I'm well aware that I am rather late to the game with this particular review, but considering that the past few months saw me heartily enjoying Thor and Captain America, I was reluctant to spoil the taste of successful superhero film adaptations.
Which is not to say that X-Men: First Class was some horrible, stinking, ludicrous, insulting, deranged mixture of special effects and terrible writing like its predecessor X3: The Last Stand. Few things can rival that monstrosity, the removal of which from my memory banks I would pay good money for (if I knew I wouldn't give in and watch it on FX some lazy Sunday afternoon.) Indeed, First Class attempted something completely unique in the superhero genre; it tried to make its own story.
Independent of any direct source material, borrowing characters from different eras of the beloved mutant comics, manufacturing new conflicts and motivations and in effect changing a sacred history, the (many) writers of X-Men: First Class decided to make an historical action film that just happens to borrow heavily from Marvel's biggest franchise. In using these characters, and a world where these genetic mutations exist, the film plays far less with the allegory of prejudice and the outsider than it does with power and the struggle between conviction and mercy.
Despite their best attempts, and the creators were certainly ambitious, it doesn't always work. (Some mild spoilers.)
Let's start with what was good. James McAvoy as Professor X? That was solid work. Although they do try to make him more of a lothario than I recall (despite the comic character's many girlfriends) and he is less grave than the classic version of the Prof, his earnestness carries the day, and his delight in the progress of his studies and the discovery of his own kind overshadow any lack of severity.
Michael Fassbender's severity more than made up for any lack in McAvoy, however, and honestly his one-note performance, while believable, was decidedly uninteresting. Much like his recent turn in Jane Eyre (where he made Rochester a total douchebag and was given such insanely unfortunate lines as "You've transfixed me quite" and "You have regenerated me vigorously") Fassbender sunk his teeth into the simple characteristics of anger and pain, and never let go. The strange and sudden montages where Charles and him are buddies hitting bars and strip clubs to find mutants is rather more jarring and unbelievable than fun and unique, though the Wolverine cameo was delightful.
Still, they somehow manage to convince us of their true friendship, and while most of it is one-sided, the affection both carry for each other feels genuine. The inevitable implosion of that bond is also believable, and while that new, original version of their personal climax feels heavy handed, it does echo the future we know is coming for Xavier and Magneto. The only problem is, it more closely resembles the future of the movie version of Xavier and Magneto, who are poor facsimiles of their comic selves.
Another strange decision was the inclusion of Moira MacTaggart. Now, not only do I love Moira and lament her passing in the comics years ago, but I adore Rose Byrne, and was quite excited about her involvement. However, instead of being an independent genetic researcher, she's a CIA agent who sneaks into the Hellfire club by stripping down to her undies, and instead of being Scottish and proud of her rich ancestry (an accent you know Byrne could pull off easily) she's a plain old American who comes off less as a person and more as a plot device to connect disparate threads of the story.
In fact, one of my biggest problems with the film is Charles' treatment of her at the very end. Now, it's not that the Professor we know from the comics wouldn't wipe someone's mind, even an ally's, for the sake of hiding the location of that (enormous Westchester) mansion (that must be registered in his name since he grew up there). While the necessity is questionable, the cruelty of doing it to Moira, who just helped build everything he now has, who is his most loyal companion, and then leaving some slight memories of his final kiss in her head as torture, is entirely uncalled for. She could easily have stayed with him and helped, and is less of a threat for revealing their secrets than any of his teenage students.
As for his students, the choice of which characters to include in this movie completely perplex me. Alex Summers is interesting in the sense that he can be a young, handsome, camera-friendly blond guy who exemplifies the need to control his powers...which is really all he brings to the table, so why not have Cyclops, whose powers show that even better and who was Xavier's first X-Man? Hank McCoy is well done as the genius eager to change his appearance and the lab experiment gone wrong, though his blue-furred version is more comical than natural. Darwin's power was ridiculously easy to overcome despite it being entirely about surviving. Banshee was actually rather cool, though from his mumbling performance I couldn't tell if they allowed him to be Irish.
