"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is the best superhero movie of late that doesn't quite fit that label. Then again, neither did any of the other films in the franchise - some good, some bad, one great. The movies, like their subjects - targeted minorities whose genetic mutations grant them extraordinary and dangerous powers - always seemed like outcasts compared to the immense popularity of the competition: Iron Man, Batman and others.
But wait a minute. That's not right: director Bryan Singer and his "X-Men" (2000) are often credited with shepherding the modern superhero epic into existence. That film, with its dark tone, tackled both big themes and blockbuster obligations with some success.
If we had forgotten that, then the time-travel plot of "Days of Future Past" is all the more appropriate, as it transports us to a world we once loved, quite literally correcting the mistakes of a few shoddy sequels that derailed the franchise for a time, and reminding us that Singer and his talented collaborators still know how to deliver highly-efficient, pop entertainment.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique, a ruthless blue-skinned shapeshifter fighting to stop the extinction of the mutant species.
Michael Fassbender plays Magneto and Nicholas Hoult is Beast, the mutants who butt heads while fighting for the same cause.
Which is what "Days of Future Past" is, first and foremost, despite how its convoluted plot raises questions about where the film fits into the overall X-Men mythology. A prequel, a sequel, and something all its own, the story takes place over two timelines, one in the future and the other in the past.
In the future, a few remaining mutants battle off extinction against anti-mutant robots called Sentinels. The resistance's last resort is to send someone into the past and eliminate the Sentinel threat before it ever begins. This premise unites the cast of the original "X-Men" films and 2011's "First Class," a prequel to the 2000 film. By altering the past, any events that took place after "First Class" are now put into question.
That's the film's greatest achievement - how it retreads old material while still feeling like something of a fresh start - and also its greatest flaw. By relying on its established universe only to dismember it, the film is satisfying for devotees but must be mystifying to newcomers (yes, that was a confession).
Singer, more concerned with pathos than narrative coherence, compensates for this by working with some of the best and most recognizable actors in the business: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page. Singer's camera lingers on their faces in reaction shots, so if the characters' motivations aren't readily accessible to the uninitiated, at least their hearts are.
Their struggles, this time around, aren't all that different from before. The script touches on the same themes that make the "X-Men" films what they are: stories about people who perpetuate genocide and intolerance, and the unique individuals who resist them. The enemy in "Days of Future Past" is the diminutive genius Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who justifies his Sentinel program with a mixture of calm fear and admiration. His characterization, though, stops there. Singer would rather entertain us than conjecture about the mentality of an ethnic cleanser. That's not a problem so much as a symptom of the genre that he helped flourish, a genre reliant on action set pieces and colorful characters. "Days of Future Past" has no shortage of either.
But the action scenes, though vast, never get bogged down in anonymity or gratuitous destruction. Always tied to character and story, they look big but feel intimate.
When one character encircles the White House with a baseball stadium, it's more an expression of anguish and moral imperative than a bravura display of power or special effects. Of course it is ridiculous and melodramatic all at the same time, but at least it's personal, for the characters and for Singer. He loves this universe as much as any fan, so if the plot of "Days of Future Past" is incomprehensible to first-timers, the passion behind the scenes is not.
3 stars out of 4.
Rated PG- 13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language.