Back in high school, I got into Marvel comics in a big way, right around the time that Secret Wars was happening, the Dire Wraiths were invading just about every comic book, Beta Ray Bill had Thor's Hammer, and X-Men was riding high. I got out of it fairly quickly, but not before getting seriously into TSR's Marvel Superheroes RPG (which was absolutely terrific-- a great implementation of what we would now call a "universal mechanic"). When the first X-Men film came out in 2000, I thought it was terrific, and although the second movie wasn't as good I didn't hate it. The third film... well... it meant well even if I thought it fell flat. I still haven't seen the Wolverine film, but I'm told it's forgettable.
But this... X-Men First Class is just better in every single way than all three of the previous X-Men films. Even not having seen Wolverine, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's better than that, too. This was an absolutely spectacular movie on just about every level you can name.
First off, the first half of it isn't even really a superhero movie. No huge SFX scenes, and the scenes with SFX aren't driven by them at all-- the effects are there to advance not only the plot but the development of the characters.
And that might be the defining element of this film that makes it so good. It's about the characters. The plot is there (and it's awesome), but it is used to grow the characters and their relationships with one another. Charles Xavier and Raven (Mystique), as well as him and Lensherr (Magneto) and the rest of what will eventually become the X-Men team. Plus Raven and Lensherr. And Raven and Hank McCoy (Beast). And on and on. The plot becomes incidental, driven by the inevitable effects and counter-effects of the relationships that are forged on the screen.
But that's not to say the plot is given short-shrift. Far from it. X-Men First Class is a period piece, set mostly in the early 1960's, and it deftly weaves the machinations of Nazi war criminal and mutant Sebastian Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon who is absolutely creepy and chilling as the concentration camp Dr. Schmidt, aka Shaw) as he tries to manipulate the United States and the USSR into a nuclear war, climaxed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, after which he believes mutants will rule the devastated Earth. And that's something that I absolutely love about this movie. The entire first half feels more like a 1960's spy film-- James Bond, Matt Helm, Derek Flint-- than a superhero movie, complete with gratuitous scenes in Vegas with scantily-clad girls and (if I'm right) only slightly anachronistic songs. The villain even has his own atomic submarine! Pure 60's.
The second half of the film kicks into high gear with a montage of Xavier training the group that will become the X-Men and attempt to thwart Shaw's diabolical scheme. But even that is done more through snippets that demonstrate the growth of the characters and their different relationships with one another than purely "things blowing up and people flying around". The climax is suitably big, with a surprise (to me) appearance by veteran character actor Michael Ironside as the American naval commander. The whole thing admirably sets up the "first" X-Men movie, and I can easily see how these characters become those characters years later.
There are all sorts of suitable "Easter eggs" for veteran X-Men fans, and I'll leave it to viewers to catch them all. One of the other admirable aspects of this film is its work on a metaphorical level. The themes of gay rights and discrimination in general is definitely there, but I found it to be somewhat more subdued (and thus more effective) than it was in the first three films. There was a touch of humor, but the film didn't descend into self-parody, which all too often genre films lapse into (particularly those which are the fifth in a series).
But I've also got to call attention to a part of the soundtrack. Normally film soundtracks don't capture my attention all that often, but in this case they have come up with a distinctive theme for Erik Lensherr (who will eventually become the Magneto we see in the other X-Men films) that ranks up there with the all-time best movie villain pieces in history. It's instantly identifiable, and just like the equally marvelous Imperial March (heard in The Empire Strikes back and all Star Wars films since) it instantly conveys a sense of dread and menace. It's used to terrific effect in a number of scenes, where you just know that Lensherr is about to do something completely bad-ass and horrible, but as the sense of menace on the screen grows, so too does the music grow in menace. Here it is in a typically wonderful scene.
Excellent stuff, and an excellent film. See it not only if you're a fan of genre films, but if you like your films driven by character rather than effects.