Superhero movies usually set the bar so low we’re satisfied with well-managed explosions, snarky quips, charismatic lead performances and a slender plot that doesn’t shred under scrutiny. Then, once every couple of years, a movie comes along to remind us how satisfyingly complex the genre can be.
Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the “Batman” saga did that masterfully. On a slightly less ambitious scale, so does “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
Director Bryan Singer left the saga 11 years ago, after the first fine “X-Men” and the competently executed “X-Men 2.” Simon Kinberg wrote the gibberish in the third installment, “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Together, they have now surpassed themselves with a combination of heroics, wit and emotional depth. Only a pat, “wipe the slate clean” ending and too many inevitable echoes of “X-Men: First Class” let it down a bit.
Singer and Kinberg begin in 2023. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have become friends: Huge machines called Sentinels have slaughtered virtually all mutants and human allies, leaving only the most reactionary humans in control and the few remaining mutants banded against them.
Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) invented Sentinels in 1973, believing mutants would wipe out humanity and needed to be exterminated. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) killed him for that, starting a national panic; when the government captured her, it applied her shape-shifting DNA to the Sentinels, making them all but invulnerable.
So Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) offers a solution 50 years later: Send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time mentally, putting his present mind in his past body. The Wolverine of 1973 has to convince Xavier and Magneto to help him stop Mystique, changing history. Alas, Magneto’s a megalomaniac, Xavier has lost his cerebral powers, and Mystique’s urge to kill Trask can’t be redirected.
Matthew Vaughn, who directed “First Class,” worked on the story for “Days of Future Past.” So perhaps it’s no surprise that it covers old ground: Young Magneto argues that ordinary humanity is an inferior species that shouldn’t survive, gets in trouble again for deflecting a bullet with terrible results, and battles Xavier for control of Mystique’s impulses.
Yet the story breaks ground, too. The 1973 Xavier (James McAvoy) has become addicted to a drug that allows him to walk but takes away his telepathic abilities. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) flirts with the idea that humans and mutants can peacefully coexist, though he never buys Wolverine’s claim that he and Xavier pal up in the future.
Wolverine has shown tenderness, especially toward Jean Grey; now he shows pity and anxiety. Mystique has become both more deadly and more vulnerable. Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a character new to “X-Men” films, gets his moment in a slow-motion prison break – well, slow-motion to everyone but him – that’s laugh-out-loud funny, as he rearranges everyone in a room while listening to “Time in a Bottle.”
Devoted fans can debate how well this story fits into the “X-Men” comic book mythology, which (like all comic narratives) continually gets rewritten.
It lines up with my memories of “First Class” and the others – I have expunged “Last Stand” from my brain – but more importantly, its own internal logic holds up. Characters behave as we expect but take us to new places, too.
Only the baffling teaser after the credits, which refers to the coming “Apocalypse” sequel, prevents this from being a fitting conclusion to a strong series.