I don't think it can be understated just how much of the films strengths lie on Matthew Vaughan (director of last year's brilliant Kick-Ass) who brings so much to the franchise (after dropping out of directing Last Stand). Gone is the darker tone of the X-Men films of the last decade, instead settling on a far more fun tone that goes hand in hand with the 60s setting. The sets look brighter and more colourful, as do the costumes (including Emma Frost who seems to only wear lingerie....not that I'm complaining) and there are obvious James Bond parallels that can also be levelled, particularly at the early scenes featuring Michael Fassbender. Matthew Vaughan was exactly what the franchise needed two films ago, but now that he seems to have full reign of the franchise I couldn't be happier.
The anchor to this film is, of course, the relationship between Michael Fassbender's Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto and James McAvoy's Charles Xavier/Professor X. Luckily, both are absolutely fantastic. Quite easily they are able to live up to the performances given by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen in the older X-Men films, whilst also appearing to having more fun in their roles than those veteran actors.
X-Men: First Class's Charles Xavier feels more human than before, actually spending his time drinking, womanising and just having a good time. Of course we still have to see his more serious side and driven nature, but at least we get to see a refreshing new side to the character. But the true revelation here is Michael Fassbender (also fantastic in 2009's Inglorious Basterds), his Magneto is utterly tormented by his childhood in a WW2 Concentration camp and yet is a completely relate-able character despite the audience knowing what Magneto will eventually become. It becomes clear from early scenes that Fassbender shoulders a large piece of this movie on his own (and would make for a fantastic James Bond) but it's the scenes between Charles and Erik that make 'X-Men: First Class' as great as it is.
Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is the villain intrinsicly linked to Magneto's past and shown to be an instigator behind the Cuban Missile Crisis. His aims might seem oddly cartoonish, especially in context of the rest of the film, but the anguish that he has caused, make him a compelling force throughout. Particularly in any scene when he is paired with Fassbender. The chilly January Jones plays Emma Frost, carrying over almost the exact same performance from Mad Men, but it's good one so we ignore that. Sadly though, some of the other villains in the Hellfire Club just aren't serviced in the plot well enough at all, receiving maybe a half dozen words between them. And it's here that the main weakness within the film lies.
Whilst James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are clearly great as the leads, the other X-Men are left with minimal screen time, with only Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique and Nicholas Hoult's Beast getting any time to themselves. It helps that Hoult and Lawrence are good, but characters such as Lucas Till's Havok and Caleb Landry Jones' Banshee are short changed. The film does a great job at creating these characters and setting up their world, but it's the sequel that's going to be the one that is able to take full advantage of it.
Apart from some dodgy special effects and the obvious growing pains that come with having to introduce an entire universe within two hours, X-Men: First Class achieves what it sets out to. At times it might bite off a bit too much, but it all goes towards creating this new cinematic world. If you were left disappointed by the last two X-Men films, then this will almost certainly make you happy. In many ways it does a far better job at introducing the X-Men than 2000's own 'X-Men' film, and apart from those teething problems, this is a world that I want to spend a more time in. It's good to see that the franchise has once again found it's feet (although I am disappointed that Darren Aronofsky dropped out of The Wolverine*). 'X-Men: First Class' is a great first step to rejuvenating the X-Men franchise and I can't wait to see where Matthew Vaughan takes them next.
*speaking of Wolverine......