20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

When we last left our mutant friends (in X-Men: First Class) they had just averted a third world war off the coast of Cuba, Professor X was paralyzed from the waist down and Magneto and his posse had teleported off to continue their fight against a fearful and prejudiced human species. X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up some years into the future as the end product of that war is revealed to be the impending extinction of mutants worldwide at the “hands” of giant, adaptive robots called Sentinels.

X-Men old and new are dropping dead, and a last ditch plan is formulated to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness into the past to prevent an assassination widely regarded as the trigger behind the Sentinels’ creation.

Director Bryan Singer has been on a bit of a bumpy road with his last few films, from the underwhelming Superman Returns to the under-appreciated Valkyrie to the joke that is Jack the Giant Slayer, but after starting the X-Men film franchise fourteen years ago he’s finally returned to the mutant fold. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the best X-Men film since the last one he directed.

Wolverine awakens in his 1973 body, essentially the same but with his pre-adamantium bone claws, and after offering fans a crowd-pleasing look at his bare ass he sets out to reunite Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). It isn’t easy of course as the professor is wallowing in drug-induced self-pity with only Hank aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to look after him in his otherwise empty school for the gifted. Convincing him to fight for the future is difficult, but it’s rivaled by the physical challenge of springing Magneto from perhaps the most secure prison cell on the planet.

Their end goal is to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), the man whose attitude towards and experimentation on mutants leads to the design and creation of the Sentinels. As they race to complete their mission in the past Kitty and the remaining X-Men in the future (including Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the older Professor X and Magneto) struggle to protect Wolverine’s body as they come under attack from dozens of Sentinels.

The film is paced well, and at two hours it never overstays its welcome or feels like a slog. That said there is a clear quality distinction between the past and future-set scenes. The darkly grim future resembles the bleak dystopia of The Matrix, and while the opening scene is exciting each subsequent visit leaves us more distracted by the presence and performance of Halle Berry than enthralled by the situation unfolding. Maybe it’s because we’re only seeing these people briefly and are therefore unable to form a connection, but the scenes pale beside the action, drama and fun to be had back in ’73.

One of the concerns for a film like this is the abundant multitude of characters. It’s a legitimate worry as comic book films in particular have a bad habit of over-stuffing the roster to the point where none of them get enough time to make their mark. Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg deal with this deftly and successfully by keeping the focus on a main quartet of Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine and Mystique. All four experience real changes and exhibit more than the usual depth along the way.

Side characters exist to bolster the action and do so well without it feeling like any of them are given short shrift. That’s not to say you won’t be wishing you got to see more of two new faces in particular though. Early reveals of Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) costume elicited negative reactions, and it looks no less dumb in practice, but the character is a delight bringing not only some real laughs to the film but also delivering the movie’s standout scene. You’ll know it when you see it (and when you hear the late, great Jim Croce’s vocals). Blink (Fan Bingbing) gets less screen time, but she’s memorable for her very cool Portal-inspired power. And also for being Fan Bingbing.

The film moves at a fun and fluid pace keeping things interesting and entertaining throughout, and it does so with a fantastic blend of the serious and the silly. (Marc Webb and Sony can learn a lot from the film regarding how to blend the two so that neither half is left flapping in the wind.) It’s once again a very funny film with dialogue and sequences guaranteed to elicit an intentional laugh, but when necessary the film easily moves into more serious waters. There’s real depth and emotional value to these characters, but admittedly most of it comes as a result of events in First Class (with a little emanating from the earlier X-Men trilogy and Wolverine’s two standalone films). That’s not a problem if you’ve seen those earlier films, but if you haven’t much of this movie’s dramatic impact will be muted or non-existent.

As with just about every time travel film there are questions that arise from the scenario, but they’re minor in the grand scheme of things. More troublesome is the decision to arrive on scene mere moments before the event you’re hoping to stop instead of, oh I don’t know, finding the person in question a bit earlier. And if you can transform into anyone and have already proven you can sneak into a person’s office, why plan your kill for a very public location?

Still, these are minor issues that don’t detract from the overall experience of an incredibly fun and exciting film. The lead quartet of actors are just as responsible for the film’s success as they find both the fun and the heart in their characters turning these comic book creations into living, breathing people that we truly come to care about. McAvoy and Fassbender are once again the VIPs with performances and chemistry that makes their interactions endlessly delightful and effective.

X-Men: Days of Future Past keeps the personality of Matthew Vaughn’s First Class but does so without any of that film’s cheesy dialogue or decade-defining bits of oppressiveness. The action here is first-rate and impresses with both the visual effects and dramatic intent. It’s the best film Singer’s made in years, the third best in the X-Men franchise and the best blockbuster of the summer so far… keeping in mind that Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened back in April.

The Upside: Some incredibly cool, fun and exciting sequences; strong sense of humor; no cheesy dialogue groaners; script does great job tying in previous films in big and small ways; moments of emotion; good pacing; Quicksilver and Blink; Jennifer Lawrence speaking Vietnamese

The Downside: Future-set scenes pale beside the rest; doesn’t work as well if you haven’t seen the other films; some unavoidable questions arise regarding time travel conundrums; human villains simply fearful of people who are “different” is growing stale; Mystique’s assassination plan is pretty dumb given her abilities

On the Side: Quicksilver will be played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Unfortunately.

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