With the recent glut of superhero movies and television, many have been waiting for the bubble to pop. Since most superhero movies follow fairly rigid formulas, it would seem to be only a matter of time before audiences get pooped out watching them.
But the best superhero movies in some way work against the grain, like Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (Gothic films grounded in an urban crime aesthetic and global sociopolitics) or Bryan Singer's X-Men films, which draw on a constellation of interesting characters and play on a scale epic not only for action but in cultural, political, and historical implications. You just aren't getting any of that in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Man of Steel. And so we come to X-Men: Days of Future Past, which restores Singer to the director's chair of the franchise he launched with 2000's X-Men.
The new film serves as sequel to Brett Ratner's much-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Matthew Vaughn's 2011 franchise reboot X-Men: First Class, for which Singer co-wrote the story and produced. A loose adaptation of the beloved two-part comic book story by Chris Claremont & John Byrne, Days of Future Past wields time travel as the last hope for mutants, in 2023, facing a holocaust from the high-powered robotic Sentinels.
A small band of survivors—including Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), and Storm (Halle Berry)—resolve to use the powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back into his 1973 body. Then, Wolverine will seek out the younger Charles "Professor X" Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and enlist their help to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the creator of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and inadvertently ensuring his work gets fast-tracked.
Simple, right? It's okay—take a deep breath. Though it doesn't hurt to have seen the previous X-Men films, one of the miraculous strengths of the new film is its coherence once it gets rolling (partly owed to editor John Ottman). Another miraculous strength owes to that outstanding cast, further supplemented by Evan Peters (who owns a section of the film as super-speedster Quicksilver) and Nicholas Hoult (whose Beast gets ample screen time).
With its high-stakes story and large cast of characters, the film keeps up its momentum with ease, and when it's not hurtling through action, it's never less than breezy, plenty of humor balancing the darkness. On an character level, the story amounts to a battle for the souls of McAvoy's Xavier, Fassbender's Magneto, and the mutant in the middle, Lawrence's Mystique. Simon Kinberg's script is at its most interesting when playing these beats, especially given that the infamously impatient Wolverine can't just slash his way to victory; rather, he has to learn to massage others' troubles and finesse convincing words.
Harkening back to his earlier X-Men films, Singer makes passing allusions to the Holocaust and gay pride, and gets his Oliver Stone on by adding plot points (and stylistic flourishes) involving the Kennedy assassination, Nixon and the Vietnam War. But what makes X-Men: Days of Future Past more than just a thrilling science-fiction actioner is the past-present poignancy allowed by time travel and astral projection, indulging everyone's fantasy of telling a younger self what he or she needs to hear.