First Class mostly hits the spot with an origins story that explains how Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier came to occupy their respective positions in a Marvel Comics universe occupied by mutants who are leaving humans in the dust as they move up on the evolutionary scale.
Magneto, you'll recall from previous X-Men movies, is the evil mutant; Professor Xavier helps train mutants to aid humankind.
In the hands of British director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), X-Men: First Class advances the franchise by moving backward in time, specifically to the Cuban missile crisis which pitted the U.S. against a mighty Soviet foe, a looming nuclear showdown that feels almost quaint by today's standards.
This foray into history yields a surprisingly entertaining prequel that survives a few brushes with effects that border on the cheesy.
Credit a strong cast led by Michael Fassbender, who plays Erik, the young Holocaust survivor who will grow up to be Magneto. Erik has difficulty balancing his desire for revenge -- a Nazi killed his mother -- and his willingness to help others.
Played with conviction and charisma by Fassbender, Erik eclipses a youthful Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Charles, also a mutant, tries to persuade Erik to join him in a quest that not only will help settle Erik's Auschwitz score, but also will benefit the rest of humanity.
The preternaturally good-natured Charles has grown up in the company of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a red-haired, blue-skinned mutant who can change appearances, often morphing into a lovely young blonde who wants to fit into human society.
In pivotal early action, we meet a Nazi doctor (Kevin Bacon) who's trying to force young Erik to use his psychic powers to advance evil causes. As it turns out, this Nazi doctor is Sebastian Shaw, a mutant who wants to rule the world and who re-emerges in the 1960s with a beautiful but chilly assistant, January Jones' Emma Frost.
Once the movie arrives in the 1960s, The X-Men crew gathers and begins its training, first under the guidance of a CIA official (Oliver Platt) and then on its own. Rose Byrne, last seen in "Bridesmaids," portrays a more sympathetic CIA operative.
This time around, the mutant crew includes Hank (Nicholas Hoult), Alex (Lucas Till), Sean, (Caleb Landry), Armando (Edi Gathegi) and Angel (Zoe Kravitz). Before the movie's finished, all the mutants will acquire comic-book names related to their powers: Beast, Havoc, Banshee and Darwin, for example.
The climax involves a ferocious battle of wills between mutants who are forced to take sides. Forgive me for thinking that Erik's arguments for the dark side can be more persuasive than the opposition's plea for understanding, a conclusion that may have more to do with the power of Fassbender's performance than with the strength of Magneto's powers of reason.
You get the idea: This is an enjoyable comic-book view of history as a bubbling cauldron of oppositional forces locked in a tug of war that never can be fully resolved -- at least not without jeopardizing a franchise.