Mystique is a character who has long held fascination for fans, both in the comics and in all the makers of X-Men movies, and I have honestly never understood it. Yes, her mutation is rather cool, but honestly any telepath can make themselves appear as anyone else, and even Reed Richards can create an image inducer. Regardless, the struggle of identity and acceptance that Mystique is supposed to embody, the one time we directly get that age-old X-Men metaphor for being a visibly different minority and shunned by society, is rather tired and doesn't come across with sympathy in her character. Especially because, as Charles' adopted sister (who he somehow convinced his parents to raise) she was given every opportunity to be happy, and a brilliant brother to love her, and still chooses a path of violence and bitterness. (It is also bizarre that Charles sends her off to Magneto in the end with his blessing.)
As for the other side of the fight, the "bad guys", Kevin Bacon does a pretty good Sebastian Shaw, though I can't say I like their tweak on his power set. It takes away that enjoyable dichotomy of Shaw's between the elegant, refined, manipulative gentleman, and the shirtless, rough, brawler who absorbs kinetic energy. The idea that this power allows him to age differently, and thus he's a twisted Nazi doctor who experimented on Erik decades ago and killed his mother is certainly original, and as far as serving the story goes I can deal with it.
By his side he has Angel, who is not really necessary as she turns out just to be a whore unlike her redemptive path as Morrison's creation, and Riptide who is utterly pointless, doesn't get a single word of dialogue and was doubtless created solely because some CGI guy felt like making whirlwinds. For some insane reason we also get Azazel (which they pronounce differently than I always did in my head) who as I recall isn't really a mutant, or at least is more demon, and whose presence is similarly only for the purpose of doing cool teleportation effects (which they already did in the other movies) and perhaps to show that one day him and Mystique will get it on and presto, a Nightcrawler is born.
Rounding out this unfortunate and random villain cast is January Jones as Emma Frost. Dear sweet Jesus. For a movie that, despite an adrenalin provoking soundtrack and a swift succession of scene changes, is really rather boring and overlong, any suspension of disbelief one settles into as a viewer is shattered when she comes on screen. Just plain abominable. Jones works well in Mad Men because Betty Draper is vapid and cold, which requires no attempt at acting for January. Emma Frost however is one of the most meaty characters the X-world ever gave birth to. Fierce, brilliant, fearless, selfish, ambitious, loyal, elegant, and superior, Emma is a goldmine. So making her just a blonde bimbo who fetches Shaw's ice and can't pull off one-word lines like "Pathetic" or "Sweetie" is borderline criminal. And considering her ability to stink up any scene she touches, they use her far too often.
The movie as a whole was an ambitious venture, and I respect their attempt at writing their own, original origin story for such a classic superhero team. Wrapping up the mutant conflict with Holocaust-revenge and the Cold War, portraying the Cuban Missile Crisis as a manipulation of the Hellfire Club, involving the CIA in the early days of mutant discovery and research, these are all creative, unique plot lines. The problem is, they don't really work together cohesively, nor as a deeper way to look at the mutant metaphor. They seem to deal more with the misuse of power and the corruption of such great abilities.
X-Men: First Class spent more time on the style than the substance. Unlike the other recent examples of superhero films, the writers chose not to stick with the source material that has endured for so long but instead made it their own. Unfortunately, their vision wasn't as clear as Stan Lee's or even Claremont's when examining the reason for the X-Men's existence and what they said about the world and what they fought for. Rather, they raped some history for the sake of interesting set designs and created an appropriate prequel to the disappointing and soulless X-Men of the movie franchise.
In a list of bad choices, the final scene of the movie was a scene between Fassbender and Jones, which left me regenerating myself vigorously over the toilet. All things considered, an unfortunate experience