Published Jun 02, 2011X-Men: First Class is a reboot in a superhero movie culture that's full of them (see: Hulks, Spider-Men), but rather than simply restarting a series begun only 11 years ago, X-Men: First Class takes a minor Marvel comics spin-off as the basis for a whole new, and arguably better positioned, X-Men series.
This is a pre-prequel, returning to a time when Professor X was simply Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a brilliant young man with a full head of hair and emerging telepathic ability. Erik Lehnsherr (Inglourious Basterds' Michael Fassbender, who's awesome) has had a much tougher path ― the concentration camps of World War II ― to his emergence as Magneto. Recognizing their common, mutant-y differences, X-Men: First Class gives Lehnsherr his tragic back-story and moves fairly quickly into the "getting the band together" chunk that's always part of such superhero origin tales.
The band in this case include Xavier's shape-shifting childhood friend Raven (aka Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence), inventor Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult, from the UK Skins, who's much more effective before being saddled with kind of tragic blue Beast make-up) and a few other peripheral X-people, including Angel Salvadore (played by Zoë Kravitz). They're pitted against baddie Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his hot psychic sidekick, Emma Frost (Mad Men's January Jones), while the '60s setting allows for a cold war tension/nuclear panic plotline.
X-Men: First Class (also a return to this world for Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn, who was hired and then quit as director of X-Men 3) is a good and familiar example of this type of film. It's too long, but the action is well handled, the introductions are, for the most part, effective and the special effects are cool. It's also kind of boring, which is inevitable when it comes to a universe whose mythology is so familiar to casual comics fans, or even viewers of other X-movies.
Yes, Charles Xavier is going to end up in a wheelchair; of course Magneto's human-disdaining Brotherhood will clash with Xavier's kinder, gentler team; we know what side Emma Frost ends up on ― and that robs the film of a little bit of tension. (When Spider-Man reboots again next summer, will anyone be shocked by the sight of a radioactive spider?)
So within that context, what works in X-Men: First Class is that by rebooting at a time when all the principles are much younger, this cast have more of a future than, say, Halle Berry returning as Storm did. (It also invites uncomfortable continuity questions, like how 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique in 1963 becomes Rebecca Romijn's 30-year-old Mystique in 2000; I'd like to say fan boys won't be asking these questions, but that would be a lie.)
In Michael Fassbender, they have an actor with great presence and gravitas appropriate for Erik Lehnsherr's heavy personal burden, though it would have been nice to give James McAvoy weightier material than the bald jokes. Jennifer Lawrence proves that she has big budget star quality to go with the quiet indie film chops she showed off in Winter's Bone.
But in casting January Jones as Emma Frost, First Class whiffs on a major opportunity ― as a powerful psychic with a penchant for skimpy lingerie-ish outfits, Frost is an often contradictory and fascinating character whose shifting loyalties and thirst for power have made her a fan favourite. While January Jones has the look, she's a cold fish of an actor, which makes her perfect as Betty Draper and fairly useless in any other context. Without her dynamic force of will, Frost becomes little more than a sexual bauble for Sebastian Shaw to occasionally bat around, and given her potential involvement in future storylines, it's a waste of one of the most powerful women in the X-universe.
X-Men: First Class is a solid but not exceptional entry into the world of superhero movies. But it's also symptomatic of a culture that knows how these kinds of tales start but has shown little or no confidence in telling stories embedded in that world. For that reason, be wary of investing too much into these characters, or at least these iterations of them, because X-Tweens: The Early Years can't be far away. (Fox)