Returning as director to the franchise he put on the movie map after an absence of more than a decade, Bryan Singer has turned out what feels like the first true "X-Men" movie since, well, the last one he directed. Ambitious and epic in scale and intimate in execution, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" seal the deal on the slow-burn comeback started by clever prequel "X-Men: First Class" and pulpy spin-off "The Wolverine".
The movie opens in a "Terminator"-esque apocalyptic future repleted with a blasted landscape, internment camps, mass graves, and robot overlords. It's possibly the most gruesome sight in the series so far, and it sets the stakes immediately. Mutants and their human sympathizers have been systematically hunted and slaughtered to near-extinction by robots called Sentinels. The situation is so dire that Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his longtime frenemy Magneto (Ian McKellen) have set aside their differences and cobbled together a small band of survivors.
It's a desperate situation whose solution comes in the form of Kitty Pryde's (Ellen Page) new-found (and never explained) ability to send a person's consciousness backwards in time into the body of their younger self. The plan is to send someone back to 1973 to prevent shape-shifting mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating mutant-phobic scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the Sentinels' creator with a Mengele-esque interest in mutants, whose death sets the dark future in motion.
Naturally, fan-favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the only one capable of surviving the trip. His is the unenviable task of convincing the younger versions of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to set aside their differences and help reign in Mystique. This is easier said than done, since their last encounter cost Xavier the use of his legs, put Magneto on the wrong side of the law, and left both of them estranged from Mystique. Since then, Magneto has been in prison under the Pentagon, and an emotionally broken Xavier has taken to using a serum that restores his ability to walk at the expense of his telepathic powers.
Needless to say, it's a choppy, expository-heavy first act that nevertheless sets up an unexpected and surprisingly effective story centered on a tug-of-war for Mystique's soul, with Xavier out to redeem her and Magneto using her to further his own agenda. The interplay between the two in both timelines drives the movie as the aged Xavier and Magneto lament the lost years and what could have while their younger selves struggle to forgive and forget. Stewart and McKellen play their scenes like the grizzled veterans they and their characters are; and McAvoy and Fassbender play off one another with even more ferocity than in X-Men: First Class.
Though it sometimes feels contrived and has its share of the plot holes and continuity errors inherent in a time-travel sequel, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg do remarkable job of keeping the story engrossing and brisk, an impressive feat considering the dual timelines and large ensemble cast that features returning alumni as well as a few newcomers. Dinklage represents inspired casting as a villain who embodies the banality of evil. Though given minimal dialogue, Fan Bingbing and Omar Sy are memorable as wormhole-generating Blink and the energy manipulating Bishop, respectively.
Of them all, Evan Peters (American Horror Story) steals every scene he's in as Quicksilver, a teenage mutant speedster enlisted by the heroes to help bust Magneto out of prison. Written as a somewhat typical teen with an abundance of energy, a short attention span, and a flair for mischief. The bullet-time sequence that showcases his abilities is the best action beat in the film, and makes it worth the 3-D up-charge. (It also puts pressure on Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who's playing the same character in next year's Avengers sequel.)
Much as Matthew Vaughn did with First Class, Singer and Kinberg also get a lot of mileage out of the movie's period setting, using the post-Vietnam/pre-Watergate era as unlikely source of comic book-movie angst and intrigue (some of it in the guise of Mark Camacho as arguably the best cinematic incarnation of Richard Nixon to date), as well as a goldmine of throwaway gags involving waterbeds and lava lamps, Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle", and an explanation for the JFK assassination that makes more sense than most. It's a combination of wit and intelligence that was sorely lacking in Amazing Spider-Man 2.
More importantly, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" keeps its sights squarely set on theme that has propelled the X-Men franchise in all its forms: The outsider nature of its heroes and villains alike, and their struggle to fit in and be accepted in a world fearful of anything outside the norm. It's a potent metaphor, even after seven movies.