Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), left, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), Dr. Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Alex Summers (Lucas Till).

When it comes to the X-men movie series, which continues with today's release of "X-Men: First Class," there are so many flashy powers and beautiful people that it can become a blur. In the end, many viewers, particularly non-comic fans, may be left wondering: Who are the X-Men?

First published by Marvel Comics in September 1963, the X-Men comic books, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, are considered one of the last great titles to come out of the Silver Age of comic books (generally seen as comics published between 1956 and 1970).

In the X-Men worldview, the existence of powerful genetic mutants is something that can no longer be kept from the general public, which doesn't always take the news gracefully. For every family that welcomes a gifted child, there are others who cast their children out, or search for a scientific answer for normalcy at any cost.

Enter into this setting Professor Charles Xavier, a paraplegic and one of the world's strongest telepaths who dreams of a world where mankind and mutant kind coexist in a peaceful and symbiotic relationship. Toward this end, he opens the Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters at his mansion in New York. There, young mutants learn not only the ins and outs of a standard education, but are tutored in harnessing and controlling their powers.

The best and brightest of these students become the X-Men, a super-powered team dedicated to protecting humanity from the threat of other mutants, aliens, and the meddlings of the government and anti-mutant organizations.

Of course, you can't have a team of vigilante heroes without recurring villainy, in this case represented by a mutant called Magneto, the master of magnetism. Magneto, also known as Erik Lehnsherr, is a survivor of the World War II holocaust — an experience that greatly taints his worldview.

In their early years, Magneto and Xavier were close friends, but Magneto believes in a manifest destiny where mutants, the genetically superior, rule over their unpowered lessers. Eventually, this difference in ideology causes Magneto to form his own mutant group, the Brotherhood of Mutants. In its various incarnations, this group becomes the chief rival of the X-Men across comics, animated television and movie media.

The basic idea is simple, but has become one of the largest comic book ensemble casts on record. In the years since the first issue, the X-Men have seen more than 20 artists and writers leave a mark on the series, and there have been more than a dozen title changes, spin-offs and reboots, along with many new heroes and villains. The X-Men world is complex, sometimes shared with other Marvel regulars and full of continuity overlap. For the X-Men and their enemies, death is rarely a permanent thing.

Filmmakers face a challenge in creating movies that capture the spirit of the X-Men while trying to appeal to the non-fans without having to provide a playbook of characters and powers. This has been done with varying degrees of success in the first four movies ("X-Men," "X2: X-Men United," "X3: X-Men Last Stand" and "Wolverine: Origins") and is now being approached in "X-Men: First Class."

"First Class" is a prequel piece, and while it borrows back-story and characters from the comic books, it is not an attempt to recreate a specific comic story line. It takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis before either the Brotherhood or the X-Men exist. This is the story of two friends facing an enemy in the mutant-run Hellfire club, trying to save a nation nearly at war and figuring out who they are.

In the end, the battle lines will be drawn. Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier will face their differences and the X-Men movie universe will be defined.

And for those who need that playbook, here's the brief rundown:

Charles Xavier/Professor X: Telepath and eventual leader of the X-Men.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto: Master of magnetism and eventual leader of the Brotherhood, though a good guy for now.

Raven Darkholme/Mystique: Blue-skinned shape-shifter and mimic.

Hank McCoy/Beast: Animalistic genius, strong, blue and fuzzy.

Angel Salvadore: Insect physiology including thin wings and flight.

Alex Summers/Havok: Able to absorb and direct blasts of cosmic energy.

Banshee: Sonic screamer, able to fly for short periods of time on sound energy.

Sebastian Shaw: Leader of the Hellfire club, able to absorb kinetic energy and redirect as brute strength.

Emma Frost: The white queen, also of the Hellfire club, a strong telepath with an unbreakable diamond form.

Riptide: Able to launch sharp projectiles at high speeds.

Darwin: Changing powers that evolve to suit his situation and survival.

Azael: An ancient mutant capable of teleporting between places or planes.

Moira MacTaggert: Love interest of Charles Xavier, genetic researcher and doctor.

JanaLee Stocks Brown is a freelance writer, wife and mother. She is an old school geekette, enjoying SFF books, comics and video games. Catch her at or tweet along @janastocks.