Let's forget about the comics - I love them, but this is a film. Obviously the biggest complaint is "this isn't Xavier's First Class at all! Grr!!!" Yes, I would love to see the origins of the X-Men with Cyclops, Beast, Ice Man, Angel and Marvel Girl. But I'm ignoring that completely. Alternate timeline, in a way.
So....X-Men: First Class. For the record, I'm a big fan of the first two X-Men films - I thought they did a good job of balancing comic book action with real-life, realist situations. I really didn't like X-Men 3 (too many characters not doing anything, too many issues not dealt with enough). And I hated X-Men Origins: Wolverine (absolutely terrible!). First Class is a mixed bag.
The film opens using segments from the first X-Men film - Young Eric in Auschwitz during WWII. Some clever editing shows evil mastermind Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who sees Eric's abilities and investigates further. The way Magneto's powers are explored and developed from then on is fascinating and compelling, with some dark shocks to really show the good-to-evil transition.
So it's a strong opening, the only downside being that it's a little disjointed, darting from one location to the next. But if you're half awake (and you will be any time Michael Fassbender's Eric Lensherr is on screen - he owns everything!) it won't be a problem.
Once the film gets into its stride, there's loads of fun to be had - Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) struts around Oxford chatting up the ladies by reading their minds and regaling them with facts about mutations (remind me try that one in a bar!). Meanwhile, Eric goes from country to country on a revenge mission (I won't reveal why). And it's dark - being able to control metal, ripping fillings out of people's mouths and diverting bullets is child's play. It makes for great viewing - you understand Eric's choices, but can easily see the seeds of Magneto trying to get out.
We get to see the meeting of Charles and Eric, which is nice. My only issue is that, whilst significant, it seems to be played down. And from that point, the film isn't quite as good. Eric's revenge mission takes a back seat. Granted, it's probably necessary to tell the story, but you can't help thinking there's a more compelling story to be told by following Eric all the way.
You'll probably notice that I haven't mentioned the X-Men at all. That's because they take a long time to enter. A montage shows Charles and Eric recruiting mutant after mutant. And it's in this scene where the film hides its shiniest moment - amongst these mutants, there is a cameo. I'm not saying who, but you will smile when s/he appears.
Once Charles' First Class is assembled, Sebastian Shaw's plan for nuclear war (after which mutants will stand victorious) moves swiftly along, as he manipulates both US and Russian military forces to get what he wants. So Eric and Charles leap into action to save the day.
Essentially, this is two films. The first half is about Eric and his revenge against Shaw, with Charles finding a bigger purpose in life. The second half focuses more on the young X-Men, with Havok, Mystique, Beast, Banshee et al getting some screen time.
Mystique's story is probably the most compelling as we learn why she decided to throw in her lot with Eric. Beast's is obvious and a little cliche, and would have worked a lot better had Hank appeared earlier in the film. But it works. Havok, however, is completely irrelevant. He could easily be removed from the film without consequence and seems only there to make up the numbers. The same goes for Banshee. They both take up valuable time which could have been devoted to Beast's story.
Shaw's mutant henchmen are made up of diamond-edged telepath Emma Frost and teleporter Azazel. Azazel really is there to make up the numbers. But that's fine - he's cool and has some decent action scenes (he's the first film's Sabretooth). Frost however, is a wasted opportunity. Zero screen presence and none of the jazz the comics gave her. A huge shame, since she could have been a great addition.
So it's a mixed bag. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are both excellent and Kevin Bacon is fun too (maybe a bit more humour would have been good?). I was about ready to give this film a 4/5 rating until the younger cast appeared. They do their best, but unfortunately, they're not given enough screen time to do their jobs.
The most fun definitely comes from seeing Eric's transition to Magneto (complete with retro costume). Had the film focused solely on that (and forgotten the First Class), it would have been much better. A vast improvemet on the last Wolverine movie, but could have been better I feel.
Of course, there's huge sequel, so hopefully the new X-Men will be properly developed there. And they're missing a trick if they don't put Emma Frost centre stage!
3.5/5 - go see it, then wait for it to drop to £10 in HMV.
X-Men (2000) - 4/5
X2 (2003) - 4/5
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) - 2/5
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) - 1/5
X-Men: First Class (2011) - 3.5/5