The X-Men movie universe imagines smarter than most blockbusters, with a warped sense of history placing Richard Nixon in the same room with Magneto, who swears he was trying to save JFK when the magic bullet swerved. Mutants are equally visual effects vessels and solemn civil rights allegories.
Buy a ticket and suddenly popcorn tastes a little like brain food.
X-Men: Days of Future Past effectively passes the torch from one generation of socially segregated mutants to the next. Patrick Stewart has been there, done that with his Star Trek captainship, but James McAvoy is a better actor than Shatner and wears his own hair.
Stewart and McAvoy play two ages of X-Men leader Charles Xavier, in a time-colliding plot that's complex to the proper degree. Older Charles lives pensively in a dystopian world where mutants are stalked by Sentinels, killer cyborgs with mutant DNA making them unbeatable. The DNA came from the shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in 1973, when she was captured after assassinating Sentinel project creator Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).
Charles and his now-ally Magneto (Ian McKellen) believe history can be changed, using the chrono-consciousness ability of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page). She'll send the mind of Logan a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to bell-bottomed days to find Mystique, stop the assassination and therefore prevent Sentinels from becoming invulnerable to mutant powers. Why Wolverine when Kitty did the job in the comic book version? Because he's immortal and his spin-off movies have done quite well at the box office.
The problem is finding Mystique, who could be anyone anywhere and won't be stopped. In a nicely handled romantic aside, Mystique also jilts young, idealistic Charles for young, sociopathic Magneto a.k.a. Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). She's a fast learner in cold-blooded ways, with Lawrence's acrobatic stunt doubles providing the movie's best non-CGI action.
Nothing extraordinary about that plot but the 1973 setting frequently inspires choice anachronisms from director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg, from Logan's unfamiliarity with waterbeds and lava lamps, to Oval Office discussions of mutants when Nixon orders the tape recorder in his desk turned off. Period designs are convincing without stretching into parody. For a key sequence, the story shifts to a event specific to the year — the Vietnam peace accords in Paris — that is remarkable for any movie to use.
The year also provides an astonishingly apropo song for an unforgettable sequence featuring the hyper-speedy mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who's drafted to spring Erik from a sub-Pentagon prison. Singer stretches milliseconds into a verse and chorus of Jim Croce's 1973 hit Time in a Bottle, while Quicksilver mischievously re-arranges a shootout in the slowest-mo imaginable. It's a jawdropping display of humor, editing and the joy of ingenuity.
Days of Future Past does have fits of ponderousness, taking itself too seriously, especially its Holocaust imagery and when the two Charleses meet and morals of everyone's stories are poetically expressed. Being the smartest superheroes on the block being busted occasionally has its downsides.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.