New rule: Bryan Singer should only direct X-Men movies, and X-Men movies should only be directed by Bryan Singer. For here we are with X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is almost indisputably, I'd say, both Singer's and the franchise's best picture since X2 back in the long-ago of 2003 (from which early perch it remains, I would insistently claim, one of the five best superhero comic book movies of the 21st Century). Not bad for a series that's just hit its seventh entry and 14th year, and has spent more than half of that span lost in the rushes. Wanna run right out and re-watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine? Goddamn right you don't.

Written by Simon Kinberg - making up and then some for his contributions to the dismal, franchise-derailing X-Men: The Last Stand way back in 2006 - with a story he co-wrote with Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, the film takes the title and plot hook and very little else from one of the best-regarded plotlines in the history of the X-Men comic book universe, written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne in 1980. In its cinematic incarnation, DOFP picks up in 2023, where everything is going terribly for the mutants we've come to know so well through so many films - and by the way, the film expects you to have seen all of the previous films except for the aforementioned Origins: Wolverine, because standalone movies are for moral degenerates, apparently - with giant anthropoid robots that can adapt to, and reflect any attack launched against them demolishing what's left of the once-mighty X-Men and much of humanity besides. There's only one silver lining: at some point since The Last Stand way, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has gained the ability to send other people's consciousness back in time to an earlier point in their life, and the mutant leaders Charles "Professor X" Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) have decided that the thing to do is send somebody back to 1973, when the key event in the development of these robots - Sentinels - took place. The volunteer, since 20th Century Fox is well aware what pays the bills, is Logan (Hugh Jackman), AKA "Wolverine", he of the indestructible body and almost non-existent aging process.

So back to '73 Logan goes, with an insurmountable job: find the younger versions of Charles (James McAvoy), now a miserable bastard who has locked himself away from the world, and Erik (Michael Fassbender), who has been locked up by others, specifically the U.S. government. With their help, he needs to stop Charles's former friend and Erik's former protege Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), now going by "Mystique", before she kills the inventor of the Sentinels, industrialist Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), and stirs up unprecedented amounts of anti-mutant sentiment.

So that's a lot of convoluted twaddle, I know, but DOFP presents it cleanly enough, and it understands, anyway (unlike a lot of its increasingly po-faced superhero genre colleagues) that it doesn't matter if these things actually make perfect sense as long as they have the appearance of making sense en route to being a grandly entertaining popcorn action-adventure. And in the particular case of DOFP's time travel gamesmanship, that grand entertainment is about bringing the cast of the initial trilogy that began with 2000's X-Men back into the fold and mixing them up with the best parts of X-Men: First Class from 2011 (which is to say, instead of having to make do with a movie where Stewart & McKellen or McAvoy & Fassbender are the highlight, we get to have all four of them in one go, though never, tragically, all at the same time - though Stewart and McAvoy do have a chance to interact, in one of the film's better scenes). And about wiping away all the shitty parts of the franchise so that future sequels can have a relatively clean slate, and given the intensity of some of the shittiness in the X-Men films, that's a pretty fantastic achievement all by itself.

In effect, DOFP ends up working for almost the same reasons (and - astonishingly - to something like the same level) as X2: it gathers up a whole bunch of characters we presumably enjoy seeing, puts them in a perpetual motion machine, and steps back to allow us to stare at them in bug-eyed delight as they fly around in setpieces that show off the very best shiny nonsense that computers today can make. The extravagant action scenes are particularly fine here; the film more or less opens with a sequence that I can't do better than the describe as a high-speed version of the game Portal done as a fight scene, with editing by John Ottman that flawlessly captures the rhythm of the action beats and always emphasises them just right (Ottman, Singer's go-to editor, is also more commonly employed as a music composer, which is 100% not coincidental in explaining how his editing works the way it does). It's the best fight in a comic book movie in years, recalling the same feeling of holy crap they can do that now that the Nightcrawler scene did when X2 was new. Later on, the film pulls out a legitimately great slow-motion action scene with a maybe too-obvious joke in the soundtrack, but it still works both as spectacular cinema and as a terrific character for one of the many, many mutants who gets nothing like enough development - as always, it's the Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto show, with twice as many Professor Xes and Magnetos to go around (though the future characters get nowhere near enough to do - McKellen, in particular, is criminally underused, with only a couple of shots where he actually gets to demonstrate the depth of human feeling he's always brought to the franchise).

Still, the film figures out where to get its human moments in: Singer's aesthetic, which has largely remained unchanged since X2, feels positively stately in its willingness to slow down and let the characters be, in what are titanically long shots for the genre (that is, sometimes they are longer than five seconds). Nobody but McAvoy and Jackman really gets an opportunity to take advantage of that, though both of those actors rise to the occasion (the final scene includes what may well be Jackman's best facial acting in the series), and enough other characters get enough of their own beats that it has the feel of a movie that's balancing spectacle and character, even if it's not necessarily hitting that balance in actual fact.

The whole thing is definitely mired in fanservice (particularly in the post-credits scene, one of the worst that has yet happened in a modern superhero movie), a lot of in-jokes that don't do much besides pad the movie, and Lawrence, who we all know by now is a pretty solid actress, is still completely lost in the role of Mystique, like she has no idea how to play emotions using a latex-covered body, and so just kind of mopes. And it has the kind of non-resolution that modern franchise films tend to rely on in lieu of actually having storytelling discipline. But there's so much more that's going right! John Myhre's production design expresses a clear notion of 1973 that grounds the movie in a tangible place (compare iFirst Class and its sort of vague "all the '60s lumped together" design), and Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel aren't afraid to linger on those sets and move through them in some tracking shots that are there to let the action breathe, and not to show off. It's a fluid movie with kinetic, well-conceived action, and it does a fine job of portraying the broad-strokes emotional storytelling that popcorn movies are best at. It is, simply, both very fun and very operatic, large and imposing and dazzling in a way that I was honestly starting to lose hope about seeing in a superhero movie ever again.

Right about now, I usually would go with some kind of line like "of course, it's not a masterpiece or instant-classic in the genre". But you know, the jury might actually still be out on that one...

Reviews in this series
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)
Logan (Mangold, 2017)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)
Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019)
The New Mutants (Boone, 2020)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2 (Singer, 2003)