Maybe it was because I watched it with international relations scholars, or maybe because X-men has always been a more thoughtful franchise. Whatever the reason, I couldn't help but observe several IR threads running throughout the movie. I know, I know. I'm a huge nerd.
Before you completely despair, I will say that X-men: First Class has all the hallmarks of a popcorn classic: attractive leads, snappy one-liners, bright explosions and incredibly stupid memes ("Remember: Mutant and proud").
But the film, like many X-men stories, focuses on the contrasting world views of two of its most charismatic and powerful mutants: the idealistic Professor X and the realistic Magneto. (Lest the symbolism of their balanced-in-opposition stances escape us, they are frequently depicted playing chess: Look! The director tells us. They are smart! Balanced! Yet opposed!)
The idea is that Professor X and Magneto are both members of a small but powerful minority, and they disagree about how those powers should be used. Magneto, a strict realist, adopts a traditional approach, arguing that ordinary humans will feel threatened by the growing power of the mutant community. Fear will lead to attack, powered by a desire for self-preservation. In order to protect themselves, the mutants must band together against a common enemy.
Professor X is the idealist, arguing that the strength of mutual interests and cooperation will override traditional balance-of-power politics, particularly if non-mutants can be persuaded to recognize mutant powers as a resource for good.
The resolution of this argument is ambiguous, and Professor X and Magneto fare no better in reaching consensus than their IR colleagues. Ultimately, there is always evidence to support both sides of the coin. That may be what makes X-men such an enduring franchise. The nature of the enemy is unpredictable and changing, giving their villains and heroes greater depth than some other comics. The nature of their struggle is not rooted in a simple good v. evil binary, but in the the response of ordinary humans to revolutionary change.