When Stan Lee originally came up with the X-men, he made them mutants specifically so he wouldn't have to come up with individual origin stories beyond "They were born that way." Hollywood, which never takes for granted that audiences will just accept such things, has given us a prequel anyway, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is all despite Bryan Singer's first X-Men feature being pretty clear on most of the basics.
And like so many superhero movies these days, it's loaded with enough characters, backstory and plot that you may need some notes at first. So here are a couple of pointers before you head into theaters this weekend to see the biggest mutant-starring movie of the summer:
1. Charles Xavier Really Is the Absent-Minded Professor: In the first X-Men movie, Professor X, then played by Patrick Stewart, claimed to have met arch-nemesis Magneto at age 17 and built the mutant-seeking device Cerebro with him. He also expresses surprise that his friend-turned-foe is in possession of a helmet that can block psychic attacks. Since X-Men: First Class features several shout-outs to the comic's continuity while simultaneously contradicting these events, we must assume that the mutants' bald benefactor (James McAvoy in the new one) either has a terrible memory, is a huge liar or exists in an alternate reality.
2. Inconsistency Runs Rampant: We know some mutants, like Wolverine, just don't age. But it would appear some humans don't either, while mutants can age backward. Diamond-skinned Emma Frost—here a sexy femme fatale played by January Jones—appeared as a teenager in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, while Xavier's human liaison/love interest Moira, played by Rose Byrne in this '60s setting, will apparently look like Olivia Williams some 40 years later in X-Men: the Last Stand. Let's not even start with the cameo by human Hank McCoy in X2, who became a blue-haired Beast in the subsequent movie with no explanation. Now we learn he actually changed decades ago. George Lucas doesn't look so wildly inconsistent now, huh? Best to think of this as a Star Trek-style reboot, where what we've seen so far is only one possible future. After all, the World Trade Center was part of future New York in the first film. And Halle Berry's Storm lost her "African" accent damn quick.
3. Angels Have No Gender: To the casual viewer, it may seem confusing that Ben Foster played a winged mutant named Angel in The Last Stand, and Lenny Kravitz's daughter Zoe plays a winged mutant also called Angel in First Class. Here's the distinction: Foster's character was actually named Warren Worthington and got the nickname due to having feathered wings. The new Angel is actually named Angel Salvadore, has insect wings and goes by the nom de hero Tempest in the comics. Also, if you're curious why new character Azazel (Jason Flemyng) seems so similar to Nightcrawler, it's because they're father and son...If the inevitable sequels hold to comics continuity, Mystique's the mom.
4. Stan Lee Is Nowhere to Be Found: Unlike in many Marvel Comics adaptations, Stan Lee does not have a cameo. Nor is there anything after the end credits. Just thought we'd save you some time there.
5. The Director Knows His Action: Matthew Vaughn originally dropped out of helming The Last Stand, but then proved he could direct kickass heroics by making, well, Kick-Ass. Fans hated The Last Stand anyway, so he dodged that adamantium bullet. Now he's back with a story cowritten by original X-guy Bryan Singer, who was busy with Superman Returns back then. Vaughn sure knows how to pick his spots; he also made a pre-Bond Daniel Craig believable as a tough guy in Layer Cake.