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Smart and ambitious 'Days of Future Past' rejuvenates 'X-Men' series

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The "X-Men" franchise has always addressed themes more complex than your garden variety “with great power comes great responsibility” stuff. It’s what set the series apart from Disney/Marvel’s fun but ultimately vision-less pop culture-dominating output (and I speak as someone who enjoys those movies).

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'
Photo used with permission from 20th Century Fox

Agreeably, there have been bumps. Bryan Singer’s first two films, in particular "X2," are still among the smartest and most enjoyable superhero movies ever made. Unfortunately, "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "X-Men: Origins: Wolverine" lie on the other end of the spectrum. Although last summer’s middling "The Wolverine" was a step up, the series’ creative peak remains Matthew Vaughn’s "X-Men: First Class," a franchise reinvigorating entry that played more like a character-driven drama than superhero movie by delving into the complex relationship of Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr.

That relationship continues to be the cornerstone of the series’ seventh entry, the ambitious, super-sized all-star feature "X-Men: Days of Future Past." Directed by Singer, who returns to the franchise after a 12-year absence, "Days of Future Past" is based on one of the "X-Men" comics’ most heralded story-lines. It pools its cast from "First Class" as well as the original trilogy to tell a story that involves everything from time travel to giant shape-shifting robots to ‘70s kitsch to Richard Nixon. Despite the enormous risk of becoming an over-stuffed mess like "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg largely succeed in conjuring a fun, absorbing and surprisingly funny blockbuster, thanks to memorable characters, superb action sequences and enough nods to fans of previous movies in the now adolescent franchise.

The set-up is this: In a desolate, dystopian future beset with endless fields of rubble and human remains, giant shape-shifting robots called sentinels are hunting mutants and humans alike. Survivors of this rapidly losing war include Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Storm (Halle Berry).

Taking refuge at a temple somewhere in the Himalayas (or what looks like the abandoned sets of M. Night Shyamalan’s "The Last Airbender"), the mutants come up with a last ditch plan to save themselves: They will use Kitty’s powers to transport Wolverine back to August 1973 so he can find the younger versions of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and convince them to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Bolivier Trask (Peter Dinklage), the inventor of sentinel technology. Stopping Mystique would prevent the U.S. government from apprehending her and using her DNA to eventually create the shape-shifting sentinels of their future.

That’s proves easier said than done. In 1973, Xavier is a drug-addicted shell of the man he used to be. Magneto on the other hand, is locked up in a maximum security prison 30 stories below the Pentagon for a crime whose punchline is too good to reveal here. Oh, and they also hate each other. With a little help from Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (a scene-stealing Evan Peters), Wolverine has to coerce the two men to put aside their differences—at least temporarily—to find Mystique and save their kind from certain extinction.

If the plot sounds complicated, it’s because it is but director Singer, screenwriter Simon Kinsberg and editor/composer John Ottoman keep the pace flowing at an even keel, impressively switching between timelines, characters, and its multiple sub-plots. Singer’s direction in particular feels like the work of a filmmaker desperate to prove his mettle again. It’s easy to see why. In the years since he left the series, he’s only directed the underwhelming "Superman Returns" and two bombs—the under-appreciated World War 2 drama "Valkyrie" and the abhorring "Jack the Giant Slayer," which is as stupid as its title indicates. As one of the key figures of this franchise, Singer knows these characters better than anyone else and he relishes the opportunity to once again explore the series’ flagship themes of empathy, tolerance and equality. For all its razzle dazzle, titanic scope and pedigreed cast, this is, at its heart, an intimate movie about the relationship between two ideologically-opposed men and their fight for the incredible woman between them.

Even with its lofty ambitions and serious sociopolitical themes, Singer and Kinberg never forget that this is first and foremost a comic-book movie about a team of people with superpowers. One only needs to look at their supremely exaggerated portrayal of Richard Nixon and ‘70s culture in general as evidence. "The Avengers" get most of the headlines nowadays but many forget that the X-Men were cinema’s first superhero team. And they didn’t even need frivolous exposition-loaded solo entries! "Days of Future Past" continues that ensemble mentality, giving each member (and actor) a scene to shine.

Jackman, who looks even more jacked that he was in last summer’s "The Wolverine," gets first-billing but he takes a backseat for most of the film, ceding the attention to his younger cast mates. It may disappoint some but I found it noble and in keeping with the film’s ensemble nature. Fassbender once again brings gravitas to Magneto, owning every scene he’s in with such confidence and pizzazz that I wish the entire movie was just about him kicking ass. McAvoy isn’t as showy but his chemistry with Fassbender is a constant reminder of how lucky Fox got when they cast these two mesmerizing actors.

And although Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t get to steal scenes the way she did the last time she put on ‘70s garb ("American Hustle"), her aptitude with Mystique’s physically demanding scenes only confirms her status as a superstar. Even Peter Dinklage, so brilliant on "Game of Thrones," gets to put in some fine work with his limited screen-time. Among the new cast members, only Peters manages to impress as the laid back, lighting fast Quicksilver. He gets many of movie’s funniest moments, including an extraordinarily-executed action scene at the Pentagon that rivals the Nightcrawler’s White House attack in "X2" as one of the series’ best moments.

Many will lambast "Days of Future Past" for its clunky logic regarding time travel, anemic interest in female characters not named Mystique, not to mention its shafting of older trilogy cast members. Those are all valid criticisms. But for the most past, "Days of Future Past" is to "X-Men" what J.J. Abrams’ "Star Trek" was to uh, "Star Trek." It injects life into the franchise and uses time travel elements to clean the slate and undo all the ugliness of previous entries. While it never strays too far from the established canon, it leaves a mark on the series by paying homage to the past and rewarding those who have stuck with the series with a well-acted, action-packed and fully-satisfying adventure.