X-Men: Days of Future Past opens with a worrisome dump of exposition and backstory — so much information that you start to wonder if there may be a quiz later. Here’s the CliffsNotes version: In a near dystopian future, a breed of super-robots known as Sentinels, designed by a scientist named Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), have killed most of the planet’s mutant population (and a big chunk of mankind along with them).
Among the remaining survivors are Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and, of course, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), without whom this film franchise would not exist. With an army of Sentinels bearing down on them, the few heroes left decide to send Wolverine back in time — specifically to 1973, the year that Trask invented the Sentinels and his muttonchop sideburns were still in style, to try to change the course of history. This will require the help of the younger incarnations of the Professor (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), the Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). In other words, anyone who hasn’t seen the previous X-Men pictures, especially X-Men: First Class, will have a tough time figuring out what’s going on in this dual-timeline comic-book adventure. There is no quiz, but some homework is required.
For the initiated, though, Days of Future Past feels like a celebration for their tenacity with the series through its highs and lows, mixing the older versions of the superheroes with their younger selves (there are lots of funny shout-outs to the previous films). Director Bryan Singer, returning to the reins of the series he launched with the first two movies, understands these characters better than most. He knows the secret to the X-Men’s popularity is watching the group work together, each member doing their part respective to their abilities, and he stages the action with an elegance and clarity that is rare to comic-book pictures (a standout: American Horror Story’s Evan Peters’ shining moment as a teenage Quicksilver, whose power is super-speed, like the Flash; he practically steals the movie from his more famous co-stars).
Comic fans consider the Days of Future Past storyline, first told in issues 141-142 of The Uncanny X-Men by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne in 1981, as sacrosanct, so shouts of “Blasphemy!” may be heard upon learning that screenwriter Simon Kinberg has preserved the spine of the tale but tossed out most of its details. (Brief nerd detour: In the books, Kitty Pryde, not Wolverine, traveled back in time, and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is nowhere to be seen in the movie.)
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But by staying true to the events depicted in First Class, Days of Future Past manages to streamline a complicated plot without losing its essence — and to bring Fassbender’s Magneto, one of the most formidable and enjoyable villains in the genre, to the forefront. Fassbender takes to the character with the same gravity and seriousness he displayed in 12 Years a Slave and Shame: He’s the anchor that grounds this potentially preposterous vessel and gives it weight and importance. By contrast, McKellen’s Magneto now looks frail and feeble, like a powerless Gandalf after a haircut and a shave.
Most of the near-future sequences in Days of Future Past embrace the worst aspects of superhero pictures: An over-reliance on CGI, unconvincing sets and major deaths that don’t really mean anything, because you know everyone will be OK by film’s end (that’s one way in which the underrated Amazing Spider-Man 2 differs from the pack). Fortunately, the bulk of the movie is set in the past, where the filmmakers have fun toying with history (the JFK assassination finally and definitively solved!) and decking out Lawrence in cool 1970s getups, at least when she’s not sporting her natural blue skin and fire-red hair. The movie incorporates Nixon, Vietnam and vintage rock into the story, and although the Sentinels look nothing like their purple-and-blue counterparts from the comics, they are perfect in terms of what the film needs. The deep cast (look out for a slew of crowd-pleasing cameos) play this borderline-silly stuff so well, there isn’t a single unintentional laugh in the entire thing. X-Men: Days of Future Past won’t convert those who have resisted the previous movies, but it’s their loss, really: Even more than The Avengers, this is the best, most entertaining and mature comic-book Hollywood franchise currently in existence. Bring on the Apocalypse.