It’s probably bad for readership to give away the main thrust of my review in the first paragraph, but going into this movie, I said all they needed for it to be a good movie is to find decent actors to play Magneto and Xavier. I was right, they did, and it was.
Plotwise, this movie is nothing special. It’s a very generic “mean guy with superpowers tries to blow up the world for his own self-aggrandizement” story. It’s strength lies with the characters and the acting.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are both absolutely stellar in their respective roles as the younger versions of Proffessor Xavier and Erik Lensherr/Magneto. Both are just as good in the roles as their predecessors, Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. And considering that Stewart and McKellen are probably my two favourite actors of all time, that is no small piece of praise from me. But that said, they are not aping the performances of their forebears. There is no imitation or impersonation; they make the roles their own and bring fresh takes to the characters.
I found Xavier’s character to be an excellent argument for the merits of the old idea of showing versus telling in writing. So often in prequels, we are repeatedly told that characters are natural born leaders and heroes, but it never quite rings true. (*Glares at JJ Abrams.*) But in First Class, we are simply shown, all through the movie, what a natural leader Xavier really is in the way he inspires everyone around him. His natural charm and charisma is a delight to watch and the perfect counterpoint to Erik Lensherr’s dark, brooding intensity. All of the best scenes in the movie are of these two interacting, and it’s worth the price of admission just to see their relationship evolve.
There are many other fine characters in the movie (including young versions of Mystique and Hank “Beast” McCoy), also played by good actors, but enjoyable as they were, they were almost completely eclipsed by Xavier and Magneto most of the time.
All that said, this is not a perfect movie. It’s biggest problem by far is the villain, played by Kevin Bacon. This is no disrespect to Bacon; he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt. His character, Sebastian Shaw, is simply a bland, forgettable villain that adds nothing to the plot beyond someone to fight. One of the things I love about Marvel villains is that they often have a sympathetic side to them; many are essentially good people whose lives have gone off the rails. Shaw, however, is given virtually no backstory, so all we know is that he’s a mutant and he wants to blow up the planet. It’s boring.
Furthermore, having a mutant for a villain did serious damage to the movie’s theme of mutants struggling to be accepted in the greater world. All of Magneto’s paranoia about humanity tended to ring hollow when the humans just acted helpful and all the danger came from a fellow mutant. Without spoiling things too much, this is remedied somewhat by the final few minutes of the movie, however. But on the whole, I think it would have been better to have some William Stryker-esque human villain, potentially redundant though it may have been.
Another problem is some fairly major continuity issues with the other movies. Wait, wasn’t Emma Frost in the Wolverine movie, and, like, a teenager? Wasn’t Magneto supposed to have assisted in the construction of Cerebro? Mystique is Xavier’s sister? What?
Mind you, fifteen years of Warcraft fandom have given me a superhuman tolerance to retcons, but even I found these a bit distracting.
Still, taken all in all, the strength of the characters and the acting outweighs First Class’s flaws by a fairly wide margin. This probably isn’t the best X-Men movie to date, but I think it may be worthy of second spot behind X-Men United.
Overall rating: 8.8/10