1. X-Men: Days of Future Past feels like one of those special-edition comic books that takes all the characters we know and love, drops them in some sort of parallel universe (so the storyline's ramifications don't affect the current canon timeline), and shakes up both the plot and those characters like crazy, just to see what happens. (It probably feels like one of those because it was one of those.) It's a time-travel story, which means our heroes can interact with real-life people (President Nixon figures prominently), we can meet younger and greener versions of our superheroes, and anyone can die. A dulling sameness has settled into our comic-book movies of late: We get our origin story, then our primary conflict, then a victory, then a sequel. Here's a movie that has stakes—that consistently keeps us on our toes, for once.
2. The premise is that, in a distant future, terrifying robots called sentinels—created from the DNA of Mystique, the shape-shifting blue mutant played by Jennifer Lawrence—hunt down mutants and destroy them, along with most of humanity. The sentinels have become so unstoppable that the only way to defeat them is to ensure that they never exist. Thus, older Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) send ageless Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time—actually, they beam him back into his own subconscious—to convince younger Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) to stop Mystique from being cloned by a mutant-hunting politician (Peter Dinklage) to create the sentinels.
All right, so that was a mouthful, but that's a lot of the fun of Days of Future Past. Think of it like the Back to the Future Part II of superhero movies, as the X-Men keep changing the current timeline while still wondering whether history can be altered at all. There's a million things happening, and it's impressive, at a minimum, that the movie keeps it all straight for us, and keeps moving.
3. The advantage we have is that we already know these characters so well: Xavier's inherent decency, Magneto's barely controlled fury, Wolverine's growling heroism. The wild card in this one is Mystique, who is played by Lawrence as angry and mournful at the pain inflicted on her fellow mutants by heartless, terrified humans like Dinklage's politician. This recent reboot of the franchise—basically turning the cast young and sexy for 2011's X-Men: First Class—has had one major benefit, in that it has some fantastic actors; the upgrade from Rebecca Romijn to Jennifer Lawrence is a substantial one. (Not to mention Fassbender, who might be the best actor on earth right now.) When you have these clear, familiar archtypes in place—and considering this is the eighth X-Men movie, they're definitely in place—you don't have to spend any time setting up their motivations or backstories. We know them, and are with them, the whole way. It allows you to focus on the action.
4. And there's plenty of that. Director Bryan Singer is an old pro at these movies—this is the first X-Men movie he's directed since the second one in 2003, and he's the one who set up the whole franchise on screen—and he's at his absolute best here, juggling multiple storylines, but never forgetting the people, and their perpetual isolation, that drive the whole series.
He also can put together a mean-ass action sequence or two, like it's no big thing. Days of Future Past has at least three jaw-dropping ones, including two that happen at the same time. (At one point Magneto picks up RFK Stadium and carries it across Washington, D.C., mostly because it is awesome to do that.) He also has a terrific invention in the sentinels—horrifying, indestructible monsters that'll haunt your nightmares. With so many hackwork, for-hire directors at the helm of blockbusters these days, it's a relief to be in the hands of somewhat who knows what he's doing.
5. The movie's sense of peril, the idea that anything can happen to any of these characters at any time, can't help but have its spell broken by the end of the film; you can have unpredictable timelines and apocalyptic danger everywhere, but eventually, you have to do your duty and set up the sequel. The resolution underwhelms, as it sort of has to; nothing is ever closed and finished, not any more. But for its running time, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a thrilling, hey-what-if comic-book movie that hits just about every mark you'd reasonably want it to hit. It's not easy to surprise in a blockbuster these days. It's a rare treat to find one that even tries.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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