Silver Screen: X-Men: Days of Future Past ***
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a hot mess of geekery that not only assumes you’ve seen the previous four entries in the series, but that you remember them all and really care.
I worked behind the counter in a comic-book store for several years (shop at Campus Comics!), and still I was scratching my head at several points throughout the movie, which combines the casts from both the “present day” X-Men movies and the 2011 prequel First Class. Then it expects audiences to follow a whole new mutant crew. Sunspot? Warpath? Blink? No clue who those guys are, much less the unnamed guy with hand tattoos who can make people vomit on command, although I’m fairly certain it’s the worst mutant power ever. Is his name Purge? Spewy? Chunx?
The plot of the movie is complicated enough that the characters spend a lot of time re-explaining it to one another, but reduced to its essence it’s a riff on The Terminator. By the year 2023, humans will have created an army of superpowered robots called the Sentinels to hunt down mutants, but the enhanced drones eventually stop distinguishing between mutants and those who might eventually carry the mutant gene, and they extinguish most life on Earth.
The handful of remaining X-Men determine that the only way to stop the seemingly unkillable machines is to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back into his body circa 1973 and stop the Sentinel program at its inception, when anti-mutant scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) was assassinated by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). To accomplish this, Wolverine must convince a young, despondent Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to team up with his former best friend-turned-nemesis Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
Along the way there’s enough time-travel-related plot holes to give John Conner a headache, and a heaping helping of shoddy comic-book logic that includes the 1973 version of the professor being able to walk thanks to a series of injections that also rob him of his powers, because this serum somehow fixes a spinal injury while simultaneously “affecting his DNA.”
Of course, the focal point of superhero movies is the big action setpieces, and director Bryan Singer, returning to the director’s chair for the first installment since series highlight X2, remains a master of spectacle. The highlights here include a fantastic jailbreak sequence in which hyper-fast mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters, the only castmember who seems to be having fun) stops an assault in super-slow motion to the Jim Croce tune “Time in a Bottle,” and the widescreen wonder of Fassbender’s Magneto lifting an entire sports stadium off the ground and flying it over Washington, D.C. In these moments Singer does something all too rare for superhero movies: He presents the superheroics not as special-effects parlor tricks and action-movie gimmickry but something beautiful and awe-inspiring. Even in his less-inspired efforts, like Superman Returns, Singer never fails to capture the scope and scale of their feats of strength and physics. There’s real wonder here, probably even enough to be worth the price of admission and the tedium of sitting through an hour’s worth of expository dialogue.
The cast is, to put it in X-terms, uncanny. In addition to McAvoy, Fassbender, Dinklage, Lawrence, and Jackman there are prominent roles for Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, and Halle Berry, plus appearances from Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, and Kelsey Grammer. These guys are so good they make Simon Kinberg’s mumbo-jumbo dialogue sound like real human sentences, yet still it would be nice to know what such a stacked ensemble could do if they had characters to play rather than plot points to convey.
First Class took the series in a brighter, slightly goofier, and far more entertaining direction. Alas, the next movie, teased in a post-credits scene, has the working title X-Men: Apocalypse, so don’t get your hopes up that the next one will be any less dour, or that audiences should expect— God forbid— to smile a few times while watching a superhero movie.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.