Matthew Vaughn and a superb cast reinvigorated the franchise with cool retro style and globetrotting intrigue in 2011's "X-Men: First Class." The series' original director, Bryan Singer, continues that momentum in the vigorously entertaining "X-Men: Days of Future Past." While it's more dramatically diffuse than the reboot and lacks a definitive villain, the new film is shot through with a stirring reverence for the Marvel Comics characters and their universe. And it ups the stakes by threatening nothing less than the genocide of the mutant population, among them faces old and new. Huge worldwide box office seems guaranteed.
Since its first screen appearance 14 years ago, this exciting series has been driven by the theme of ostracized outsiders empowered to fight against their social stigma in ways both good and evil. That vein remains front and center here, with the mutants' humanity amplified by their extreme physical vulnerability.
Hardcore followers will have a geek field day dissecting the challenging pretzel logic of writer-producer Simon Kinberg's screenplay, from a story by Jane Goldman, Kinberg and Vaughn, who had originally planned to direct. The central premise comes from the 1981 "Uncanny X-Men" comic "Days of Future Past," in which Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her consciousness transference powers to go back from a dystopian future and rewrite history.
This image released by 20th Century Fox shows James McAvoy, left, and Patrick Stewart in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
This image released by 20th Century Fox shows Jennifer Lawrence in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
In dumbed-down pop-cultural terms, that functions like the dream of Bobby Ewing's death in "Dallas." While it's a far less outrageous plot gambit, it calls into question many events from the original three movies - specifically 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand" - providing a blanket license to erase continuity lapses among the films and usher in fresh developments moving forward. The screenplay ponders whether time is immutable while raising the possibility of infinite outcomes. But spend too long trying to align what happens here with earlier developments and your head will explode.
Echoes of the Holocaust have rippled throughout the series, and Singer opens with present-day scenes of a desolate, burnt-out New York, where mutants and mutant-sympathizing humans have been rounded up in internment camps.
Jumping to a similarly devastated Moscow, we watch Kitty, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and a small band of mutants face an attack from the deadly Sentinels. Dropped in from airborne carrier ships, these robots are designed to track and destroy the mutant gene. They resemble towering, muscular versions of the aliens from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," constructed out of magnetic plates that allow them to change shape and adapt to whatever force is unleashed against them.
The mutants escape and regroup in the rubble of an ancient Chinese monastery with Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry). The movie is missing an explanation of how traditional adversaries Professor X and Magneto reached a collaborative truce. But within the elastic boundaries of comic-book mythology that seems no big deal, and it's nice to see their bromance rekindled.
Threatened with extinction, the mutant holdouts hatch a plan to return to the post-Vietnam Paris Peace Accord of 1973, when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) killed Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a U.S. military scientist developing the Sentinels program. Mystique was captured and experimented on, with the transformative powers of her DNA tapped to perfect the Sentinels.
Wolverine's ability to heal makes him the only one able to withstand the 40-year time jump. Kinberg's script milks welcome humor out of sending the least diplomatic of the X-Men back to convince the younger Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to join forces and stop the assassination that triggered anti-mutant hysteria. Having Wolverine awaken on a waterbed staring at a lava lamp and listening to Roberta Flack lightens the mood at just the right moment.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and production designer John Myhre provide marked contrasts between the two periods - brooding darkness in the present; a softer, more naturalistic look in the past - that helps as the action progresses and cross-cutting increases. In the same way the 1960s Cold War setting gave a distinctive vibe to Vaughn's franchise entry, this one offers maximum enjoyment in the extended central action that unfolds roughly a decade later. It's also where the series' refreshing emphasis on character is strongest.
Looking Christ-like with his '70s mop and scruffy beard, McAvoy's Charles Xavier couldn't be less like that of Stewart, with his steely but benevolent authority. Disillusioned Charles is addicted to a serum produced by Beast (Nicholas Hoult) that gives him the use of his legs but strips him of his telepathic powers. Professor X is the one character whose younger and older selves actually meet, in a scene that is among the movie's most emotionally resonant.
There are also affecting moments when Wolverine encounters Major Bill Stryker (Josh Helman), triggering traumatic flash-forward memories of his painful physical transformation and his love for Jean Grey.
But the midsection includes thrilling action set pieces too. One involves the chaos that ensues when the X-Men thwart Mystique's initial attempt to kill Trask, spilling from an official building out into the crowded square below. Just as connections to the Cuban missile crisis enlivened First Class, historical references to the Nixon era add dramatic traction here, not to mention mutant links - both grim and amusing - to JFK's assassination. Singer flips back and forth during the Paris clash between widescreen format and footage from bystanders' home movies that evoke the Zapruder film.
Visual effects and CGI work, unsurprisingly, are top-notch throughout, and the Sentinels' attacks are rendered with a chilling visceral charge. The classy use of 3D is a model of restraint, yielding visual rewards particularly with Magneto's handiwork. Editor John Ottman keeps the pace satisfying but never rushed. Doubling as composer, he supplies a score that ranges over many distinct moods, giving a winking nod to fat blaxploitation beats during the initial shift to the '70s.
It's hard to imagine fanboys having too much to grumble about here, as Singer has pulled together an ambitious, suspenseful screen chapter that secures a future for the franchise while facilitating continued reinvention. Audiences should sit tight through the end credits crawl for an enigmatic signoff scene that provides a taste of the next installment, "X-Men: Apocalypse."