In a summer where comics-based movies are coming out almost every couple of weeks, its takes a lot to stand out. But could a movie building on the reputation of a movie series, acting as a prequel to them, compete with the rest of the comics movies?
Yes, I believe it does.
"X-Men: First Class" is the story about Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr, mutants, who would eventually become staunch rivals. But here, they're allies against another mutant, Sebastian Shaw, who has a previous connection with Eric. Its also about the founding of the X-Men and the cause of the rivalry between Charles and Eric. Its why Charles is wheel-chair bound and where Eric got the trademark metal helmet. Its about the first steps toward collecting mutants and training them for the eventual battle between two philosophies: one where humans and mutants can co-exist, one where one must dominate the other.
And somewhere in there, there's the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Eric's life was filled with pain. Sebastian Shaw, as the head of the Hellfire Club, is using his power and influence to start World War III, an atomic war that would devastate the Earth and engender more mutants ("Children of the Atom") to be his army. Shaw, as a doctor in the prison camp that held Eric as a child, sought to unleash Eric's magnetic powers and killed his mother as a way to unlock his powers through rage. As an adult, Eric was on a quest for vengeance.
Charles' life, on the other hand, was filled with accomplishments, even if his pick-up technique left something to be desired. He is approached by CIA agent Moira McTaggart who knows that mutants exist and that they're not on the side of the US. With her connections he is able to locate other mutants and form the basis of what would eventually become the X-Men, but that's not quite yet.
Commentary: With two telepaths (Charles and Emma Frost, who was aiding Shaw) in the movie, there definitely was several times when they used their telepathy, and telepathic mind control one or more of those times, and both do so. Emma uses her telepathy to convince a Russian general he's enjoying a romp with illusionary self, and Charles uses his telepathy to change a few minds and to cause amnesia, so its hard to see who is the more manipulative.
Addenda: I have to give the director credit for the unannounced cameo appears by Hugh Jackman, who Xavier and Lehnsherr try to recruit and he tells them to get lost. (Actually he says something a little more coarse.) And it has one of my all time favorite actors, Michael Ironside, as the commander of the US interdiction fleet. However, there wasn't the requisite cameo appearance of Stan Lee, nor was there anything shown after the final credits. (The final scene with Eric would have worked nicely for that.)
The set design also deserves credit: the movie, especially Shaw's submarine, looks like it came from an early Bond film. In fact, I could easily imagine Goldfinger or Blofeld sitting in the control room instead of Shaw.
Recommendation: Yes, definitely recommended. The relationship between Charles and Eric is what shapes the story and we get to see enough of their pasts to make their friendship and their rivalry all the more believable: excellent performances by both actors here. Mystique and Beast also get some good character development and their relationship is an interesting counterpoint to that of Charles and Eric. Plus Emma is not just eye candy here. Even some of newer members of the two teams, like Angel, Banshee and Havok, get their chance to contribute to the fun. Currently it is getting very good reviews at places like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes so it is likely to stay around a while.