Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.
Falling somewhere in between a prequel and a reboot, X-Men: First Class was a refreshing change of pace for the franchise when it was released in 2011, following 2006's disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009's even more disappointing spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It doesn't look quite as good in retrospect, especially compared to Bryan Singer's first two movies, and, like The Last Stand, it sets some dangerous precedents for messing with series continuity that would become the foundations of later installments. To be fair, at the time the filmmakers didn't necessarily anticipate that the timelines of this film and the previous films would merge, but First Class makes enough references to the earlier movies that it can't entirely be viewed as a standalone piece.
For starters (literally), the opening is an exact replica of the opening scene of Singer's X-Men, with young Erik Lensherr discovering his powers as the Nazis cart his mother off to a concentration camp. Director Matthew Vaughn (who stepped in when contractual obligations kept Singer from returning, and who was originally set to direct The Last Stand) then expands on that, introducing young Erik to the sadistic Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an underrated villain in the series. Although the movie takes place in 1962 and contradicts a number of established back-story elements from the earlier films (especially The Last Stand), it still works to connect itself to its predecessors, with cameos from Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn and references to events that would theoretically be yet to come for these characters.
Still, First Class is plenty entertaining on its own, and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do a good job of putting their own stamps on Professor X and Magneto. Vaughn has a lot of fun with the time period, in his visual style (including split screens, reflections and Dutch angles), in the fashions and in the use of real historical events, most significantly the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is reimagined as a mutant battle. Shaw makes for a fabulously evil villain, more sadistic and sinister than Magneto or Stryker, albeit just as focused on the idea of human-mutant mutually assured destruction. McAvoy, Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence as the young Mystique establish a strong central dynamic that will carry through the next two movies, and Nicholas Hoult offers decent support as Beast (although he looks pretty silly in his furry blue form).
Other supporting characters are kind of wasted, though, especially the team of X-Men that Professor X eventually recruits to go after Shaw. They're mostly third-string characters, rather than the actual "first class" from the comics, since the movie doesn't reuse any characters who were already introduced in the present-day timeline in the previous installments. Shaw's team of evil mutants is also pretty forgettable, and January Jones' wooden performance kind of ruins the introduction of Emma Frost, one of the most interesting characters in the X-Men canon. The flaws of First Class are more apparent when it's viewed in the context of the series as a whole, but from moment to moment it's still fun to watch, and it delves into philosophy and character dynamics much more effectively than The Last Stand did. In a way it's a victim of its own success, since instead of launching a rebooted franchise, it got folded into the main series, retroactively becoming a solid prequel rather than a true fresh start.