It seems like every franchise is being “rebooted” these days, but 2011’s X-Men: First Class was better than most. The prequel was able to re-imagine major characters and their relationships, and to ground the story in historical events that resonated with the series’ sociopolitical overtones. Sure, the script was a little ham-fisted at times, and January Jones was at her most wooden as (appropriately enough) ice queen Emma Frost; the movie was still a lively shot in the arm.
Alas First Class under-performed at the box office, so the studio decided to blend the new cast with the old stars for this summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, based on a celebrated two issue arc of the comics. Original helmer Bryan Singer returns to direct, and his secret is this: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Halle Berry return for glorified cameos, but the focus is mostly on James McAvoy (as young Charles Xavier), Eric Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), with stalwart Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in a 1970s milieu. It continues the look and feel of First Class, with clever nods to the Kennedy assassination and Richard Nixon, while contrasting the period scenes with a dark future that echoes both the Holocaust (which Magneto survived) and James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The plot is convoluted and probably contains a dozen lapses in logic—fans are already debating alternate timelines and assorted loopholes—but it boils down to a good yarn that allows for meaty character stuff and inspired action sequences. Ten years from now, shape-shifting robots called Sentinels have wiped out most Mutants, and nearly all of the survivors and their sympathizers are locked up in internment camps. The remaining X-Men, who have allied with sometime enemy Magneto, hatch a desperate scheme to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to prevent the assassination that fueled the development of the Sentinels. The mutton-chopped stud—given a crowd-pleasing butt shot early on—has to enlist young Xavier and Lehnsherr’s help to convince morally conflicted Mystique not to kill a prejudiced scientist (Peter Dinklage, further enhancing his geek cred) and set the whole horrific mess in motion. It all seems a little clunky on paper, but Singer breezes through every beat with entertainment and style to spare. One of his best bits is a show-stopping sequence in which Quicksilver—endearingly portrayed by "American Horror Story"’s Evan Peters—leisurely messes with Pentagon security guards within a few seconds of real time, all while listening to a hilariously mellow, lyrically appropriate 70s ballad on his headphones. The movie has lots of fun with the period, from Wolverine waking up in a water bed to Quicksilver’s Twinkie stocked basement pad. The actors are uniformly terrific: Lawrence is stunning, Fassbender brings pathos and killer cool to Lehnsherr, and Jackman, playing Wolverine for the seventh time (!) is so comfortable in the character’s skin it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him—and he’s evolved fascinatingly over the course of the films.
Singer has been at the center of disturbing criminal allegations recently. If proven, he deserves punishment for the charges of abuse and rape. There’s no denying, however, that he’s a talented director; after a couple of high profile misfires, Days of Future Past proves that he’s still capable of delivering intelligent big budget moviemaking. Time will tell if he’ll be able to continue his career, or undo it with his personal misdeeds.
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