It wouldn't be accurate for me to say X-Men: First Class came out of the blue. I've been a fan of the X-Men franchise and liked The Last Stand and Wolverine far more than either film deserved. So while I was expecting I'd like First Class, my hopes weren't remotely high until the first trailer catapulted up my list of anticipated films.
However, after seeing it yesterday, I have to say that First Class not only comes in far ahead of Wolverine and The Last Stand and honestly I think it's the best stand-alone film of the series (X2 depends on set-up from the the first film). Recasting Patrick Stewart's Professor X and Ian McKellen's Magneto with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender pays off for this prequel/reboot (FOX execs are saying "reinvention" so they don't have to commit to anything). Both actors have big shoes (or wheels) to fill, and turn brilliant performances and really owning the characters, as does Jennifer Lawrence, stepping into... well, nothing actually... to replace Rebecca Romijn as Mystique.
Anyway, X-Men: First Class is the first film this year to actually beat my expectations. I didn't think I'd like it more than Thor (and hindsight could change my mind), but right now, First Class is my first for the year. Of course, it's not a totally perfect movie, and a few spoilers will follow.
The real problem with First Class is that it doesn't commit to rebooting the franchise, which desperately needs it. A brief cameo by Hugh Jackman is welcome, but further looks in the idea that this is just a prequel. Of course, that means that if you've seen the earlier films, you know what's going to happen. The major dramatic moments involve averting the Cuban missile crisis (spoilers: crisis averted) and paralysis of Professor X (you probably saw that coming). With the way First Class ends, and with a less-than-stellar opening gross, it's quite possible this film could be clumped in with the current X-Men franchise and abandoned if favor of yet another Wolverine movie.
Potentially, First Class also suffers from a bloated cast of supporting mutants. Introducing Emma Frost, Banshee, Havoc, Azazel, Sebastian Shaw, Angel, Darwin, and Riptide, along with the return of Beast and Mystique to go along with Professor X and Magneto, it's more than the average audience member should be expected to keep track of. The trick is not to try.
Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), Emma Frost (half-naked), Beast, and Mystique are important and easy to identify. The others don't really matter to the story, other than as Good Mutants or Bad Mutants.
It's my hope that First Class will perform well enough to earn a sequel, one that can reinvent such classic characters as Cyclops, Storm, and Jean Grey, and eventually maybe Wolverine. This film has the shot of life and originality that the franchise needed, and somehow, manages not to feel like just another X-Men film, though in reality, this is what an X-Men film should be.