During this summer of sequels (and prequels, as the case may be), I’ve already seen my share of stinkers (see “Pirates of the Caribbean 4” or “Kung Fu Panda 2”).

But “X-Men: First Class” isn’t one of them.

This fifth film in the franchise – which is actually the second chronologically – is entertaining, engaging, interesting and, at least in the main roles, well-acted.

Lead actors James McAvoy – as Charles Xavier, later “Professor X” – and Michael Fassbender – as Erik Lehnsherr, later “Magneto” – play convincing friends-turned-enemies with passion, intelligence and an understated earnestness that shows they weren’t just cashing in on a popular franchise, but honestly trying to make a good movie.

The other characters in the film are, to be honest, somewhat glossed over, though the back story on the blue-skinned “Mystique” is an important part of the film, and the origin of “Beast” is intriguing as well, but both take a backseat to the younger incarnations of the rich and complex Xavier and Magneto.

I admit, I like superhero stories, and I liked three of the four previous X-Men movies (I’ll let you guess the one I was severely disappointed in), but even I was wondering if casting all new actors as younger versions of Hollywood’s favorite mutants wasn’t overdoing it.

On the contrary, “First Class” is a satisfying “origins” movie that belongs right up there with “Thor” in the pantheon of caped crusader films (though short of “The Dark Knight” or “Iron Man”).

I can only hope that the rest of this year’s next crop – “The Green Lantern” and “Captain America” – are as good as “First Class” and pray that “Transformers 3” doesn’t sour me on sequels forever (but don’t hold your breath on that one).

Even in terms of worldview, “First Class” doesn’t disappoint, earning better grades than some of the earlier films in the X-Men franchise.

At the core of the X-Men mythos is a discussion on the “evolution” of the human species through mutation.

And there’s no lack of evolution talk in “First Class,” perhaps even more than in some of the other X-Men films, meaning way more than enough to gag a creationist.

But if such a creationist (such as me) can accept the Darwinian premise for the purpose of storytelling, there is a curious continuation of the ongoing battle of philosophy between Magneto, who believes the more “evolved” mutants must supplant humankind, and Professor X, who believes they must coexist in peace.

“We have it in us to be the better men,” insists Professor X, meaning that the mutants needn’t stoop to the genocidal tendencies of the Nazis, who once held and experimented on the Jewish Magneto.

“We already are,” Magneto fires back. “We are the next stage in human evolution.”

Interestingly, and unlike the first X-Men film, the big champions of evolution in “First Class” turn out to be the bad guys (even Nazis), exposing the dark destination of many of their natural-selection, survival-of-the-fittest philosophies. Not quite enough to give a godless evolutionary perspective the black eye it deserves, but enough to raise some questions.

Furthermore, the journey of seeing how Magneto’s hate eventually drives him to the same conclusions as his Nazi captors is a fascinating study in both the nature of hate and the history of those German people who embraced Nazism.

And while “First Class” actually talks about evolution more frequently than its predecessors, it is a tense discussion, a debate, and doesn’t come off quite as preachy as the first few X-Men movies.

Also noticeably absent is the glaringly obvious parallels to homosexuality that were woven through the first X-Men films, and not just because the outspokenly “gay” actor, Ian McKellen, is also absent from “First Class.”

The first X-Men film was overloaded with references to how teenage mutants discovered they were “different,” how they were shunned, how they “came out of the closet” and how their differences shouldn’t really matter and should be accepted. I almost wondered if McKellen didn’t write the script as a propaganda piece.

Those themes, if present at all, were underplayed in “First Class,” a refreshing change for the franchise that allowed other subjects – such as the blinding power of revenge and hate – to play bigger roles in the story.

“First Class” still isn’t very friendly to Christians or to families – see the content advisory below – but for discerning audiences that can enjoy a good superhero movie, “First Class” is a first-rate popcorn muncher of a summer diversion.

Content advisory:

  • “X-Men: First Class” contains about a dozen minor profanities and obscenities and one, very strong obscenity used for comedic effect.
  • The film, naturally, contains a heavy amount of violence, though there’s no blood or gore, even when there obviously would be in reality. Dozens of characters are killed by knife or by falling from heights, two by having their heads crushed inside a metal helmet (though again, almost no gore). There is also a Nazi torture chamber shown, but not in use, and once character is killed – with some blood seen – by having a projectile pushed through his forehead.
  • “First Class” is, however, by far the “sexiest” of the X-Men movies. Though the other films had their moments, this film has a completely unnecessary amount of female flesh on display. The character Emma Frost always appears with cleavage bulging out of her outfits and is frequently shown in bra and garters. Like the other films, a couple of female characters appear in the nude, though in heavy movie makeup showing only curves without skin detail. “First Class” also has a pair of scenes – one in a strip club, another in a Las Vegas VIP lounge – where several women are seen parading about in their underwear or lingerie. In yet another scene, a skivvies-clad Frost is seen straddling a (clothed) man who is running his hands over her and making lustful noises. Add in a few suggestive lines of dialogue and kisses and alluring poses, and “First Class” clearly panders to making the testosterone flow.
  • The film’s religious content – discussion of evolution aside – is limited to a man crossing himself, a “God help us” utterance and a character whose mutation makes him appear devilish, with red skin, spaded tail and flames about him.

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