WASHINGTON – With the glut of superhero flicks this millennium, it’s easy to forget the craze was kicked off by “X-Men” (2000), which arrived before Ian McKellen was Gandalf, before Patrick Stewart hung it up as Picard, before Halle Berry won her Oscar and before Hugh Jackman and James Marsden were household names.
Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that the latest (seventh) installment, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” is not only the best superhero movie of this year, but also rivals “X2” (2003) as the best in the franchise.
The film opens in the year 2023, where an apocalyptic world has been all but destroyed by massive killing machines known as Sentinels. Former foes Professor Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) are now wise sages who decide that the only way to save man- and mutant-kind is to go back in time to a fateful day in 1973 when the mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) shot and killed the Sentinels’ inventor, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones”), during the Paris Peace Accords.
They enlist the mutant powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can send a person’s consciousness into its younger body of the past. Wolverine (Jackman) is deemed the only one strong enough for the trip, due to his body’s ability to “scratch and claw” its way back from injury. But his lack of patience makes him an unlikely peacemaker between the younger versions of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who are locked in a bitter rivalry over mutants’ role in the world.
“You’ll need to go into the past to end this war before it ever begins,” elderly Professor X says.
“It’s got to take the two of us, side by side, at a time we couldn’t be further apart,” Magneto replies.
New “Star Wars” Jedi-master J.J. Abrams should take note that this is how seventh installments can breathe fresh life into a tired series, pairing the franchise’s original stars — Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Jackman — with its more recent crop of origins stars, introduced in “X-Men: First Class” (2011).
You’ll remember that was the prequel that introduced McAvoy as Young Xavier (replacing Stewart), Fassbender as Young Magneto (replacing McKellen), Lawrence as Young Mystique (replacing Rebecca Romijn) and Nicholas Hoult as Young Beast (replacing Kelsey Grammer).
All four return for “Days of Future Past,” with brilliant performances by Lawrence (“American Hustle”), as a kickass morphing assassin with blue skin, and Fassbender (“12 Years a Slave”), who might just be a better Magneto than McKellen. The film also brings back minor characters from “X-Men: Last Stand” (2006), including Page, Daniel Cudmore as Colossus and Shawn Ashmore as Iceman. Still, amid all the familiar faces, it’s first-timer Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”) who steals the show as Quicksilver, a lightning-fast mutant who can run circles around a room in the blink of an eye.
Director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) plays Quicksilver’s skills for hilarious effect with a slow-motion “bullet-time” technique that’s often used for action (think “The Matrix”), while conversely using Zapruder-style home footage for horrific scenes of monsters among men. This type of directorial prowess has been missing from the franchise since Singer left after “X2,” and this seventh installment was supposed to be his triumphant return.
Unfortunately, any directorial analysis must take a backseat to the disturbing recent headlines, as Singer is embroiled in a child sex scandal of the type that has snagged some of our brightest artistic minds (Woody Allen, Roman Polanski). In the interest of “innocent until proven guilty,” we must judge the film on its own merits, and while the director may be tainted, it would be unfair to overlook the brilliant performances of the deep cast and the ambition of screenwriter Simon Kinberg (“Sherlock Holmes,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”). And so we press on with the review …
As with most time-travel movies, the plot logistics raise more questions than answers. If the goal is to unite Magneto and Xavier, why not go back in time even earlier and catch them before they became bitter rivals? And if you can go back to stop the murder of the Sentinel inventor, why not go back 10 years earlier and stop the JFK assassination? In such yarns, sometimes we just have to buy into the premise and enjoy the alternate-history entertainment for what it is.
Fortunately, the script more than makes up for any plot holes with stellar character studies. Young Xavier fights a pseudo-heroin addiction, tying off his arm with a black band and injecting himself with a special chemical which allows his crippled legs to walk, but which also hides his psychic powers. This theme — mutants hiding their identities in order to “fit in” among a society that fears them — has always been the franchise’s backbone, opening the door to all sorts of social commentary.
Is it a coincidence that Stan Lee created the X-Men comics in 1963, the year of “I Have a Dream?” Aren’t the competing philosophies of the peaceful Professor X and the militant Magneto analogous to Martin Luther King and Malcom X? Are the mutants a proxy for minorities? Immigrants? Homosexuals? As Magneto takes to the White House, gets on national television and tells the mutants to “come out,” viewers will see a script that’s layered with more than explosions.
In this way, the film surprisingly echoes both the themes of Fassbender’s “12 Years a Slave” and J-Law’s “American Hustle,” exploring the former’s intolerance set against the latter’s backdrop of ’70s political corruption. Yes, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” features President Richard Nixon, played here by Mark Camacho, who’s better cast than John Cusack in “The Butler,” but not quite as captivating as Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon.” Advice: Before you go see the movie, read up on Nixon’s affinity for the burgundy and gold at RFK Stadium circa 1973. You won’t regret it.
With so much revised history, it’s hard to imagine “X-Men: Days of Future Past” will go down in the history books. Seventh installments rarely do. But after a solid “Captain America 2” and a disappointing “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” this is the summer superhero flick we’ve been waiting for.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s 2014 Movie Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum, listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM and see a full list of his stories on our “Fraley on Film” page.