It’s a nasty future we open on, in this I’ve-lost-count-how-many X-Men flick: dark post-apocalyptic skies and ruined cities left in the wake of the ongoing genocide of mutants and humans by robot Sentinels. The sci-fi Judgment Day has come, and the Terminators aren’t even bothering to imprison survivors in the Matrix.
But there will be time travel. It’s going to get fixed.
Professor Charles Xavier is alive again, in his older Patrick Stewart guise. Which is odd, because the last time he fit into the narrative at this point, in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, he was killed. Maybe Xavier’s death got erased in some time-travel shenanigans? Who knows – there’s no attempt to explain it here, and it doesn’t really matter. He has a plan to stop the Sentinel war decades in the past, before it even begins.
The idea is to use the powers of mutant Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) – who can send a person’s consciousness back in time into their own past bodies – to send Charles’ mind back to 1973. The hope is that he will be able to stop his old friend, the shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, in a refreshingly size-blind role), who was developing the Sentinels; ironically, he could get no support from the U.S. government for his work, but his death at the hand of a mutant convinced them his project was essential. But Kitty refuses – a mind trip into such a distant past could kill the body it arrives in – so the job is turned over to Logan (Hugh Jackman), as he is the only one of the group whose body could survive the “journey.”
This is where the fun really starts. And not just because Wolverine gets to experience his own little Life on Mars retro fest back in the land of lava lamps and waterbeds. Nope: There’s a delicious beauty in the prickly Logan having to suddenly become a people person and work to be ingratiating, while also telling an outrageous story about traveling back in time to those whose help he needs. Better still: We get an exquisite reversal of the master-and-pupil dynamic Logan and Xavier once had – way back in the first film, 2000’s X-Men – when Logan was a huge personal mess and the grounded, patient Xavier tamed him (a little bit, anyway). Now, in 1973, younger Xavier (James McAvoy) is the personal disaster, his work to help mutants forgotten, his grief over losing Raven still stinging; even his mutant power to read minds has overwhelmed him to the point where he is taking a drug to suppress it.
And then – because they need his help, too – they have to spring Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from the most secure prison on the planet. Yes, this is a lot of fun.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that this movie is as elegant as it is. The plot is almost ridiculously convoluted; it crams an absurd number of characters into the story and traipses all over the planet, from China to New York to Vietnam to Paris. But even when it’s looping back on itself (and back to previous films) it works. In retrospect, there’s surprisingly little “action,” at least on the scales we’re used to in comic-book flicks, though what there is doesn’t feel like stuff we’ve seen a hundred times before. Being able to set mutants with unusual powers against one another helps, but director Bryan Singer also knows that a little goes a long way, and that holding off showing us something spectacular is more effective that being pornographic about it.
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