The first time I watched X-Men: First Class was under circumstances that were far from ideal: people were talking all around me throughout, I became extremely tired about halfway through and began to slip in and out of sleep, and the theater’s sound was lackluster at best. In order to give the movie a proper chance, I had to see it again under less aggravating conditions. The second time around was indeed more enjoyable, but my opinion of the film, for the most part, remains unaffected.
There is so much potential for greatness here. However, as the movie progresses and the realization starts to sink in that all that potential will ultimately remain unfulfilled, disappointment begins to swallow all hope.
First off, I think the decision to set the movie in the sixties is truly inspired. The underlying themes of the X-Men reflect the issues brought to the forefront during that time. Sadly, the film doesn’t take full advantage of this setting. Aside from the freely adapted accounts of the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the characters’ wardrobe (Magneto sure can wear the hell out of a turtleneck, by the way), the movie could have easily been set in any other time period. It’s as if the writers decided on the main conflict first, being The Hellfire Club’s political manipulations of Russia and the United States in the hopes of launching a nuclear war, and went from there. In other words, the Cuban Missile Crisis seems like the sole inspiration for setting the movie in the sixties rather than any social metaphor that could be drawn from that era. The latter appears to me as being far more interesting a story motivation than the former. Though the filmmakers do incorporate the theme of differences (mutations) as cause for discrimination, it is never tied directly to the time period, thus making the time and place somewhat insignificant.
Furthermore, the main conflict isn’t very interesting at all. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) leads the rebel mutant group called The Hellfire Club, which also consists of White Queen Emma Frost (January Jones), and relatively unknown characters from the X-Men canon, Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Álex González, who, if memory serves, isn’t given a single line of dialogue). The movie stays true to the motivations of The Hellfire Club as presented in the X-Men comics since their evil agenda often depended on dastardly political manipulation, but being the unseen hand driving Russia and the United States to nuclear war is relatively dull when compared to what the Club has accomplished in the pages of the comic book. This is the same group who was partially (if not entirely) responsible for the Dark Phoenix Saga, one of the most revered storylines in X-Men history. Additionally, Sebastian Shaw used his political connections at one point to begin the manufacturing of the Sentinels, some of the most identifiable and thematically-relevant antagonists in X-Men history. Taking these credentials into account, The Hellfire Club depicted in X-Men: First Class is far less impressive.
That being said, Kevin Bacon does a fine job as Sebastian Shaw, if you can accept the fact that yes, it is indeed Kevin Bacon up there on the screen as an X-Men villain. Though the character might be a far less recognizable one, Azazel is a welcome addition as well and proves particularly effective in one of the most exciting scenes, wherein The Hellfire Club attacks the CIA compound that temporarily serves as base for the young X-Men. January Jones, on the other hand, brings nothing to the table as Emma Frost, apart from her looks. Even more questionable is the handling of Darwin, the sole black member of the X-Men, whose role is so stereotypical considering the customary fates of black male secondary characters in action movies that it becomes laughably offensive. Speaking of laughable, the non-mutant (human) characters come across as caricatures, providing no dramatic weight whatsoever.
Aside from these missteps, X-Men: First Class does provide the most promising cinematic portrayal of the X-Men characters yet. Havok and Beast are played very well by their respective actors, Lucas Till and Nicholas Hoult, while Jennifer Lawrence and Caleb Landry Jones particularly shine in their roles as Mystique and Banshee. The truly outstanding portrayals in the film, however, are Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). This is the number one thing X-Men: First Class gets entirely right. These two characters and their particular story arcs are the movie’s most engaging aspects, completely overshadowing everything else. In fact, whenever the plot moves away from them to focus instead on the tedious aspects of the possible nuclear war, my attention started to wane. There’s even a section in the film where the two characters seem to be absent for almost half an hour, a long enough period of time to incite a mental “Thank God, finally,” when they eventually showed up again. This speaks towards the flow and overall editing of the movie. Though X-Men: First Class doesn’t drag, even with a running time of more than two hours, the scenes are sometimes thrown together haphazardly, creating a bit of a mess. The various plot threads don’t weave together in a profoundly pleasing pattern.
On the bright side, it is the best-looking X-Men movie thus far and the interest generated by the relationship between Professor X and Magneto is so high that a sequel done with the same amount of professionalism promises to be the X-Men film fans have always hoped for. Though X-Men: First Class should serve as sufficient entertainment for newcomers, I’m sorry to report that, as a long-time X-Men fan, the film left much to be desired. However, I’ve never been more excited for a sequel to a so-so movie in my entire life.