One way of looking at Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class is as a Holocaust film. A big, bright, loud, broadly pitched Holocaust story surprisingly outfitted with shape-shifting comic-book superheroes and multitudinous fireballs, but a Holocaust film nonetheless.
It's one in which little Erik Lehnsherr (juvie actor Bill Milner), a German Jewish boy circa 1944, gets sent to a Nazi death camp with his family, is discovered by the insidious camp commandant (Kevin Bacon) to possess amazing telekinetic powers, and is forced to demonstrate his skills at the point of a Luger. He doesn't perform fast enough, so the commandant kills the boy's mother. Erik survives and grows into a less-than-full-fledged superhero (Michael Fassbender) determined to get revenge on the commandant, who now lives in the U.S. under the name Sebastian Shaw.
Fascinating as that scenario might be, there's so much more than the tale of Magneto, Erik's ultimate identity, to this sprawling, epic-sized, multifaceted, well-written, engagingly acted spectacle. The numerous characters have life stories almost as compelling as Erik/Magneto's.
Take poor little rich kid Charles Xavier, played as an adult by James McAvoy. He grew up with the ability not only to read people's minds but to control them as well. What a responsibility. He found a childhood ally in Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), a blue-skinned, red-haired visitor from another planet who prefers to be a white-skinned blonde while on Earth.
As the movie proceeds, these three interact vigorously with several other superpowered mutants, some friendly like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Janos Quested/Riptide (Álex González), some hostile like Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng). All are fond of showing off their tricks.
As we join the story in 1962, the Americans and the Soviets are racing toward the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear standoff that could mean the end of the world. Erik and Charles and their team, with the encouragement of an agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), have tentatively thrown in their lot with the CIA.
Meanwhile, evil Shaw and his Thought-Impervious Helmet (don't ask) are hoping to provoke World War III with the help of Frost, red-faced Azazel and winged former bar girl Angel (Zoë Kravitz). Shaw craves chaos the way the U.S. and Russian navies need combat. Looks like a job for the X-Men, the world's real police force.
If the above sounds a wee bit silly, it all unfolds brilliantly onscreen under the guiding hand of Vaughn (Kick-Ass). He understands the basic humanism of the Marvel worldview.
The concentration camp sequence is what Inglourious Basterds could have been. McAvoy (The Conspirator, Atonement) just keeps building his remarkable portfolio. Fassbender ditto. With Lawrence's Raven, somebody finally gets blue skin right. Jones enlarges on her Mad Men Betty Draper chilliness as killer ice queen Emma. And Bacon, destroying everyone in the shot with him as all-purpose villain Shaw, surpasses even his most hilarious worst excesses from JFK.
Effects are first-rate. Half the cast flies instead of walking, with exquisitely timed stunts that build to a satisfying, cliff-hanging crescendo. The main thing that the superpowered mutants, even some of the nasty ones, want to do is to be accepted for what they are. Awww. They're part of one uproariously entertaining movie, and that should be enough.