It's been 14 years since Bryan Singer kicked off the X-Men movie franchise. In the interim, through seven films, we've been treated to sequels, prequels, sidequels, and requels. Whether you're a rabid comic-book collector or a casual fan of mutant mayhem, that's a lot to wrap your skull around. Singer's return in the pretzel-logic pop fantasia X-Men: Days of Future Past is so triumphant because of how effortless he makes connecting the dots seem. It's an epic that couldn't be more Byzantine on paper but scans with ease on screen.
Ever since Singer left the fold after 2003's excellent X-Men 2 to direct Superman Returns, things have been pretty hit-and-miss. Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand was a dud, and both Wolverine spin-offs, despite Hugh Jackman's gruff, mutton-chopped charisma, were underwhelming. Only Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class duplicated Singer's cocktail of gravitas and merry-prankster fun. First Class introduced new actors in familiar roles, namely James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto), and the fizzy dynamic between these characters felt so fresh and emotionally resonant that it seemed inevitable the audience would demand to see the powerhouse actors in those roles again.
Not surprisingly, the best thing about Days of Future Past is that it's heavier on the days past than future. In that sense, it's a lot like 1994's Star Trek: Generations, where even the most fervent fans of the USS Enterprise were waiting for William Shatner's Kirk to bite the dust and pass the phaser to the Next Gen posse. The Star Trek parallel isn't an idle one. In Singer's new film, one of the key themes is traveling back in time to change the course of the present. It's a movie about violating the Prime Directive. The nerdy irony is that it's Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, whose Xavier is most gung ho about rewriting history.
The film opens in a bleak future that finds the mutants and their human sympathizers cordoned off in an eerily glowing Central Park detention camp. The mutants who have managed to survive a xenophobic government (and their numbers are rapidly dwindling) are on the run from the Sentinels, a robot race of exterminators gunning to wipe out the freaks for good. Stewart's Xavier and his longtime frenemy Magneto (Ian McKellen) have sought refuge at a Chinese monastery where several other mutants are hiding out. Cue Blink, Sunspot, and Iceman (but don't get too attached; they mostly pop up during the film's Sentinel-fueled bookends). There's also Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde. Thanks to her ability to transport a person's consciousness through time, she helps execute Xavier's scheme to zap Wolverine back to the pivotal moment in 1973 when Jennifer Lawrence's blue-skinned shape-shifter Raven/Mystique assassinated the Sentinels' mastermind, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). If Wolverine can prevent the murder, then the Sentinel program might be aborted. Or so Xavier hopes.
I know all of this sounds like a tangled thicket of cosmically Big Ideas. But Simon Kinberg's marvelous script makes it all move with a Swiss jeweler's precision and hum with internal logic. It's complex without being confusing. When Wolverine wakes up in a waterbed next to a lava lamp as Roberta Flack plays on the radio and President Nixon attempts to bring an end to the Vietnam War, the film takes on a giddy time-warp thrill. Wolverine has to persuade the reluctant Xavier and Lehnsherr to team up for the common good no easy feat, considering Magneto is in a high-security prison cell 100 floors below the Pentagon. So Wolverine enlists a new mutant to the celluloid series, Evan Peters' Quicksilver, whose brief turn as the ultimate jailbreaker is the highlight of the film. It's also proof that Singer really gets what makes these movies such smart and smart-ass fun.
The central conflict in Days of Future Past is between the young Xavier and Lehnsherr. Can they trust each other? Who has the stronger hold on Mystique? And once again, McAvoy and Fassbender prove that just because a movie is huge doesn't mean you have to ham it up that it's possible to make a superhero flick feel as intimate as a piece of theater. I do wish that Dinklage's Trask had more layers to his villainy and Lawrence had more to do. But these are minor complaints. The main one for fans of the comics, I think, will be that with so much ground to cover, certain mutants get shortchanged. But you can't have it all. Plus, there's always the next sequel. B+