Bryan Singer returns to helm the latest X-Men movie and it's pretty much a winner, following in the vein of his original two entries in the series (which were my favorites) and uniting the cast of the previous films with that of 2011's reboot First Class, for the most complicated, convoluted X-Men tale yet. Luckily, the clever script intertwines past and present timelines in as straightforward a way as possible, and with the ever present Wolverine as our guide between worlds it turns out to be a fun, twisty and high minded injection of energy into the 14-year old franchise.
It could be argued that 2000's X-Men was the movie that kicked off the era of the perpetual superhero film that we now live in, and in this current world, with each new entry in the genre comes dwindling hope in finding something fresh in any of these comic book stories. The best of this year's crop included Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which held up a mirror to corrupted government institutions that clearly paralleled our own, and now X-Men: Days of Future Past finds some new and somewhat clever material in the time-travel genre, always a risky, loophole filled area of science fiction that threatens to boggle the mind of the viewer, as well as the time traveler in question. In this case, that's Wolverine, our steadfast and reliable central X-Man, as always played by Hugh Jackman, who somehow gets buffer and better looking with every new film. In an apocalyptic future we join up with what's left of the original crew, including Wolvie, Storm, Iceman, and of course, Professor X and Magneto, played once again by old stalwarts Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. In this world, massive machines called the Sentinels have taken over and are targeting mutants for extinction, thereby forcing the old gang into hiding where they battle it out with the robots every day, prolonging the inevitable until they can figure out a solution.
Now they think they have, as DOFP is inspired by one of the X-Men comic's most famous story lines, in which mutant Kitty Pryde goes back in time to try and erase the existence of the Sentinels. Kitty Pryde is here played by Ellen Page, reprising her role from 2006's The Last Stand, although her screentime is limited, since the time traveling role in the film is given to Wolverine, and she's simply the tool through which they send his mind back to his younger self, in 1973 to be exact. Once there he must meet up with younger mutants and get them back together to stop Mystique, who is the vessel through which the path of destruction is set. Most of the action takes place in the past, where we get to see Jackman team up with the young Charles and Erik, who are still facing the problems of their split from First Class, which this movie essentially functions as a sequel to. The standout this time is James McAvoy as the emotionally damaged young Charles, who's suffering the loss of his legs and treating it with a drug that will bring back his ability to walk while wiping out the use of his powers. McAvoy brings a charisma and energy to the role that gets a bigger chance to shine here than it did in the last film, since the screenplay gets rid of virtually all the extraneous characters in that movie, keeping just Charles, Erik, Mystique and Beast as the important mutants in play.
Michael Fassbender is terrific again as young Magneto as well, and one of the highlights of this film, as it was before, is the interaction between Charles and Erik, who share a chemistry and rapport that allows us to believe they will eventually become the older and wiser versions of themselves that we're so familiar with after all these films. Jennifer Lawrence also returns as Mystique, and thankfully her role has drastically improved since her last appearance, as the film makes her character and her choices the primary vehicle through which all future events depend. Of course, this drastically alters her part in the original X-Men movies, as this Mystique resembles virtually nothing of the villain anyone familiar with the original trilogy remembers. And given her role in creating that hellfire version of the future, what does that say about what happened to the Mystique from the old films? Did she never exist? Of all the loopy time frame questions this story line brings up, that's my biggest one- this movie actually starts off with Patrick Stewart's Xavier re-telling the story of his relationship with Mystique to the mutants who all react as if they've never before heard her name, which makes no sense.
But obviously those are the kinds of nitpicks that always come up in "altering the timeline" sci-fi stories, and as such, that's hardly a reason to not see it. It's filled with the kind of action and characters that make for the best summer popcorn movies, while managing at least a little bit to challenge you to keep up with its time-bending structure. One of the best action scenes belongs to new mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who nearly steals the movie in a small role where he moves at lightning quick speed and we see through his eyes what passes in less than a second for those around him (think of it as comparable to the famed Nightcrawler opening of X2). The 70's set sequences convey a similar kind of period energy that rejuvenated the best parts of First Class, and even gives us a hilarious Richard Nixon impersonation from actor Mark Comacho, (our 37th president was apparently in on some of the mutant-led activity during the Paris Peace Talks of '73). Best of all, the new timeline virtually wipes the slate clean on the events of the first three X-Men movies, which is tolerable if it means we can all pretend that X3: The Last Stand never took place (I know I'd certainly like to), and sets up the possibility of sequels set with either the old cast or the newbies (although I suspect aside from Hugh Jackman, any new X-Men films are likely to want the younger, fresher faces involved).
Days of Future Past gives you everything you might want in a summer action film, without asking too much of you in return. In some movies that can be lazy, but done well, as it is here, it's a fun and rather ingenious trip back in time, and certainly the most ambitious X-Men film yet made. And hey, any artistic ambition in a summer blockbuster? I'll take it.