Like the 2000 film that started the franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past opens with a holocaust. But unlike the first movie’s Nazi Germany past which gave the metalhead Magneto his tortured origins, this holocaust takes place in a horrific future (and not just horrific because movies like X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine still exist).
From those opening moments onward, there’s a sense of the aging X-Men franchise coming full circle. That’s largely due to the return of Bryan Singer, reclaiming the helm he abandoned after 2003′s beloved X2: X-Men United, and the way the film brings together the original cast with their prequel counterparts from the above-average X-Men: First Class. And, much as DOFP‘s plot centers around the characters’ attempts to save the future by correcting the mistakes of their past, it’s also Singer’s way to correct the wayward course of years of middling to terrible sequels.
It should be no surprise that the man who directed The Usual Suspects is able to juggle this film’s convoluted plot, but it is a wonder how he makes it look so effortless. Days of Future Past has more moving parts than most movies (superhero or otherwise), balancing at least two timelines and a massive menagerie of mutants. It’s incredible that, with few exceptions, the dozens of new and returning characters each get their due. (The speed-racing Quicksilver, played with impish glee by American Horror Story‘s Evan Peters, gets some of the movie’s best and funniest scenes. Your move, Avengers 2.) Singer is savvy enough to know that cool costumes and effects will only carry him so far, and he wisely infuses the film with honest, lived-in emotions and conflicts.
That Days of Future Past does all this without collapsing under its own weight is impressive. That the 130-minute film does it at a steady clip that maintains tension and never feels a moment too long is as uncanny as any of its titular heroes.
The opening scenes masterfully establish the scorched, apocalyptic future the X-Men will spend the rest of the film trying to prevent. It’s a world where no one is safe — even beloved characters die shocking, brutal deaths before our eyes. The horror of that future, and the guilt Professor X and Magneto (returning actors/superfriends Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) feel for their hand in creating it, give DOFP an operatic, tragic tone that resonates throughout its running time.
The pivotal event that sets history on its dark path is the 1973 assassination of mutant-fearing scientist Bolivar Trask (the always-welcome Peter Dinklage) by the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, whom you may have heard of). Centering the plot around the now-über-famous Lawrence could have come across as a cynical attempt to cash in on the actress’ now-considerable fame, but she plays Mystique’s central conflict so well that the choice never feels opportunistic. The same is true of the decision to have Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine be the one sent back in time — it was Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde in the comics that inspired the movie — which adds new shades to a character that started sprouting whiskers several installments ago.
For all that DOFP gets right, there are a few puzzling elements. Dedicated fans might be frustated by the ways it further twists the series’ already-tangled continuity. And casual moviegoers may scratch their heads at the dense plot, inside references, and legions of characters. But its willingness to use only what it needs from the previous X-Men films and hit the ground running are part of what makes the movie such a lean, efficient beast.
Despite the enormous potential for disaster, Days of Future Past is one of the best superhero films in recent years. It takes a seminal story arc and not only treats it with respect but improves on it in every way. It makes a complex, time-bending plot accessible and appropriately grandiose. It fills its frames with beloved characters from decades of comics without ever stinking of fan service and strikes the elusive balance between summer-movie spectacle and character-driven substance.
But most astonishingly, it takes a franchise that many people had justly written off and injects it with exciting new blood. Just as Days of Future Past finds its characters attempting to rewrite their own future, it offers the beleaguered X-Men series an opportunity to do the same. What the franchise does with its second chance, only time will tell.
X-Men: Days of Future Past opens nationwide on Friday, May 23.