‘There’s a war coming,’ a nameless CIA agent sayd in X-Men First Class. ‘But with who?’ asks another. It’s the 60’s, and tensions are high as the US and USSR each try to position missiles as close to the other as possible.
Little does either side know, a group of mutants, the Hellfire Club (led by Kevin Bacon), seeks to exploit this conflict to bring about a mutant revolution.
Bacon, playing Sabastian Shaw, was once a scientist working for the Nazis. In that capacity, he met a young Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto), and brought out his mutant abilities in a very unkind way. Later, while hunting for Shaw in Argentina, Eric says that he (Eric) is Frankenstein’s monster, looking for the man (Sabastian) that made him.
In many ways, Sabastian continues to influence Eric as they both share the same dream of a mutant revolution. Eric’s character arc in the film is becoming that which he hates the most. As a holocaust survivor, he hated the Nazis and their ideology of genetic superiority; and yet as a mutant, he believes his own genes to be superior to the humans, and seeks to wipe them out (though to be fair to Eric, mutants are superior to humans, unlike Germans).
On the opposite side is Charles Xavier, a telepathic mutant who recently received his doctorate in Genetics. He, too, wants freedom for mutants, but thinks this can be accomplished by making peace with the humans. The relationship between Eric and Charles is complicated. I think it exists mostly in Charles’ head. Certainly, Eric likes Charles and appreciates his help, but Eric’s involvement in the X-Men was always singly focused on the cause of killing Sebastian. He had his own agenda, and was using them to achieve it. Charles’ belief that Eric was a true ally, or that he could change were very naive for someone that can read minds. While they both want mutants to be free, there’s really never anything approaching a consensus, so Magneto and Professor X’s eventual falling out feels less like a betrayal and more like an inevitability.
As Sabastian plots the Cuban missile crisis to instigate a war between the east and west, Charles thinks it’s an opportunity to win acceptance for the mutants; that if they stop a war, they will win favor from the public. Ironically, Charles does stop the war, but only by turning both sides against mutants, giving them a common enemy.
This was easily the best of the X-Men movies. Being a prequel, a number of the resolutions are know ahead of time, but they’re presented well, and the character arcs leading to them have depth. The 60’s setting gives it style and makes it feel fresh; while the Cuban missile crisis was a brilliant plot conceit. It gives the movie high stakes, but still keeps it grounded in reality, avoiding the cartoonish super villainy that dragged down the first X-Men film.