“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is the trippiest entry in 20th Century Fox’s long-running Marvel Comics franchise, and perhaps the brainiest. Epic in scope from the opening frame, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” insistently refuses to be outdone in size or spectacle by any of the other comic book-based franchises out there, none of which would have seen the light of day without the success of 2000’s “X-Men.” Combining the original movie characters with their younger iterations from the 2011 “X-Men: First Class” prequel/reboot, “Future Past” also marks the return of original franchise director Bryan Singer after his corporate banishment which resulted from his defection to direct the Warner Bros./DC “Superman Returns” in 2006.
After a slightly clunky bit of voice-over exposition at the beginning of the movie, “Future Past” gets right down to business. Super-powered mutants are on the verge of extinction in the last days of a war in our future, when mankind is using high-tech, giant robots called Sentinels to hunt down and kill them. A small group of former X-Men are holding out by using the ability of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of the mutant Bishop (Omar Sy) back into his own body a few days in the past to warn the group of impending Sentinel attacks. Professor Xavier wants to try to go back further in time, decades, to interfere with the development of the Sentinels and prevent the entire war. Only problem is most people can’t survive a trip that far back.
Of course Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), can, but he’ll have to get the younger, less mature versions of Professor X and Magneto to listen. Much of the movie takes place in 1973, where Jackman, who only had a one-line cameo in “First Class,” seamlessly blends in with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence, who reprise their roles as the young versions of Professor X, Magneto and Mystique. No actor owns a superhero role more more than Jackman owns Wolverine, the part that made him a star in the first place. He does ultimately get overshadowed in the later portions of this outing, as the younger X-Men start to take over, but it’s ultimately an embarrassment of riches. The best parts of two casts are on display here, and the fickle spotlight bounces around a little bit much. In any event, Jackman is generally more prominent than Ian McKellan as the older Magneto, who has surprisingly little to do for much of the movie.
There’s more meat on the bones of McAvoy’s part this time around, as Professor X in the seventies has become a bit of a dissolute drug addict, able to walk thanks to drug that temporarily repairs his spine but switches off his telepathic powers. McAvoy makes the most of it, and brings a taste of the gravitas to come, when his character matures into the elder statesmen of the mutant cause fans are familiar with. Fassbender was the emotional core of “First Class,” and has to content himself with a bit more of a supporting role this time around. Nonetheless, the German firebrand is one of the most electrifying presences on the screen right now, absolutely cannot be ignored.
As to Jennifer Lawrence, who career currently burns so brightly she threatens to eclipse the sun, she brings a magnificent dignity to a character who’s covered with blue scales and naked for most of her screen time. She’s also dynamite in a fight scene. Peter Dinklage, best known as the scene-stealing Tyrion Lannister on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” takes a part that could have been a stock mad scientist and adds depth and nuance when you least expect it. Mark Camacho is a more believable Richard Nixon than John Cusack was in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Despite her prominent billing, Anna Paquin’s performance as Rogue has been cut to a brief cameo with no dialogue.
Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have a lot of balls in the air with a story that juggles parallel time periods and plots, and the result is a trippy, hallucinatory maelstrom that periodically flirts with incoherence. It never quite gets to that point, though, and fans will appreciate the musings on time travel, the quasi-existential tone and the inside references that beg you to keep up. Singer’s peerless craftsmanship, sorely missed in “X-Men: The Last Stand” and even “First Class,” is on full display. A scene with a wounded Mystique trying to escape on the street of Paris is particularly well-executed, cutting back and forth between the digital 3D and Super 8 film being shot by observers, a clever parody of the “cell phone video” look currently being overused by many directors. The 3D, by the way, doesn’t add that much to the impressive visual experience, and viewers wanting to spare themselves the higher ticket prices should feel free.
Ironically, the point of this unexpectedly cerebral movie is that what’s most likely to influence history is a single moment of decision, and that point could have been made without much of the action and special effects that bombard the viewer at every turn. Viewers who stay for the end credits (and they should - there’s an Easter egg at the end) will notice that the stunt crew was big and the army of digital artists was bigger. But then, the comic book superhero movie has supplanted the western, and where would the western be without a gunfight? One of the movie’s best set pieces, with Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”) as Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, a Marvel Comics regular for 40 years, features some dazzling special effects and wry humor, arguably could have been dispensed with. Thank God they didn’t. (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, currently starring in “Godzilla,” plays the same part in Marvel Studios’ upcoming “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and they’ll have their work cut out for them trying to top this.) There are some unbilled cameos, none of which will need billing to series fans.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” easily holds its own with the season’s earlier superhero hits, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and should prolong this franchise’s life for at least another installment (which has already been announced). Blessedly devoid of yet another origin story, fast-paced and intelligent, “Days of Future Past” takes the X-Men franchise is some new directions, and also proves that the superhero movie can survive the threequel. That’s something in and of itself.