Marginalization, persecution, assimilation -- are these themes too weighty for a summer superhero flick? Not for "X-Men: First Class," the first such film since 2008's "The Dark Knight" that has something on its mind other than lavish effects and high decibels.
"X-Men: First Class" rewinds to the Cold War 1960s -- the era in which the comics launched -- to show us the mutant superheroes in their youth. The future Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is a callow collegian who uses his telepathy to woo coeds; the metal-bending Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is a Holocaust survivor hunting down his torturer, the elusive Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
Other alienated youths appear, including the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Angel (Zoe Kravitz), whose butterfly wings aren't just a tattoo. Some characters, like the literal ice queen Emma Frost (January Jones), fall victim to overcrowding; even at two hours and 10 minutes, the film can't properly attend to everyone.
The story centers on the delightful notion that evil mutants planned the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, just one example of the film's irreverent humor. Director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") also has fun shifting between wood-paneled offices (shades of "Mad Men") and modish villains' lairs straight from the Bond films. But nobody is having a better time than Bacon, who transforms from Nazi doctor to Miami kingpin to atomic monster.
Partly written by Bryan Singer, the openly gay filmmaker who helped launched this franchise in 2000, "X-Men: First Class" is loaded with subtexts, though you don't need to belong to a culturally designated minority for the film to resonate. You could just be a plain old moviegoer looking for intelligent entertainment.