First of all, X-Men: First Class is the best X-Men movie to date, period. And by far, actually. The original X-Men, as noble as its intentions are, has been reduced to little more than an above-average Syfy movie in recent years. It's not its fault -- our rubrics have changed since Summer 2000 (sheesh!), especially when it comes to comic book movies. The first X-Men is smart and classy, but no longer smart and classy enough.
X2 (2003) is a better film than its predecessor, going a bit darker and more dangerous, but likewise hasn't aged very well. Magneto's plan to kill every non-mutant person on the planet is distressingly ludicrous. And Wolverine once again steals the spotlight to the point where these movies maybe should've been called Wolverine and W2.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) is a rushed hack job, and the less said about it, the better. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the first movie officially dedicated to Logan's sad sack life story, and it somehow managed to reduce one of the mythology's most beloved characters into a boring loner caricature (it's not Hugh Jackman's fault, though even he had trouble transcending the subgrade material in that one). So there was really nowhere to go but up with an origin story/reboot. And up it went... and up, and up, and up...
X-Men: First Class is a groovy '60s-set adventure tale that flaunts and flashes its retro James Bond-ish style with grace and panache -- the bright colors (or should we say technicolors) are a sharp contrast to the tech-heavy deep blues and greys of previous X-Men outings. And, like the Bond films of that era, it's oh so much fun -- the zippy applause-inspiring action scenes are full of surprises. Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) is damn good at his job when it comes to coordinating all of the audio-visual ka-boom.
However, being "a fun action movie" is about a third of what X-Men: First Class is all about. The meat and potatoes of this impressive piece of work is a dark, complex character study chronicling a deep friendship that's torn horrendously asunder. First Class introduces us to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a perhaps too-optimistic humanitarian, and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a deeply scarred Holocaust survivor whose desire for revenge eclipses his capacity for forgiveness. It is an honor (and, indeed, pure movie magic) to meet these two remarkable men in their prime (both actors give excellent performances worthy of succeeding -- or is it preceding? -- Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen -- it's exciting to watch them work together and heartbreaking to see their extremely contrasting philosophies wrench them apart.
That's the thing about the X-Men -- it's all about the internal conflict; the struggle with being different, the coming to terms with strange abilities and the decision as to whether those powers will be used for good or evil. In Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr -- and, indeed, Professor X and Magneto -- we finally get to see a true exploration of all of those things that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were getting at when they first started the comic book series back in 1963.
So, director Matthew Vaughn is damn great at his job when it comes to showing us the men behind the mutants. And don't think it's an uneasy mix -- X-Men: First Class manages to seamlessly be both a neat-o action flick and a complex human drama. And that might be the most powerful -- and impressive -- mutant ability of all.