There's a great divide between people who are instant fans of comics-inspired superhero movies and the rest of us, who need convincing. We skeptics want characters beneath those cartoon colors, and a fantasy world we can enter without years of backstory learned in geekdom. Of all the franchises, only two have won me over: Christopher Nolan's dark, cerebral Batman series and much more surprisingly, the colorful, cartoony X-Men, which has combined its silly stories with spectacular action and glorious actors.
The best installment is still director Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class from 2011, when we first saw that James McAvoy grows up to be Patrick Stewart as the psychic Professor X, and Michael Fassbender turns into Ian McKellen as his sometimes evil, sometime friend Magneto. Bryan Singer's bold, entertaining X-Men: Days of Future Past is not as sleek or as clever as First Class, but it makes up for those lapses with a fiercely emotional performance by McAvoy and some dazzling set pieces.
Hanging onto the mind-bending plot can be a struggle. In an apocalyptic future, Professor X and Magneto send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, whose character probably has the most screen time) back to the 1970's. His most difficult job: convince the younger Charles Xavier and Magneto, to believe that he's a messenger from their older selves. Together the mutants must stop a scientist (Peter Dinklage, coldly convincing) from using the shape-shifting Mystique's DNA to create superpowered robots that will take over the world.
There are twists and wrinkles, but what really holds are attention is McAvoy as a depressed, disheveled Charles Xavier, who shoots himself up with a serum that gives him the ability to walk but blocks his psychic powers. McAvoy's eyes may well up with tears a little too often here, but he is wonderfully effective as a man bereft of his friends, his powers and any hope for the future.
Magneto, still his enemy, is in prison, so the mutants set out to spring him, using the character Quicksilver's gift for moving faster than vision. That's when Singer first astounds us, revealing in slow motion how Quicksilver re-positions security guards and re-routes bullets already zooming around the room. Even Magneto's impressive later trick of levitating an entire sports arena and landing it on the White House lawn doesn't rival this witty scene. (Poor White House, constantly attacked on screen.) Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography may not make 3-D essential, but it swoops us into a world whose subdued palette suits its tone of possible doom.
Jackman's Wolverine has never fit comfortably in the X-Men club, and this film plays up that difference. The brawny guy with claws is a lunkhead compared to genius Charles Xavier, but the two get along. Eventually Wolverine is smart enough to connect the young Charles with his older self, in the scene that brings McAvoy and Stewart face to face; it really is inspired casting.
Fassbender and McKellen have less to do (and never meet). And as Mystique, Jennifer Lawrence's stunt double and CGI people have a lot more to do than Lawrence herself. She mostly stares into the camera in her full-body blue makeup and looks glamorously menacing.
Along the way, the film casually raises the question of just what Magneto might have had to do with JFK's assassination. That question, and the presence of Richard Nixon, are exactly the kind of historical details that First Class, set partly in the Cold War 60's, handled with such flair and wit. In Simon Kinberg's screenplay for Future Past, those touches are thudding. Singer lets a few campy lines creep in, but they're jolting, out of step with the rest of the film.
Days of Future Past fails to resolve another question it raises: was JFK a mutant? But, as most of the X-Men have learned, you can't have everything.