Photo by ALAN MARKFIELD/MARVEL/TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
From left, Sun Spot (Adan Canto), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) prepare for an epic battle to save their kind in "X-Men: Days of Future Past."
Superhero films - as well as action movies in other subgenres - often fail because more emphasis is placed upon dazzling special effects and glittery staging than developing a gripping narrative. The desire to astound audiences with sheer spectacle overrides articulate story evolution.
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" manages to defy the odds, delivering a coherent and compelling fast-paced plot punctuated by expressive drama, explosive action and even a few well-placed scenes of comic relief.
It's quite an achievement, considering the breadth of this film's ambition. Director Bryan Singer bridges the two subdivisions of the franchise in a story that takes place in two different periods of time. Singer - who directed the first two films of the franchise, "X-Men" (2000) and "X2: X-Men United" (2003); and who co-wrote and co-produced the most recent film, "X-Men: First Class" (2011) - opens the tale in a bleak, dystopian future. Mutants have been hunted to the brink of extinction by an army of robots known as Sentinels. In fact, human society isn't faring particularly well, either, from the looks of things. The audience learns that at some point in this timeline, the war against the mutants expanded to include human targets, too.
A handful of mutants, hiding in a bunker, survive a brutal Sentinel assault thanks to Kitty Pryde's unique ability to project an individual's consciousness back in time.
Professor X, leader of the X-Men, believes that Pryde's power may hold the key to rewriting history. The professor has pinpointed an incident which provided the catalyst that triggered the crusade against mutants - and which supplied those who built the Sentinels with a means to make the three-story tall robotic eradicators practically indomitable. Turns out that Logan - aka Wolverine - is the only guy in the room capable of having his consciousness catapulted several decades back in time - so, off he goes to 1973, hoping to stir a young Charles Xavier to action and save the world.
Logan quickly discovers that Xavier wasn't at the top of his game in 1973. In fact, Logan really has his work cut out for him. Not only does he have to convince Xavier to stop wallowing in self-pity, but he has to figure out how to get the X-Men maverick-turned-megalomaniac Magneto to play nice long enough to reshape events.
Singer pulls no punches as he advances the narrative through the fastidiously furnished 1970s storyline, delivering a marvelous period piece at the heart of his audacious creation, complete with plenty of iconic prompts and contemporaneous cues. Aside from the historical incidents crucial to the plot - namely, the Vietnam War and the Paris Peace Accords - there is a delightful meticulousness with which the filmmaker re-creates the milieu, from the expressive fashion and music of the era to various witty pop-culture references, such as a "Sanford and Son" episode appearing on a security monitor and a Pong arcade cabinet turning up in a basement.
Surprisingly, the path of the narrative is difficult to predict. The script introduces several unexpected twists that throw the outcome of Logan's mission into jeopardy. There are unanticipated revelations and the depth of the main characters is such that duplicity comes into play at a pivotal moment.
In this double ensemble cast, there are five key players that soak up most of the screen time. At the top of the heap is Hugh Jackman, starring as Logan/Wolverine. Since Jackman first played the role in "X-Men" (2000), he has achieved tremendous success as an actor. Had he not been successful in other films, he could have made a comfortable living headlining in the X-Men franchise: "X-Men: Days of Future Past" marks his sixth film playing the part (and that doesn't include his cameo in "X-Men: First Class"). Jackman's performance is adeptly nuanced as Logan struggles to counsel his own former mentor.
The young Charles Xavier/Professor X is portrayed by James McAvoy, while Patrick Stewart reprises the role he played in the first three franchise films. Stewart gives audiences a calmly assertive, albeit melancholy, Professor X. McAvoy's Xavier is devastatingly vulnerable. His imperfections make the character more sympathetic.
Ian McKellen appears as the near-future Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto while Michael Fassbender plays the role in 1973. McKellen's Magneto is saturated with regret and shame. Fassbender delivers a young Lehnsherr who is cold and manipulative.
Singer wisely showcases the talents of Jennifer Lawrence, who stars as Raven Darkhölme/Mystique, in "X-Men: Days of Future Past." Lawrence effectively depicts the character's internal struggle: She has been driven to violence, but the hostility and cruelty she exhibits are not in her true nature.
Peter Dinklage stars as Bolivar Trask, the scientist who created the Sentinels. Trask is a reprehensible figure, a smooth-talking arms dealer with an unspoken xenophobic agenda. Dinklage's performance is powerful and frightening. The actor forges a character capable of persuading pacifists to sanction genocide.
Aside from the pleasingly coherent storyline and the solid performances of key cast members, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" also features plenty of breathtaking action sequences, including a desperate showdown in the dystopian future pitting scores of Sentinels against surviving mutants including Storm, Iceman, Bishop, Blink, Colossus and Magneto. During another scene in which Erik Lehnsherr is sprung from a holding cell buried beneath the Pentagon, the "Time in a Bottle" sequence in which Quicksilver shows off his talents is absolutely mesmerizing.
One single complaint: Singer crammed so much into this movie that some secondary characters end up short-changed. The script could actually have worked as a two-film cycle, with an existing mid-story cliffhanger acting as the endpoint for the first installment. That's right: "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is so well executed that audiences would have heartily embraced another helping. As it is, it appears that the next film in the franchise (and by the way, there's a brief teaser for it at the far end of the credits, so diehard fans should stick around), "X-Men: Apocalypse," will once again feature cast members from both X-Men eras.
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" excels as a powerhouse game-changer in the superhero subgenre as it tackles the topical and profound issue of intolerance with the perfect blend of spectacle, story and sentiment. Its examination of aggressive discrimination, fanaticism and bigotry has obvious real-world parallels. Singer offsets the film's darker elements with even stronger themes of hope and redemption.