Back to the Beginning
X-Men: First Class
As I might have mentioned once or twice, the Fox X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well). movie series was in dire straight after the back-to-back releases of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The former was a mediocre threequel to two beloved movies in the series while the latter basically put a nail in the coffin for all of Fox's X-plans for some time. And then, years later, they did to whole thing again following up to pretty good films with two increasing lackluster ones, once again putting a nail in the coffin of any future plans for the series. Almost like they failed to learn the lessons of the past.
Honestly, Fox was never a very good studio to shepherd the X-Men through a long-term series (but then, when looking at SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. series, neither was Sony). The corporate culture of the studio didn't have the heart to care for superhero characters so even when a good movie would happen, the studio would fail to realize why that movie was good and, eventually, would shoot themselves in the foot to try and make as much money as quickly as they could without ever seeing the big picture. This forced them to do a (soft) reboot of the film franchise in 2011 with the release of X-Men: First Class (and, with Disney taking over Fox studios, another full reboot is on the way as well to help us wash away the bad taste of Dark Phoenix).
That said, while the two films preceding it really did suck, at least the studio was able to get a good group of people (plus vile scum Bryan Singer) together to give the characters a decent relaunch. Since the present day continuity was in such shambles the creative heads decided to take everything back to the swinging days of the 1960s so we could see the story of how Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) met Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and, together, then trained a bunch of mutants to be the first team of "X Men". All the weird, complicated continuity could be set aside and, for at least a single movie, everyone could just enjoy these characters all over again. And, despite everyone's misgivings at the idea (I know I didn't see the point of a prequel film at the time, for instance), the film really worked. It's certainly much better than it has any right to be.
But before we get to the Swinging Sixties, we first have to go back to the childhood of Erik and Charles. One grew up in a concentration camp where his control over metal was prized by the evil scientist in charge, Sebastian Shaw, while the other grew up in the lap of luxury and, with a chance encounter, adopted a shape shifter (Raven, aka Mystique, played as adult by Jennifer Lawrence) as his younger sister. When they reached adulthood, Charles had his doctorate in biology and was recruited by the CIA, while Erik had become a Nazi hunter scouring the world for Shaw to deal out righteous justice. Both of their paths lead them together, and soon they were pooling their own knowledge and resources, pulling together a team of other mutants -- Beast (Nicolas Holt), Havok (Lucas Til), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Banshee (Sean Cassidy), and Angel (Zoe Kravitz) -- to take on Shaw.
They'd have to find out how to work as a team and get their powers in check quick, too, because Shaw had plans to pit the U.S. against Russia with the hope of causing a nuclear war. This wasn't for profit, or to aid one side in defeating the other, no; Shaw believed mutants to be the "Children of the Atom" (to drop a phrase often used in the comics) and assumed nuclear war would leave mutants as the dominant (and fastest growing) percentage of the survivors. To prevent a nuclear holocaust, Charles and Erik would need their team to become X-Men and save the world.
In the previous movies (X-Men and X2: X-Men United along with X-Men: The Last Stand), Charles and Erik stood on opposite sides from each other. Though both wanted to protect mutants they had two very different ideas about how to do it, with Erik the one will to get his hands bloody in the process. In First Class, though, that whole dynamic is finally changed; the two are allies instead of enemies, friends that finally got to work together. This movie helps to shade in all the interactions we saw with the characters in the previous films, finally letting us see the friendship firsthand that they always talked about. This film thus improves the previous films as we can then go back and watch those movies and feel their chemistry even more.
That said, not everyone benefits from the storytelling of this film. While Charles and Erik get to play the leads (and are played gloriously in the process by McAvoy and Fassbender) most of the rest of the characters are reduced to also-ran status. Mystique is, honestly, the worst treated of the lot; she's sidekick to Charles for the earliest portion of the movie before being reduced to a pawn to be batted back and forth between Charles and Erik (that is when either of them really want to acknowledge her). Worse, while Mystique was a major player in all of Erik's plans in the original trilogy of films, here the movie doesn't really seem to know what to do with her powers, shoving her on the sidelines until they need her to impersonate someone (which doesn't happen often at all).
It's sad, really, because Raven is given potentially the strongest storyline: what it means to be a blue-skinned mutant reviled by normal society and if she'd really want a cure to change it. Unfortunately the movie actively works to undermine her story, drawing the focus away from her regularly to hang out with the boys. Plus, honestly, we already had the mutant cure story in The Last Stand so this film simply retreads the same material all over again, except this time using Raven in place of that film's Rogue.
