Days of Future Past opens in a dark future, a world devastated by war. A ragtag band of mutants, led by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan), puts up a decent fight against the Sentinels, but they have zero hope of victory against the shape-shifting, mutant-hunting robots. In a last-ditch effort, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) sends the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back into his ’70s self. The last chance to change the deadly future hinges on Wolverine convincing a bitter young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and human-loathing Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who are not really over the divisive events of First Class, to come together and save the future.
Bear with the plot’s introductory info-dumps and you’ll find the best X-Men movie since X2 (also directed by Bryan Singer) — one that spares us needless origin stories and understands that the beauty of having two Charles and two Erics is showing us how each shapes the person the other will become. Days is a bit of a boys’ club — while much rests on the choices made by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the movie sidelines anyone else who isn’t a white male — but it’s also a return to form after the execrable The Last Stand and the middling First Class. Lawrence gives militant mutant Mystique a new layer of righteous anger; Jackman, playing messenger boy, is all quirked brow and tired fury; it turns out that strung- out and self-centered is a good look for McAvoy’s young Charles.
The key new face is Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), who steals the movie’s central set piece — a stylish, funny and symbolic sequence: While the heroes from previous movies all but stand still, Peter, who will grow up to be known as Quicksilver, resets the whole room, taking out threats in the span of a breath and reveling in the fun of it. The torch is being passed; the next generation is ready for it.
But let’s not write off the old gang just yet. Days of Future Past builds to an almost preposterously dramatic finale, but its central theme is rather more human-sized: the hope that people can change. It’s fitting that the climax affects more than just the future of the X-Men; it results in some positively delightful changes to the past as well. A brief after-credits sequence teases X-Men: Apocalypse, scheduled for 2016. It’s going to be a long wait.