Critic's Grade: A-
X-Men: Days of Future Past is kind of like a Muppet movie, only instead of putting on a show and celebrating weirdness, its characters spend a lot of their time beating the shit out of each other and making things explode.
Still, the film's fundamentals are very similar to The Muppet Movie and The Muppets, because at its core are a bunch of weirdos—a couple blue people, a metal dude, a toad-man, a gigantic metal guy, a soldier with hedgehog spikes and two grumpy old men among them—traveling around the globe, trying to get the band together and getting into adventures.
In the 14 years and seven films since the X-Men first hit the screen, the adventures of the students and faculty of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters have been a mixed bag, ranging from solid (X2, X-Men: First Class) to middling (X-Men, The Wolverine) to atrocious (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: The Last Stand), but they've all been linked together by a self-seriousness that spoils a lot of the fun. Sure, the X-Men were conceived as an allegory for civil rights, but they were also conceived as group of super-powered mutants kicking ass. Even the best films had a difficult time balancing the over-seriousness of the subject matter with, you know, the fun that is inherent in comic books.
Days of Future Past finally strikes that balance, and that's what makes it the best of the bunch. Make no mistake, this is an adult comic-book movie: It's violent, heady and full of historical references, creating an alternate history interwoven with real-life events that mirrors the densely drawn alternate America so perfectly conceived by Alan Moore in Watchmen. But it's also goofy as all hell, and, at the very least, the first hour of DOFP lets loose a barrage of playful set pieces and winking in-jokes that makes it pretty damn delightful.
The storyline—which many are decrying as overcomplicated, but is actually pretty straightforward—involves the X-Men of the future—led, as always, by frenemies Professor X and Magneto (real-life BFFs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen)—leading what appears to be the last surviving mutants as they fend off armies of Sentinels: gigantic, sentient robots designed as the tools of a mutant genocide.
Figuring that the whole Sentinel nightmare can be averted by preventing the assassination of a warmongering profiteer (Peter Dinklage), the group sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, donning the claws for the seventh time) back in time to unite the 70s versions of Professor X and Magneto to stop the super-pissed Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from pulling the trigger. Don't ask how this is possible. It's a comic-book movie.
Once Wolverine shows up decked out in polyester as his younger self, the real fun begins, with the hero teaming up with a drunken and scraggly Professor X (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to rescue Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from imprisonment and infiltrate the Paris Peace Conference and change the grim future.
En route, they fight. A lot.
It all sounds convoluted, but it's really not. With the casts of the original trilogy and First Class vying for attention, the film's inherent danger is oversaturation, but director Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two entries, wisely sticks with the core group of Wolverine, Magneto, Beast, Professor X and Mystique. This allows the bazillion other mutants to show up and contribute their share without seeming wasted. Taking a cue from First Class, which used the Cuban Missile Crisis as its main conflict, the film once again integrates the mutants into real history, interacting with Nixon, implicating them in the JFK assassination and Vietnam and allowing them to duke it out on antiquated news casts.
While the social allegory is front and center, Singer unleashes a great deal of fun in his set pieces, highlighted by a prison break sequence set to "Time in a Bottle" that might represent the best (and the only necessary) use of extreme slow motion in action history. The fights are beautifully choreographed, from a climactic melee on the White House lawn to a futuristic teleportation throwdown, and at no point does the film get too bogged down in its own pseudo science.
For the first time, too, an X-Men movie seems like an actual comic book movie rather than a sci-fi flick that happens to include superheroes. The film is littered with geeky shout-outs to fans, but even the most isolated outside should have little trouble getting swept up in the brisk, sprawling tale.