First up, let me say that I've never worshiped at the altar of Bryan Singer's X-men. Oh, I liked them well enough, but they never really felt like the X-men to me, with a few exceptions for certain characters. So coming from that point of view, and recalling that Ratner's X-men: Last Stand used a script that barely differed from the one Matthew Vaughn and Bryan Singer had in place when they left the project, my hopes for this movie weren't high. So did they exceed expectations?
The answer is... kinda.
It's clear that when they were coming up with the concept, they settled on an X-men origins story, decided to set it in the sixties and then went "Heyyyyy, 60s? JAMES BOND!" and decided to let that influence their choices.
Sadly, rather than picking the strong elements of Bond (gritty spy drama) they went for the rest. So you get overblown world domination plots from overblown villains, an underlying current of misogyny and sexism, racism, all the female characters reduced to running around in their underwear for the slightest of reasons, ridiculous gadgets and vehicles. In short, this was Moonraker, not From Russia with Love.
The love story between Erik and Charles could, possibly, have saved it for me. But we never got to see a whole lot of that on screen, despite a couple of short scenes where McAvoy and Fassbender simmered at each other over a chess board or Erik trying to make the earth move (well, okay, a big dish). Their chemistry was one of the best things about the movie and I would have enjoyed myself a whole lot more with it if Xavier hadn't, putting it bluntly, been an unforgiveable fuck for the entire movie. From manipulating women to the vile way he treated his oldest friend, I found little to enjoy there. There have always been problematic elements to Xavier's character and philosophy, but this movie brought them to the fore. It's understandable, perhaps. Make Charles less perfect and Erik's turn is more sympathetic, but I couldn't cheer for him as the hero with the feet of clay. His treatment of Moira at the end of the scene, setting the character up for a horribly misogynistic "joke" that is the last we see of her, coloured the whole character for me. That's the last we see of them both and it ends the movie on a horribly sour note. This following Charles' "They're just following orders!" line. So gross.
Likewise, Nicholas Hoult as Beast is given a scene to deliver where he tells Mystique she will never be accepted in her true form and society will only consider her beautiful as a blonde, white, slim girl. It's at this point in the film I wanted to reach through the screen and punch the character, but in retrospect, I'd rather take that disgust out on Vaughn and the other writers for putting such a vile sentiment on film. It particular jars given the treatment of genuinely marginalized people in the movie (you know, the ones that aren't just white people playing pretend). And while we're supposed to accept that his and Charles' issues with Mystique's appearance stem from internalized mutant-phobia, it pushes them beyond "heroes with feet of clay" to "assholes".
They weren't the only issues I had with certain characters. Both Mystique and Emma Frost were uphailed in early reviews as having developed character arcs and, while that was true of Mystique and I enjoyed Jennifer Lawrence's performance, both character lacked any kind of fierceness. Mystique called Xavier out of his bullshit a couple of times, but didn't tear him a new asshole, which would have been my choice. Emma was just... there and January Jones appeared to be sleepwalking through much of the film. There never seemed to be any reason why Emma would tolerate Shaw's continual baiting and misogyny or what she was getting out of the deal. The women in the movie don't come out of it well - there's so much sexism which defenders will no doubt claim as being "of the period", but it still left me really unimpressed. The objectification of women is pretty fucking blatant when you have the strong CIA agent lead wriggling out of her clothes and walking around in her underwear in the first ten minutes. When the only female character to appear in the movie prior to this has been fridged, it sets the tone.
And there's so much racefail as the genuine minorities are killed off or go evil by the half way mark, leaving the white actors to play out the marginalized mutant roles. You'd think a movie that has a lot to say about intolerance and privilege would examine its own more carefully. Darwin's death was heroic, but didn't seem to serve much purpose over emphasizing "SHIT JUST GOT REAL". Shaw turns up to recruit the fledgling X-men, most of them say no, Shaw goes to leave. The others never seemed to be in any danger, there was never the implication of "Join me or die!" Darwin sacrificing himself so the others could escape would be one thing, but as it was, that entire sequence felt... pointless and just an excuse to kill off the POC.
There's also the issue of where they go from here. The sudden about-face as Erik turned from sympathetic anti-hero to full-blown costumed supervillain within the space of a few minutes means that the story's been told. I can understand that decision to make the movie more self-contained, but Erik sliding fully to the dark side over the course of another movie, after his dark moment in the finale here, would have been far more satisfying, despite Michael Fassbender's nuanced and strong performance. As it is, Erik's ideology is never fleshed out in depth and while there are hints, the fact that he attempts to bring about nuclear armageddon himself seems an abrupt character turn for someone whose main developed motivation up to that point was revenge. It would be understandable if Kevin Bacon's character had been a human and everything terrible up to that point that had happened to Erik being done by humans . It would be prime motivation. But Erik being tortured by a fellow mutant would have done more to turn him away from mutant superiority than towards it, surely?
And, while Vaughn and Singer are taking the line that "X-3 NEVER HAPPENED, NOPE, NO WAY!" (strange considering it was their script), its still grating for there to be just so many continuity errors with the original script. Are we to assume that Charles and Erik get back together a few years later and recruit Jean, and that Charles' spine been healed in the meantime? What's Magneto been doing for 40 years before the first X-men movie? Nothing, apparently, since the public's never heard of him before, despite his ripping a hole in the Pentagon. Who built Cerebro exactly? Why did we see Storm in the Cerebro scene? Just how old is she supposed to be? If that wasn't Emma Frost in Wolverine: Origins, who was it?
All that said... the movie was nicely paced and action packed. Plenty happened. It was tightly plotted. The characters were brief sketches of characters, but the screen-time was decently balanced. The styling, for the most part, was nicely period (although Angel's outfit and place of employment seemed incongruous.) I found myself loving Banshee, despite the ageism of making him a teenager. There was a lot of good, with tight direction and strong action sequences. I'm sure many people will enjoy the movie. For me, it felt like more of the same from Singer and co. Playing hard and fast with characters to make them unrecognizable and, although this movie did a far better job balancing the characters (this wasn't the all-Wolverine-all-the-time Show) there was so much... gross stuff that I could never feel entirely comfortable with the movie. Much of the time I can acknowledge problematic elements while still getting something out of mass entertainment. This time I just felt swamped, although I acknowledge that I was never particularly inclined to be generous in my critical judgement before I went in.
So... yeah... I was expecting to be turned off the movie by a half-hearted period setting or for fannish reasons, but in the event, none of the "it's not like canon" stuff was particularly intrusive. Instead I acknowledge it as a well-made movie but was turned off it for multiple other reasons.
I'm probably overthinking and should have just run with it. So, hey, I'll just listen to Magneto when he says, "FUCK YOU, HAVE A CUPCAKE."