The great thing about this movie was the relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (Magneto.) It was almost a romance (as I'm pretty sure James McAvoy said.) The relationship was set up extremely well and I can feel the power of their friendship from the moment they meet to the moment they part ways at the finale. The pain Charles experiences as Erik kills Shaw is more than just psychic sympathy pain. It is the pain of watching a friend make a horrible choice and not being able to do anything about it.
The entire Magneto story is very well done. They could have written him as a sympathetic villain, but instead they go full-on hero. They make us root for Erik. Right from the beginning when he is torn from his parents by the Nazis and then forced to see his mother shot before his eyes, we are on his side. The power of that violent image, in fact, is enough for us to completely understand and sympathize with Erik at the end when he makes the choice that we know is wrong. (The murder of Shaw and the aggression against the humans.) Magneto has always struck me as a fascinating villain because of the nuance of his position, and I am so happy they explored that in this film.
The other mutants were interesting as well, but they hardly reached the level of character depth that Xavier and Magneto did. (With the possible exception of Mystique and, to a lesser extent, Beast, both of whom I will address in a moment.) That's not necessarily a bad thing; the writers knew that the heart of their story was the Professor X/Magneto relationship and were wise to not distract from that relationship too much. Instead, the other mutants mostly act as representatives of the larger mutant population in this time of social and political upheaval. By giving us named mutant characters to support and get behind, the film allows us to see the nuance of the mutant debate and give a larger view on prejudice and racism.
Beast and Mystique function in this role as well, but also demonstrate another facet of the mutant debate. Both have mutations that are extremely visible, and both struggle with this fact during the film. Their choice is a choice between accepting who they are and being shunned by society or changing themselves to fit into human society. However, unlike the other mutants, Raven and Hank get quite a bit of interesting character development and their struggles come across as much more individual dilemmas than general issues. As a result, the interplay between their own personal conflict and the larger human/mutant conflict really shines and is one of the strongest points of the movie.
Of course, Raven and Hank choose differently, which speaks to the ultimate difference in their characters. Raven, ever the confident woman, eventually (and with the support of Magneto) chooses to accept her true form, at the cost of her close friendship with Charles. (It's really unfortunate, and probably one of his biggest mistakes in the film, that it never occurred to Charles how much Raven needed him to accept her true appearance. In a few scenes he comes off as downright mean about it.) Hank, though, nerdy and insecure, attempts to use a serum to reverse the physical aspects of his mutation. I don't think anyone in the theater was surprised when the serum failed to work as intended and instead had quite the opposite effect. Nevertheless, the transformation scene managed to be both horrific and tragic. The one who most wanted to hide became the one with the least ability to. I really like Beast as a character in the comics, and was glad to see him get his due here. In particular, I love the duality of the Man of Science vs. the Primal Beast.
The Hellfire Club was a natural choice for a villain, and they were very effective plotwise, what with the manipulation of the US and Russia to cause the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as characters, they were less than interesting. Kevin Bacon was fine as Sebastian Shaw, but his character lacked much of anything that interested me. As with the minor mutant characters, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it simply shows that the filmmakers were focused on the important parts of the movie. Shaw was really only important in that his actions shaped Magneto's character, and his philosophy of Mutant Superiority would later by adopted by Magneto against Charles' philosophy of Human/Mutant Coexistence. (It is a devilishly awesome piece of irony that Magneto, himself a victim of the Nazis, would grow up to become not entirely un-Nazi-like himself. The fact that this comes across as completely believable and, indeed, sympathetic is a testament to the nuance of the writing and the power of the ideas involved.)
- I love how they didn't ignore that Charles is kind of a ladies man. Using his knowledge of genetics to pick up chicks in bars rang totally true for young Xavier, and it was absolutely hilarious.
- Quite a few deviations from comic book history here. Several characters are very different than their comics incarnations. Banshee is not an Irish aristocrat in this version. Mystique is not well over a hundred years old (though her character had precedent for deviating from the comic history in the other X-movies.)
- I wish they had made Emma Frost just a bit less one-dimensional. I'm not a huge fan of Emma Frost, considering she is pretty much the epitome of female exploitation in comics. I wish they had done a bit more with her here.
- The Wolverine cameo was absolutely hilarious.
- I saw this movie with my (female) best friend. I bring that up because, after the film, we discovered we had differing interpretations of the Xavier/Raven relationship. I interpreted it as just very close friendship with Raven needing a bit more acceptance from Xavier than she ultimately got. My friend interpreted it as Raven having romantic feelings for Charles that he was unaware of, citing her ruining his chances with the girl in the bar at the beginning, among other things, as evidence. I can totally see her interpretation and think she might very well be right. My question is why I didn't see it during the movie. My friend and I briefly wondered if perhaps it was a gender difference. I'm curious, so if you've seen the film I'd like to know how you interpreted the Charles/Raven relationship in the comments. Did I not see the romantic aspect because I'm a guy or just because I'm oblivious?