The previous installment in the X-Men franchise was the appalling, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was reviled by franchise fans and critics alike. The title and placement of the colon in said title suggests that perhaps there was an intention to create an entire spin-off franchise revolving around the origins of various X-Men characters. And while the extremely negative reaction to X-Men Origins: Wolverine seemed to have stopped any plans for future "X-Men Origin" films, X-Men: First Class plays out very much like an origin movie. We witness the beginnings of Charles Xavier, Mystique and Megneto in this film (among other mutants), and thankfully, the results are much better this time than the last.
The plot is fairly simple. Set in the 1960's (not that you would be able to tell thanks to clearly non-researched fashion choices), X-Men: First Class reunites several of the X-Men from the previous films (though they are much younger due to the time period), as well as introduce a few new mutants. They all must work together to stop an evil villain bent on world domination. And though you probably think you've seen this before (and you likely have), there's more to it underneath the surface.
X-Men: First Class is an interesting film in that it feels like it has been directed by two completely different people. The first half of the film is remarkably entertaining with a smartly written script and engaging characters. Unfortunately, the second half of the film contains script contrivances and idiocy to the same degree of the previous X-Men films and ends with a fairly standard (and lengthy) CGI-filled action sequence. The only director credited is Matthew Vaughn, so despite the differences in the two separate halves of the film, the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that Vaughn was responsible for both parts of the film. But this doesn't make my job here any easier, as this will require me to talk about the two halves individually as though they were different films.
The first half of X-Men: First Class is, in a word, smashing. It's a spectacular collage of well-written character scenes and stylish action sequences. There's some drama, a bit of comedy, and a real human touch that is so often neglected in these kinds of films. The writing is sharp. While the previous X-Men films (even at their best) were often laughably stupid, the first half of X-Men: First Class is the exact opposite. It's intelligently written and directed, and richly developed. At times, it even goes as far as to explain previously raised questions from the last films (though it does so in non-obvious ways, thankfully minimizing exposition). The first half of this film is perhaps the best we've seen from the X-Men franchise.
Seeing the younger versions of these likable characters from the previous films provides some interesting dynamics. We see characters like Charles Xavier as a more fun-loving young man (and with a full head of hair!), and we witness Mystique in a more innocent phase (making her exit in X-Men: The Last Stand all the more unsatisfying). This concept could have been gimmicky and cutesy, but the writing is so sharp that everything manages to work exceedingly well.
And then, we must unfortunately talk about the second half of the film, which lacks the majority of the first half's considerably strengths. The problems here are numerous (and not unlike those that plagued all the preceding X-Men chapters): poor writing, boring action, bland characters, and others. The darker tone expressed in the film's first half is jarringly changed to a more light and comedic one. And one particular romance that develops between Mystique and another X-Men results in some of the film's weakest writing.
Several new characters are introduced in the second half, and none of them are interesting or have personality traits. They're almost completely interchangeable. The writing steps down several notches for the other characters too, which is incredibly disappointing because they were so smartly written in the first half of the film.
Those looking for the kind of plots holes or undefined powers that have become a series trademark will enjoy the second half more than others. The abundance of them here is as expansive as in any other X-Men film. And the very ending itself leaves a number of questions (and potentially contradictions with the previous films). There are continuity problems as well, though they thankfully aren't as blatant as they were in X-Men Origins.
One other recurring problem that is present both halves is the film's tendency to provide "humorous" winks and self-referential humor pointing towards the previous X-Men films. These tend to be more obnoxious than funny. The exception is a surprisingly well-handled encounter with an X-Men from the preceding films. This short scene may very well be the comedic highlight of the series so far, and is hilarious enough that one can forgive the continuity issues this scene causes.
The acting is as strong as it's ever been. The new cast members keep the integrity of the originals, but they put their own fresh spin on each character. Charles Xavier is now portrayed by James McAvoy, who actually manages to match the skill of Patrick Stewart's own performance of the same character. Less successful (and incredibly overrated) is Michael Fassbender as Young Magneto. His performance is solid, but little else. Part of this can be blamed on the weakness in his character's writing (the only character in the first half who is given little development or personality), but part of the skill of Ian McKellan's performance as the same character was being able to elevate material that wasn't always so great. Fassbender fails to do so.
On the other hand, Jennifer Lawrence manages to make the dialogue work, even when it falters in the second half of the film. Kevin Bacon portrays a boring villain with as much character as he could probably get out it. Child actors Laurence Belcher and Morgan Lily are lovely in a single short scene at the beginning.
Henry Jackman's score, while more pronounced than the other X-Men scores, is fairly problematic. The biggest issue is his handling of the Magneto character, which is surprisingly misguided. We have come to know Magento as a conflicted and intricate villain (even if this film doesn't always manage to get that across). But his theme suggests a stereotypical bad-to-the-bone antagonist. One especially poorly scored scene is when Magneto brutally murders three men in a pub. Jackman's score here seems to actually glorify this course of action (the electric guitar doesn't help at all), rather than focus on the horror, or even the sadness that has lead to these murders. At other moments, the score crosses into self-parody moment (especially during the final action sequence).
While the first half is slick, stylish and loads of fun, X-Men: First Class hurts itself significantly in the second half. A lot of the second half is slow and comparatively uninteresting, and that works against the film. During this time, you begin to remember all the things you loved so much about the previous X-Men films that aren't present here (namely Ian McKellan). And because you're less engaged, the plot holes and continuity issues seem so much more obvious. That's not to say the second half of X-Men First Class is bad. It's perfunctory and entertaining enough. But it just feels so uninvolving after the riveting first half. X-Men: First Class is still arguably the best X-Men film so far, but not by as a wide a margin as one would initially expect.