I'm a little bit in awe of Days of Future Past, though not entirely for reasons of stand-alone quality. To be sure, it's a terrific piece of entertainment: not quite as strong as First Class or the latest Wolverine, but still marking a welcome return to the franchise for director Bryan Singer. That's to be expected considering that it deftly adapts one of the most beloved comic book storylines of all time, as well as marrying the energized figures from First Class to the Patrick-Stewart-led X-Men of old.
The real trick, however, is how it elegantly streamlines the convoluted continuity built up by the series over the last 14 years. The landscape was different when this series first kicked off: the movies could make a hash of their storylines without worrying about the larger saga they were affecting. The Marvel Cinematic Universe changed all that, and while the X-Men franchise found itself in better shape than most superhero properties (*cough-cough DC*), its storyline was an unapologetic mess. Most unseemly in this era of multi-hero crossovers.
But behold, here comes Days of Future Past, with a nifty time-travel gimmick that cuts away whatever dead weight may have bedeviled the series. It retroactively improves the entire franchise without denying a single element. To do so while still telling a strong story on its own... you’ve got to tip your cap to that. Any comic book fan can tell you the basics, reimagined here in the context of the cinematic storyline. A few years from now, the Sentinels -- robots built for the sole purpose of destroying mutantkind -- have transformed Earth into a wasteland. A small band of X-survivors led by Professor Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) battle futilely against an inescapable doom. Their only hope is to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to stop it all before it begins: preventing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the robots' creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), an act that convinces the world that mutants are a deadly threat.
We get the bullet points in a lugubrious bit of plot exposition, heroically delivered by Stewart in the opening scenes. Singer punctuates it with a fantastic early battle against the Sentinels featuring old favorites like Shadowcat (Ellen Page) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), as well as welcome newcomers like Bishop (Omar Sy). (Page reminds us once again of her character's immense untapped onscreen potential; perhaps a Kitty Pryde and Wolverine movie somewhere in the future?) The film periodically returns to this dark future, giving us just the right amount of despair while focusing most of its attention on the sunny 1970s.
And it's in the past where the film finds its best concepts. In order to stop Mystique, Wolverine needs to pull the younger Professor (James McAvoy) out of an alcoholic stupor while simultaneously springing Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from his plastic fantastic cell beneath the Pentagon. Forcing hair-trigger Logan to act as a peacemaker is a quiet stroke of brilliance, compounded by the fact that he has to stay relatively calm if he wants to stay in the past. It’s a blast watching him try to keep it in the happy box when stressors like a very young William Stryker (Josh Helman) keep poking him.
And as expected, the action sequences reflect character rather than being just sound and noise for their own sake. The topper is an extended prison break featuring the troublemaking Quicksilver (Evan Peters) that sets a very high bar for The Age of Ultron's alternate take on the figure. Singer once again demonstrates his knack for juggling multiple personalities and complex storylines with deceptive ease. We focus on Charles and Erik dueling over their competing visions, with Mystique balanced precariously between them. But that centerpiece doesn’t come at the expense of everything else going on. Singer makes it all feel so simple without detracting from the richness that such a story demands.
Such components help Days of Future continue the recent X-Renaissance while skillfully setting the stage for more to come. You don't see many sequels that can pull off a trick like that; not without sacrificing some of their own energy in the process. The only flaw lies in a certain repetition of tone, and even that becomes very easy to forgive in light of its copious assets. The Winter Soldier still rules the Marvel roost this year, but the Merry Mutants over at Fox refused to concede the crown without a fight. We the fans get to sit back and reap the rewards: a state of affairs that just feels too damn good to be true.