Still, Raven is treated much better than the rest of the characters in the film. The X-Men that actually stick around through the film -- Banshee, Havok, and Beast -- are basically props to be used for their powers, nothing more. Each are basically defined by their powers -- sonic voice, concussive beams, and super intelligence, respectively -- but never get much to do beyond these abilities. The movie tries to give Beast something to do, lamenting over his mutation (beastly feet) and how it makes him different, but the film can't really sell it since the first time we meet him he's wearing shoes and hiding his mutation in plain sight. Having him lament his gross mutation after that feel disingenuous; it just never resonates the way it should. Certainly his mutation doesn't make him look like as much of an other as Mystique.
But then we have poor Darwin and Angel. All the characters we've discussed so far are white, but Darwin was black and Angel was Latina and the movie didn't care about either of them at all. Darwin, a guy with the ability to adapt to any danger thrown at him, is rendered into the "Token Black Guy" role when, at the first appearance of the villains (Shaw and his group, the Hellfire Club), Darwin is immediately kill. Meanwhile, Angel then jumps ship and joins the villains, turning on her friends without a second thought. The only people of color in the film are eliminated and made into bad guys in the span of a few scenes, setting a rather bad tone to the film. Sure, they were included, but it's the white people that will save the day.
And yet, even with these flaws, X-Men: First Class is really enjoyable. I credit all of that to McAvoy and Fassbender as they make for a charismatic and infectious duo. The two clearly had fun working together, playing off each other, and getting to be mutants in the movie and it shows. They own every scene they're in, carrying the weight of the movie effortlessly the whole time. You care about these two, enjoy spending time with them, and you can't help but like the movie because of it. They're great and the movie is better for it, making it easy to say that if anyone else was in these roles First Class would be an intolerable mess... because without them it totally is.
From a purely structural standpoint, X-Men: First Class really isn't that great. But with the right actors doing great work in the roles the film works better than it ever should. While it might not be quite as good as the first two films in the whole series, First Class is a damn sight better than the other films to come before it.
Continuity and Issues:
Mystique's powers aren't really well explained in this series. She can change her shape, and skin, and size, and mimic clothing, and duplicate voices. And she can do all this from just seeing a picture, as in the case of her pretending to be Charles's mother at the start of this film? That really seems unlikely. I get her mimicking shape, size, and even voice if she did it by touch, but just from a glance? Hardly.
Also, weirdly, if Raven has been living with a British family this whole time, why does she still speak with a hard American English accent? You'd think she'd have picked up a bit of their accent after twenty-ish years.
This film gives us the first canonical reference to the Stryker family as William Stryker Sr. works for the the CIA. We also get a reference to William Stryker Jr., the jerk who creates the Weapon X program and gives Wolverine such troubles in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X2: X-Men United.
Of course, we also get Emma Frost in this film, the ever famous White Queen. Although she doesn't have to replace the version of Emma we got back in X-Men Origins, she effectively does. This is part of the reason why I tend to consider this film the start of the reboot series/new timeline: even with this movie, the producers were working to reboot out all the elements of the terrible entries in the series so as to clean up the continuity.
Then there's the Summers boys. In this film we get Alex, aka Havoc, who in the comics is the older brother to Scott, aka Cyclops. They maintain this relationship in the movies as well, but this movie is set in the 1960s and when Scott appears (in Apocalypse) its in the 1980s. I can see why they maintained Scott's age since they wanted it to line up with his age in the original trilogy of films but it also means his brother is at least twenty years older. While that's not impossible, it is implausible. At this point they should have made Alex his father instead.
Speaking of family, the relationship between Charles and Raven is also weird, if only because this movie was originally supposed to be viewed as a prequel. In the original trilogy, Mystique seems to barely care about the X-Men or Charles in particular, but does that really line up with her being Charles's adopted sister? Wouldn't you think she'd show at least a little more emotional conflict, especially in the first movie where her actions at Cerebro essentially leave Charles brain dead for half the film?
And while we're on the topic of Cerebro, the original trilogy established that Magneto helped the Professor design and build the machine, but here in First Class the original version was built and designed by Beast. By the next film we have an even bigger version of Cerebro (one that meshes with the version we know in the original films), and Magneto is nowhere to be seen. This is an obvious direct continuity issue.
Of course, in the original films Beast didn't show up until late in the series so the whole idea of having Beast involved in anything didn't make sense -- it was yet another character they had to introduce and explain. Instead, having Charles and Erik build everything themselves made sense based on the characters available ad time permitting. I don't have a problem with them shading in the background in this prequel, it would have just been nice for them to explain some of these minor issues better instead of glossing over them.