Author's note, June 2016: I was pissed as hell at this film when I saw it, but time has mellowed my opinion. I'd still stick it on the "rotten" side of the register, but 4/10 was needlessly harsh.
X-Men: First Class can be met with more-or-less positive reviews from just about everybody, it's pretty clear that somewhere between me and the world is a fairly decisive and brutal disconnect. So now we have that out of the way.
The film is a prequel (or a "pre-boot" or whatever ghastly neologism they're using) to 2000's X-Men, the movie that got the contemporary superhero movie craze off the ground; it shares that film's greatest sin, which is that it spends too much time talking and not enough time doing. It also shares with that film Bryan Singer, who directed then and produces now, in addition to writing the story; unfortunately, First Class is more in keeping with the Bryan Singer who found a way to smother every last trace of joy from Superman Returns and not the one who reinvented the wheel with X-Men and X2, the latter of which remains one of the highlights of the subgenre. Then again, Singer didn't direct - Matthew Vaughn did, of the sleepy fantasy Stardust and the mean-spirited, hurtfully cynical Kick-Ass, so maybe it's fair just to blame him for everything.
Because, Christ, is First Class not a fun movie.* There was a scene that I really loved, involving a cameo by a beloved Marvel character not otherwise present in the film; there was another moment that made me guffaw - aye, dear reader, a guffaw - when a hulking concrete behemoth of a building was accompanied by the demure title card "Covert CIA Facility". My seatmate insisted that this must have been a deliberate gag (in whispers, of course - I am never one to ruin the experience of watching a movie for the other folks in the theater, even when it is as thoroughly pre-ruined as First Class), I felt it was not, and then a while later, there was the most stereotypical shot of Red Square that you could ever hope to see, blithely accompanied by the card "Moscow, Russia" at which point I conceded his point (incidentally, the movie has an absolute fixation on title cards: as though you might be unable to follow the thrust of the scintillating dialogue and not be completely aware of where we are, hence an aerial shot of a tropical island, following numerous onscreen and in-speech references to Cuba, is obligingly labeled "Cuba").
Other than that, the movie is an exercise in the ill-paced, the redundant, and the flat-out fucking boring. Set primarily in 1962, the plot concerns the young intellectual Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), blessed with a mutation that permits him to read minds, joining forces with embittered Holocaust survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), also a mutant, with the ability to manipulate metal; together they gather up as many young mutants as they can find (apparently, now that it's the Atomic Age, these mutations are happening all over the place), under the aegis of CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) and an unnamed man in black (Oliver Platt). These include not just Charles's childhood friend, the blue-skinned shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), but also a bright science geek with monstrous feet, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), and other characters who are mostly interesting if you are an X-Men connoisseur, because Lord knows Vaughn and his squadron of co-writers don't do a god-damned thing to invest them with any personality to speak of, and the young actors in question are unable to do much of anything but mouth their lines and look generically attractive.
Against these mutant heroes stands wicked ex-Nazi Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a power-absorbing mutant with a desire to trigger World War III, thus eliminating all the normal humans and making the world safe for his fellow supermen; in this he is abetted by telepathic, diamond-skinned Emma Frost (January Jones), and repeat the bit I just put about no personalities for the others. Shaw's plot involves creating the Cuban Missile Crisis out of the simmering discontent of the Cold War, and our protagonists want to stop him for a number of reasons: because it's morally right, to prove that mutants are good people, too, and in Lehnsherr's case, because Shaw was the same man who murdered his mother in a concentration camp and forced the young boy to realise his latent powers as a mutant.
So it's not, strictly speaking, redundant with X-Men, filling in the basic framework of backstory shown in that movie (Erik wishes revenge on humanity for being treated as the scum of life, first as a Jew, then as a mutant; he and Charles were colleagues and friends before they were enemies) with some highly unexpected details. But redundant or not, I still don't know that there's all that much justification for this one; the whole thing feels like a 132-minute prologue to the scene where Erik and Charles, now using their more familiar names "Magneto" and "Professor X", part ways as antagonists, and this undoubtedly has much to do with how badly McAvoy and Fassbender manage to outclass each and every other actor, from the tolerably undernourished (Lawrence) to the unendurably hollow (Jones) - Fassbender manages even to do the unthinkable with his tormented, angry portrayal of a Holocaust survivor, and make me forget about Ian McKellen. That said, there is a healthy amount of spectacle, and it does in fact dazzle: the whole Cuban Missile Crisis sequence is quite an accomplishment of popcorn-movie poetics, with some of the niftiest cross-cutting I've seen in a big-budget action movie in a long while, with Magneto conducting the movement of dozens of projectiles like Stowkowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra. So it's not just the last scene that pricks the movie up to life.
That said, one good action sequence and two good performances do not a good movie make (oh, and good production design: Chris Seagars's sets evoke the totality of The Sixties more than they do 1962, but that just serves to lend the movie a certain mythic, out-of-time quality; I'll confess to not seeing even a trace of the James Bond influence in the visuals that everybody else seems so enamoured of). First Class, as much as it does anything, reveals the limitations of a superhero movie without terrible interesting characters, or indeed characters who fail to emerge from the general pile of goo into which all of the supporting figures tumble by movie's end. There aren't any stakes; we know from the other movies that the only well-defined characters who aren't villains live (Charles, Erik, Raven/Mystique), and that leaves all the minor figures as so much super-powered cannon fodder. This was precisely the problem that Singer's X-Men films avoided so extravagantly; every character, from the biggest role to the smallest, is crisp and clear and stands out. Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand managed to exactly reverse that, and First Class is more of the same, only with the addition of an unacceptably bloated running time that's filled with hardly any incident worth the watching (say what one will about The Last Stand, at least shit blew up with satisfying regularity). What little style crops up only serves to reinforce that Vaughn is not of his nature a stylist; the most self-consciously "arty" part of the whole movie is a deeply peculiar training montage that wields split-screens with the grace of an ogre lunging about with a cudgel.
I am sad. I was really hoping this would be the best superhero movie of the year; never in my darkest moments did I expect that it would turn out to be the worst X-Men movie (even more boring and idle than the staid Wolverine); enough to make Thor, which at least had ideas within its head even if they were clumsily expressed, look sprightly and sharp. Maybe I'm just extra-peevish because of extreme superhero movie fatigue, but if this is the best Hollywood can do with the subgenre, no wonder the films are starting to underperform at the box office!
NB: Cutting to the black mutant on the word "slavery": Ladies and gentlemen, Matthew Vaughn, king of good taste.
Reviews in this series
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)
Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2 (Singer, 2003)