Review: "X-Men: First Class" (with updated Marvel movie rankings)

Going into "X-Men: First Class", my expectations could not have been lower. It wasn't as if I was expecting a disappointing movie, or a movie that was bad by X-Men standards. No, I was expecting a flat-out BAD movie, and when the initial reviews came in positive, I actually lowered my expectations further, thinking I wouldn't like what the critics had liked.

So color me surprised that "X-Men: First Class" was a good movie. Not just "better than expected" or "not disappointing", but legitimately good.

The title -- and the teaser poster shown to the left -- is somewhat misleading, because this movie doesn't head to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters until the very last moments. Its instead something of an origin story for "X-Men", if not for the individual characters. The two characters who are most hashed out from an "origin" perspective are Xavier and Magneto, who carry the movie.

Things start off a little slow, with Xavier and Mystique's early years coinciding with Magneto's training at the hands of the Nazis followed by his one-man revenge tour. Things start to pick up once Xavier and Mystique join forces with the CIA to stop the Hellfire Club, a group of mutants helmed by the same man -- Sebastian Shaw -- who'd killed Magneto's mother in front of him earlier in the movie. That bit of coincidence leads to Xavier and Magneto teaming up, complete with a fun "putting the team together" montage, and from that point forward, the movie really shines, balancing big action setpieces with more subtle character development.

There are plenty of times where the comic book fan in you (or in me) is going to see something happen in the movie and say "that's not how it's supposed to happen" or "that doesn't match up with the first X-Men movies", but those moments are relatively minor in comparison with the moments that make you say "wow, that was awesome."

Most of the awesomeness comes from James McAvoy (Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto), who really bring their characters to life. McAvoy's Xavier is different from any we've seen before on screen, but over the course of the movie you can see how he grows into the Professor X we now know. Fassbender does a much better job channeling his predecessor in his role, though to be fair, his character motivations are much more well defined from the beginning. There are moments where you can see the character trying to embrace what little good is left in him, but he always acknowledges what his real mission -- first killing Shaw, then establishing mutant superiority -- really is.

Leaving the theater, I felt there were only two things that didn't really work in the movie. The first was Shaw's manipulation of both sides in the Cuban Missile Crisis; it just felt convoluted and while they gave a brief shot of what his endgame was, it seemed like he was going about it in the most difficult way possible. Still "overly complicated evil plan" is pretty much a staple for comic book movies, so I'll let that slide.

The thing that bothered me more was January Jones's portrayal of Emma Frost. Despite my earlier concerns, she fit the role perfectly fine physically, but her characterization of Emma was just way off. Rather than being a formidable presence, she came across as passive. Part of it may have been scripting -- it seems at times Emma was just there so Xavier couldn't use his telepathy to solve every situation -- but Jones came across almost like a robot, lacking all the playful confidence we've come to know from the Emma Frost character. Fortunately, about halfway through the movie, the character disappears, not to be seen again until the final scene (literally). It's like the writers, director, producers or a combination of the three, realized how bad things were going with the character and just decided to remove her from the equation temporarily. It worked, because I enjoyed the rest of the movie, and then when she showed up again at the end, I was like "oh yeah, they never really resolved that with her. Well, there she is, I guess." If they do make a direct sequel to this, they desperately need to recast Emma Frost, and probably bring in a writing consultant to explain HOW the character is supposed to act (I'd suggest Joss Whedon, but he might be busy with that whole "Avengers" thing).

OK so now that we've covered this movie, where does it stack up with the previous 22 Marvel comic book movies? Leaving the theater, I would have subjectively placed it among what I consider to be the "second tier" of great Marvel movies -- in there with the first X-Men, Spider-Man, Thor and Iron Man 2 -- just below the "Holy Trinity" (Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, X2).

When placed in my objective ranking system, ranking each movie on now a 1-23 scale based on IMDB score, Rotten Tomatoes critics score, Rotten Tomatoes audience score and box office receipts, "X-Men: First Class" ends up in a similar spot, though it really straddles the two plateaus, coming in right between "X2" (currently 3rd in the rankings) and "Spider-Man" and "Thor" (previously tied for 4th). It has the highest IMDB score of all 23 movies at 8.2, though that has dropped 0.2 points in the last 8 days. Still, it'd have to fall another 0.3 points just to drop out of the top spot. The average critics score on Rotten Tomatoes is 7.4, which puts it in a literal dead heat with "X2" for 4th. 88% of the "First Class" audience liked the movie according to RT, which is the second-highest score, behind only "Iron Man."

So what it's going to come down to is box office, which is where "First Class" is hurting right now. It had a softer opening than "Thor" and is now trailing the first "X-Men" movie in 10-day gross. That movie -- released 11 years ago -- topped out at $157M at the box office. With "Green Lantern" hitting theaters this week, it's not likely that we're going to see a box office turnaround for "First Class". Right now I've got it projected at $155M, which places it 11th among Marvel movies, just ahead of "Fantastic Four" and just behind "X-Men". Now here's where things get interesting. With that $155M projection, "First Class" has a total of 77.5 points. "X2" currently has 78.5 points. So if "First Class" can bump its box office above the first "X-Men" movie, it would put the newest Marvel movie in a dead heat with "X2", with "Iron Man" and "Spider-Man 2" having gained some separation.

Personally, I didn't think "X-Men: First Class" was quite THAT good that it could crack the top 3, but I have no problem with it slotting in just below that. Of course, this could all be moot, because "Captain America" comes out later this summer, and that could shift the rankings all over the place. We'll just have to wait and see.