X-Men: First Class (2011)
How a film is promoted is always just as important as the movie itself. X-Men: First Class is a prime example. The movie, directed by Matthew Vaughn, came out after two disappointing X-Men films: X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The former had been the third chapter of the original trilogy and had failed to meet audience expectations, while the latter was a disaster on the scale that both Wolverine and Deadpool, a minor character in the movie, were soon rebooted.
Part of that rebooting began with this movie. Unfortunately, no one would be able to tell from the adds, which at the time showed a bunch of pretty young people taking on new and former roles, with promised younger versions of Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto. Audiences would have had no idea this was initially an origin story for Magneto that evolved into an origin story for the X-Men as well, and that the bright, fresh young faces - shown walking around aimlessly on one of the worst movie posters of all time - hid a dark and often violent film that concentrated on an alternate history of one of the turning points of the Cold War.
Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is a Jewish boy with the power to manipulate metal, a power that becomes apparent when he is separated from his parents by Nazi occupiers. Rather than be interred in the camp with his family he becomes the personal experiment of a Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) who wishes to bring out Lensherr's power. Meanwhile, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a privileged child who can read minds, and his interest in genetics leads to him earning a PhD at Oxford. When Schmidt reemerges in 1962 under the name Sebastian Shaw, Lensherr starts tracking him down as the last on his list for vengeance.
When CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) discovers a conspiracy to start World War III headed by Shaw her bosses at first do not believe her until, after contacting Xavier, he and his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) demonstrate their powers. After being introduced to scientist Hank (Nicholas Hoult), who is also secretly a mutant, they lead a raid against Shaw. Xavier's attempts are thwarted by Shaw's compatriot, Emma Frost (January Jones), a rival telepath, but he soon senses another mutant to add to his cause - Lensherr, who has failed in his attempt to kill Shaw. The two team up and begin recruiting other mutants, working with the U.S. government, but soon striking out on their own to end Shaw's plans - an attempt to force a confrontation between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. over missile placement in Cuba.
The movie begins with a replay of the opening of X-Men, showing Lensherr being separated from his parents, but then goes on to show what he endured. Since audiences were used to two distinguished thespians in the roles of Magneto and Professor X - Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, respectively - getting used to two new actors in the role is a bit of a hard sell. Regardless, Fassbender decided rather than imitating McKellan to just play Magneto his way and, just like his predecessor, he manages to convey both the respect he has for Xavier (and for almost all mutants) as well as his deep-seated anger and hatred of humanity. McAvoy gets to play Xavier as more of a playboy, which may sound silly at first but does quite a bit to humanize him, especially since it seems like his methods of training his recruits is something he originally has to make up as he goes along.
Emma Frost, who can turn her skin to diamond, was briefly shown in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and played by a different actress. Part of Matthew Vaughn's goal in making X-Men: First Class was to begin subtly rebooting the series to erase the mistakes made by the previous two films, and this was one of the big ones. Frost in this one is a villain, aiding frost in his goals, and happily is no longer the victim of laughable effects. She is one of two women that have to use their looks to get by - Zoë Kravitz plays exotic danger Angel, who has dragonfly wings - in a tip of the hat to how women were expected to navigate in a man's world at the time. Another returning character is Mystique, or Raven, this time played by Jennifer Lawrence, with her own story arc to show how she ended up with Magneto.
Despite being promoted Dawson's X-Men, First Class is often filled with references to bleak points in history including Nazi atrocities. Although broadened to include the rest of the X-Men, it doesn't hold back on showing why Magneto is the way he is. The only major problem is that Vaughn and his team of writers felt they needed to explain so much from the original movies in the prequel, even if the prequel is the precursor for wiping out much of what happened in them. While it is nice to get a backstory on Mystique, we didn't necessarily need ones on Cerebro or their unique jet, or even who originally built it all. Also, Shaw's speech about being "children of the atom" can be confusing, since that this is from his point of view and not how mutants formed. Wolverine, for instance, is still canonically close to 200 years old by the time he dies.
I am not the only one that was turned off by both the marketing and a sense of fatigue after the previous movies. This movie was expensive and did not even make back its initial budget in the United States. It did decent business on the worldwide market. Enough that, after everything, Bryan Singer (who pretty much contributed the original story ideas to this movie and directed the first two X-Men films) was able to return for X-Men: Days of Future Passed, which would go even further into rebooting the series as allowing it to compete again with its Marvel compatriots.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Time: 131 minutes
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones
Director: Matthew Vaughn