Many superhero film franchises frustrate the newcomer with their tangled continuity, but the X-Men series particularly so. X-Men (2000) begat X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, a moneymaking trilogy that was followed by a prequel (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and a standalone adventure (The Wolverine). 2011's X-Men: First Class, set in 1962, was a prequel to the entire series with a largely new cast. Now comes X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is both a prequel and a sequel, thanks to a time-travel device. Confused yet?
Don't worry about it. All you really need to know is that Days of Future Past, helmed by Bryan Singer (who directed the first two films), has compelling central characters and makes borderline good sense as a story. Wonder of wonders, it even has what too many blockbusters lack: villains with motivations beyond "world domination."
The film opens in a dystopian future where worldwide efforts to exterminate mutants with the dreaded genes for superpowers have laid waste to civilization. Mutant leader Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has traced this sorry state of affairs to a single cause: the assassination of an anti-mutant scientist (Peter Dinklage) in 1973. He sends the unaging Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to save the nerd and change the future.
When the movie hops from the empty CG sparkle of the future to the grubby russets and browns of the Nixon era — Hollywood's go-to period setting these days — it gets a lot more interesting. James McAvoy brings refreshing Tony Stark-style brattitude and seediness to the role of the younger Xavier. When Wolverine discovers him, he's abandoned his dreams of reconciling mankind to mutantkind and retreated into a drug-addled seclusion.
First Class introduced us to the dysfunctional triangle of idealistic Xavier; Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), the friend who would become his nemesis as Magneto; and Angry Young Shape Shifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who's caught between them. One man has a mission of assimilation and harmony, the other one of violent mutant revolution — you know, standard superhero stuff with an allegory about social minorities tossed in.
Yet the setup works, because all the parties to this conflict have plausible reasons for doing what they do. A Holocaust survivor, Erik just wants to forestall a mutant genocide. Fassbender gives an eerie, sad dignity to the character (played at a more advanced age by Ian McKellen): When he waves his arms at bullets or rebar and makes them obey his will, he seems to be putting genuine effort into it. (Making superheroics look hard is harder than it looks.) And Magneto isn't that far out of line, given that Dinklage's amusingly arrogant scientist believes Homo sapiens must destroy its mutant strains or else go the way of Homo neanderthalensis.
With these juicy characters and performances, Days of Future Past offers entertainment even to moviegoers who can't name the mutants on screen. Those viewers will still be perplexed on occasion. (For instance, the film assumes a knowledge of Wolverine's lengthy, tiresomely angst-ridden backstory.) But anyone can appreciate a scene like the one where Xavier and friends break Magneto out of a federal prison. A scruffy little mutant named Quicksilver (Evan Peters) gets to use his talent for supersonic action, and the result is a beautiful and funny set piece in which the world goes slow-mo around him.
Even more than that other Marvel series, for my money, the last two X-Men movies demonstrate that superhero flicks don't have to be a barrage of high kicks, highfalutin dialogue, operatic music and explosions. Whether the series can stay watchable for innumerable additional sequels, prequels, spin-offs and reboots, however, is a question we probably don't need time travel to answer.