“‘X’ Still Marks the Spot”

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”
Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by Bryan Singer

Fourteen years after the first “X-Men” kicked the theater doors open and ushered in the modern superhero movie genre as we know it, “Days of Future Past” proves that “X” still marks the spot. That’s because the fifth “X-Men” movie (or the seventh, if you count the two “Wolverine” spin-offs) brings the revered Marvel Comics-based franchise full circle, restoring depth, relevancy and fun to the original cast while also heralding the return of director Bryan Singer to the X-fold after an 11-year absence.

After directing the first groundbreaking film and it’s even better follow-up, 2003’s “X-Men United,” Singer handed the keys to the third installment, 2006’s underwhelming “X-Men: The Last Stand,” to Brett Ratner while he jumped ship from Marvel to DC (and from Fox to Warner Bros.) to direct 2006’s underrated “Superman Returns.” Singer followed that with 2008’s little-seen (but otherwise terrific) Tom Cruise-starrer “Valkyrie,” although he stumbled badly with last year’s ill-conceived “Jack the Giant Slayer.”

But “Days of Future Past” finds Singer back in his comfort zone while also raising the bar as an “X-Men” movie like no other. For one thing, it’s a return to form for the series (based on the classic comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1963), since Singer – working from an ambitious screenplay written by Simon Kinberg (who wrote “The Last Stand”) – explores the issues of discrimination, alienation and tolerance that graced the first two installments as well as 2011’s superb reboot, “X-Men: First Class.” But it’s also much darker than any of its predecessors, which effectively brands “Days of Future Past” as “The Empire Strikes Back” of the “X-Men” series.

Even though the film finds the cast of the original trilogy joining forces with their younger selves, “Days of Future Past” is more of a sequel to “First Class” than it is to the earlier films. Inspired by the landmark “Uncanny X-Men” comic storyline from 1981 written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, playing the fan favorite for the seventh time) is sent back in time to 1973 to prevent the conception of the Sentinels, giant-sized robots created by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) that, in the bleak future, have waged an all-out war to exterminate the mutants.

Wolverine’s only hope lies with seeking out the younger version of his mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), now a broken man who has become disillusioned with his efforts to develop a special school where alienated mutants can find acceptance and master their powers. But some mutants have far less faith in the human race and would rather fend for themselves, especially evil mutant leader Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), which could throw a wrench into Wolverine’s plans.

With a production budget of more than $200 million, the special effects are fantastic, but with so many storylines to juggle in just 2 hours and 11 minutes, some of the characters get lost in the shuffle. That’s especially true with Halle Berry’s Storm, who has the least to do here. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen get more screen time as the elder Xavier and Magneto, respectively, though their younger selves, played with deep vulnerability by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, along with Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, have much more compelling characters arcs as they strive for the same goal – the preservation of the mutant species – but in very different ways.

As with the later “Harry Potter” installments, “Days of Future Past” dispenses with the pleasantries of re-introducing the main characters and gets right into the thick of it. That means newcomers who have never seen an “X-Men” movie before would be wise not to start here, since it goes with the assumption that viewers will be familiar with everyone’s background, and the time travel plot points get rather complicated. But for fans who did see the other movies, it succeeds as a superior superhero film that’s X-cellent, X-citing, X-hilarating and the best entry in the series since “X-Men United.”

-Scott Mantz