The best X-Men film since X2, although considering the train wreck that was Last Stand and the pile of meh that was Wolverine I'm probably damning it with faint praise.
X-Men: First Class is an entertaining film. A good superhero film that -for the most part- successfully balances it's ensemble cast. There's a despicable villain, but also moral greys among the current good guys. The sixties aesthetic gave it a distinctive style and allowed some fun in a film that covered some very serious issues.
The storyline felt rushed.
In the Stewart/McKellen version of events Magneto and Professor X were best friends. They shared a common dream and worked towards a better future for mutants, building a school -not to mention Cerebro- together. However this is a summer superhero flick and so things must be accomplished quickly, lest there be too long a gap between fight scenes and explosions.
The deep bond between the two future enemies -who don't even meet in the first third of the film- is established with alacrity and conveyed through a few touching moments and so much man-gaze that shipping is rendered irrelevant.
These are supposed to be two pillars of the mutant community, men who helped defined mutant identity in its formative stages. Their split in ideology tore that fledgling community in two. Their bond and the conflict that breaks it should have been epic. Here they know one another for a couple of months, have some fun working together, but then realise they have different ideals. Mutantkind as a whole seems largely uncaring.
The real long-lasting friendship in the film is that of Charles and Raven (Mystique). Although I again feel that their parting of the ways was underplayed.
Charles and Raven have a sibling-like relationship, at least from Charles' point of view. Raven jokes that she is Charles' only friend because he's rather geeky and very bad at chat-up lines (those women should have rolled their eyes - it might have worked in US, but the whole charming-English-accent thing doesn't work so well in the UK). However it is clear that Charles is everything to Raven -her saviour, protector, and probably only friend- since she was a child. Her insecurity about her mutation means that she has clung to him her whole life.Sadly rather than supporting her as a mutant (as future-Professor X would) Charles seems just as embarrassed about her true form as she is, something which is clearly very damaging to the poor girl. So it is not surprising that she feels jealous and resentful when he chats up women with mundane pretty-girl 'mutations'.
While her split from Charles isn't surprising (and not just because we know it's gonna happen) I felt that perhaps it needed more weight. Whatever their personal problems I didn't see why Raven didn't agree with Charle's ideals. Unfortunately it did kinda seem as though she went with Erik because she had a crush on him.
I really like the idea that Raven lived in that mansion for a decade and no one but Charles knew. In fact I want to see a comic in which young-Charles Xavier and young-Raven Darkholme get up to all sorts of telepathic/shape-shifting hi-jinks. All the while keeping her presence a secret from Ma and Pa Xavier and the snooty, suspicious butler - though I imagine they might let a friendly gardener's boy/maid know. It'd be all sorts of fun!
Back to the film.
Magneto was handled well - especially after what they did with him in Last Stand. He has a vengeful Wolverine-like role early in the film, a loner not a team member. A more redemptive story would have him taking down Shaw, his organisation and all he stood for. The film-makers were short on in-story time and as Magneto had to go from lone killer who's unaware of other mutants to a mutant extremist leader it made sense for him to take control of an evil organisation that was already in place. Yes, it does mean he becomes the same as the man he hunted down. Not everyone rises above what was done to them, and it still makes Magneto fairly sympathetic as a villain.
Moira McTaggart was a good character, although I prefer the Scottish scientist of the comics, I suppose that in a film set during the Cold War an agent made sense too. I didn't like the Superman II-esque memory wiping kiss at the end- though at least memory wipes are actually one of Professor X's powers.
Firstly I don't think that she was a liability as she was totally on Charles' side against both Magneto and her own government. Judging her as such just because she isn't a mutant seems somewhat prejudiced.
Secondly, WTF! He stole her memory without her consent and disguised this act of betrayal as a romantic gesture, bastard! The kiss just seemed to be an attempt to make a nasty expediency seem romantic (same as in Superman II), and it wasn't as though Charles and Moira had romantic relationship earlier in the film, so the kiss just seemed kinda creepy in context.
I was surprised to see Beast played by Nicholas Hoult, he wasn't so identifiable on posters. I liked the character, but like McTaggart I felt he wasn't used well. His driving motivation was that he didn't like his weird feet. He had no problem with smarts or agility (which we didn't see much of), but was completely defined by his odd feet, which are frankly a very easy body part to hide. Shame and confusion about mutation is a very valid thing to explore, but if you are going to focus on appearance don't do it with a character whose physical mutation is minimal and normally unnoticeable.
There was some iffy stuff from a sexist/racist point of view.
I mean the film had Emma Frost, a character I cannot take seriously as her every appearance (even in children's cartoons) screams EYE CANDY so loud that my brain is deafened. Other female characters were also cast into eye candy role, some rose above it (McTaggart) some didn't (Angel).
The black guy gets vaporised first and the Latin girl goes bad. It's better than Last Stand's Brotherhood of Evil Minorities, but still the characters left at the end are all white (or blue, but previously white) and that seems a shame from a franchise that has such a diversity of characters to choose from.
Over all X-Men: First Class was an entertaining film, and I enjoyed watching it. It was more serious than superhero films tend to be, and perhaps gave the viewer more to think about. Many of the flaws I've identified are ones that are common to Hollywood films, and things that occurred to me after watching.
I would certainly recommend it to superhero film fans, and hopefully it's a sign of the X-Film Franchise getting back onto it's feet.