The best parts about the Bryan Singer helmed X-men films (let's all forget the Rattner one, please) were Wolverine and the relationship between Xavier and Magneto. The tension between their opposed worldviews, the philosophizing, their continued friendship (of sorts) that persists even when they are on the opposite sides of a chasm of thought. Not to mention the superb casting of Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. Though, because this dynamic only evolves over the course of two films packed with characters, it's given short shrift. What is there is fantastic, but it's necessarily -- and unfortunately -- very limited.
The makers of X-men: First Class (helmed by Matthew Vaughn) smartly make the Charles-Erik (or Professor X - Magneto) dynamic the heart of this film as well, and it pays dividends. The casting is, once again, excellent and the respective performances are pitch perfect. James McEvoy plays a young, ambulatory Professor X with charm and class. While Michael Fassbender's Magneto is seething with a thirst for vengeance, and his performance is explosive.
The film acts as a prequel to the trilogy of films released last decade, even using one of the first scenes from the first X-men film as the opening scene for this one. Exploring the seeds of division that resulted in Professor X's school for mutants and Magneto's Brotherhood, the film revolves around the two characters and their relationship. Set during the Cold War, the events embroil mutants in the affairs of humans and serves to explain the origins of Magneto's antipathy and Xavier's pity and compassion toward them.
It was satisfying to get more of this relationship and these characters, but once again I felt as if the film would have benefited from narrowing its focus even further, at the expense of giving less attention to minor characters and plot.
Though there are things to like in the secondary characters and their interactions. The character arcs of -- and relationship between -- Raven and Beast are interesting and well done. And the training sequences of Havoc and Banshee are cool. Beast's birth is pretty awesome, being shown from a first-person perspective. Of course there are the big action set pieces and the mutant confrontations, and those are extremely well-done, especially the climactic sequence.
The villains are actually one of the film's somewhat weak points, I thought. Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon (who always plays a great villain) looks and sounds like he should be just some kind of diabolical mastermind- human-pulling-the-strings-behind-the-scenes, but he turns out to have one of the ultimate mutations it almost feels unfair to the heroes (though if you're familiar with him from the comics, you know it going in). I generally like a foe with slightly more meager gifts, but a more brilliant plan (ultimately it's only dumb luck that does him in, which is a bit of a flaw in the script). The great thing about the main villain, Shaw, is that Magneto has an extremely personal vendetta against him, and that acts as perfect fuel to Fassbender's flame.
The Shaw-Magneto dynamic is very interesting, in terms of character, because of what it reveals about Magneto. He doesn't oppose Shaw because he aims to destroy humans, on the contrary, he shares his worldview (after years in his tutelage). The only thing he holds against Shaw is the harm he inflicted on Magneto's family. It's the most personal kind of grudge, and the set-up and payoff for that dynamic is marvelous.
X-men: First Class is definitely the best X-men film to date, which I give a high recommendation. Definitely earns its place right in the upper echelon of comic book films made since the comic-book-film explosion.