.