Well, if you’re going to see only one comic-book superhero movie this summer, X-Men: Days of Future Past looks like your best bet. With a story inspired by an iconic 1981 comic book adventure of the mutated superhumans, the film has its fair share of plot holes, not least of which is a time-travel gambit that’ll make your head hurt if you think about it. However, with its original director now returned from the wilderness, the current movie reminds us sharply of all the reasons why the first films struck such a chord.
The film begins in a nightmarish near future, when a group of mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels have effectively enslaved the human race as well as almost wiping out the mutants. Down to a last few warriors, Professor Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) resort to a Hail Mary play: sending Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to avert the 1973 event that started it all, when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the scientist who invented the Sentinels. Making this already complicated task harder, Wolverine has to enlist the help of young Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who’s imprisoned beneath the Pentagon, and young Xavier (James McAvoy), who’s a strung-out failure living like a hermit in the ruins of his school.
Grantland recently described The Avengers as a movie that worked because it treated its superheroes as a collection of flamboyant misfit divas. That’s true, but Joss Whedon only picked up that trick from director Bryan Singer, who brought a similar approach to the first X-Men films back in 2000 and 2003. After a peripatetic and not entirely successful career plagued by offscreen controversy, Singer is now back with the X-Men series, and clearly he never should have left. The best thing about Singer’s X-Men movies was their emphasis on these characters, and here he handles them better than ever. The erotically tinged love-hate relationship between Xavier and Magneto that was merely an odd feature of Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class here becomes the fulcrum of world-shaking events. Xavier’s palpable need to reclaim his childhood friend Mystique from the dark side takes on a resonance it didn’t have in Vaughn’s film.
In fairness, it was Vaughn who got McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence on board for this series, and their talents pay handsome dividends here. So too does the scene-stealing addition of Evan Peters as Quicksilver, a baby-faced, prematurely gray-haired punk stoner gifted with super-speed. The newer actors largely upstage the older crop of superheroes, most of whom return to this installment for cameo appearances at least. I wish the filmmakers had given Ellen Page more to do as the matter-manipulating Kitty Pryde. Still, it’s gratifying to see Jackman regain the mojo that his character seemed to have lost in his solo movies. Wolverine’s back to being his comically weary, wisecracking self even as he valiantly tries to mentor his mentor’s younger self while recognizing that he’s out of his depth in such a role.
Oh, and the action sequences work pretty well. The events take several twists and turns after our heroes succeed in foiling Mystique’s assassination plot, and Singer doesn’t lose his grip on the complicated scene. Somehow the movie’s top-of-the-line CGI effects have more impact when they’re used in this period setting, with Magneto sending 1970s vintage cars flying and much of the resulting chaos being filmed with the 8mm home cameras available at the time. Singer shows cheeky wit, too, in a slow-motion scene with Quicksilver disarming a roomful of government agents while listening to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.”
You don’t need to be gay or Jewish to see how the X-Men’s mutancy is like homosexuality and Judaism, traits that are incredibly obvious in some individuals but not obvious at all in others. Yet it took a gay Jewish filmmaker to turn an A-list superhero movie into a parable about how these gifted, flawed people react in the face of the world’s intolerance and ignorance. Though our real-life world has changed much in 14 years, the conceit that Singer brought to this series hasn’t lost its power, and we can see it in Wolverine’s climactic vision of Professor Xavier’s school restored to its familiar glory. The school means everything in Singer’s X-Men universe, and the sight of children with nowhere else to go now reveling in a place where they can flourish is enough to move even the razor-clawed warrior to tears. Us, too.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg. Rated PG-13.