X-Men: First Class is elaborately plotted, smart, and melodramatic. It's full of in-jokes, sexy ladies in absurd costumes, and symbolic subtext. It plays clever games with the continuity established in the other X-films, and opens up opportunities for endless sequelæ. It ends with sock-o action and anguish.
In short, it's even truer to the spirit of the Claremont X-Men comics I grew up on than Bryan Singer's two X-films.
There's a lot to like. McAvoy and Fassbender are terrific as Xavier and Erik, both individually and playing off of one another; it's a tall order to play characters who are going to age into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and they deliver the goods. As villain Sebastian Shaw, Kevin Bacon is even better; he's as terrifyingly convincing a psychopath as Hopkins' Lecter. There are a number of other good performances as well, including some pleasant surprise appearances by great character actors like Michael Ironside, and Nicholas Hoult as an anxious young Hank McCoy. The production design is marvelous, with great little winks toward the world of early James Bond movies. The movie delivers good superheroics — incredibly it even sells Banshee's power of flying by yelling really loud, which seems goofy even in the comics — with nifty special effects and the characters using their distinctive powers intelligently. The movie is smart and fun and a lot of the characterization is rich.
That said, it has a few serious flaws. There are patches in the middle where it bogs down with Too Many Mutants; my non-comic-book-fan companion fell out of the movie at that point, and never quite found her way back in. Surrounded by good performances, January Jones' Emma Frost stands out as, well, looking great in '60s hair. The uncanny blankness of her Betty Draper in Mad Men is apparently the only note she can hit; the computer-generated diamond version of her is a better actor. The evocation of '60s sexism, which could have been witty, is undercut by the sexism of the movie itself. Among other things, having established that movie Mystique walks around blue and nude, and having included Emma Frost as a character, you'd think there was more than enough womens' skin showing, but no we have see every female character in her lingerie at some point while the men get all the good lines. There's racism to go with the sexism; all of our central characters are White ... though there is one Black guy in the movie. Just guess how things work out for him. I try not to let that sort of thing get under my skin too much, but it is especially disturbing given the Civil Rights Era subtext of X-Men in general and the choice of the early '60s as the setting for this story.
Still, First Class is a much, much better superhero movie than I was expecting, and suggests that the series will recover from the hugely disappointing X-Men: Last Stand. Joe Bob says check it out.