The morning before I attended the screening of the new X-Men movie, I was cleaning out an old box of mementos and came across an odd flyer. It read “Mutants Are People Too!” on the cover. On the inner fold were details of how this country was full of Mutant Oppression and lacking Mutant Equality. I was given this flyer at the first screening of the original X-Men in 2000, when the studio staged a mock protest outside the theater. Actors made up as mutants handed out pamphlets and spoke out against the Senator Kelly character, played in the movie by Bruce Davison.
It’s amazing (and maybe a little depressing) that there have been seven X-Men movies made in the past 14 years, and only a few of them are really good. The first two, directed by Bryan Singer, were made before the saturation of comic book movie adaptations we have today and remain impressive, thrilling and a lot of fun. The disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were the underwhelming series lows, while the pretty good X-Men: First Class and the underrated The Wolverine mostly succeeded in capturing the gruff, imaginative essence of the series. Now, with Singer returning to direct a series installment for the first time since 2003, the franchise mostly escapes superhero movie fatigue by finding a brilliantly clever new angle to explore.
The complex plot opens with the world we know becoming a dark, dreary place in the near future. All mutants are hunted and killed by man-made machines called Sentinels and the X-Men crew is sparse and holed up in China, awaiting possible extinction. By a means too convoluted to explain, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is sent back in time to change the past. His mission: in order to save the future and change the past, he must recruit younger versions of his mentor, Professor X and his adversary, Magneto; not only must he convince them of his quest but also get the two longtime enemies to work together.
All of the scenes set in the future, with the familiar crew of mutants fighting off the Sentinels and taking part in effects-heavy mayhem, are tired and feel overly familiar. Once the story settles into the 1970s and becomes a delightful, engaging time travel action/comedy, the movie takes off. I won’t describe it, but there is an incredible scene, set to Jim Croce’s “Time in Bottle,” that astonishes by blending state of the art CGI, crafty cinematography and a wicked sense of humor. While the movie never tops this sequence, there are other set-pieces that deliver on the excitement and spectacle promised by the series.
Uninitiated audiences should see the first two entries, in order to get up to speed. But the story often helps the newcomers by offering flashbacks and exposition, making this feel almost like a stand-alone installment. Because the time travel aspect re-introduces characters and allows playful twists to our expectations and the series’ lore, it also feels like we’re seeing the first X-Men adventure.
Jackman carries the film perfectly, reliably applying grit and a wry sense of humor to Wolverine. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver and James McAvoy’s Professor X are the acting standouts. It seems to say more about the change in movie star popularity than the screenplay that Halle Berry’s role as Storm barely registers, while Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is now a central character (Lawrence has more to do in the part than Rebecca Romjin ever did).
With the closing scenes especially satisfying and the mix of the new and old cast creating a pleasant ensemble, I’m admittedly eager for the forthcoming X-Men Apocalypse. The closing moments reminded me why I loved the first movie: because I adored these characters. After all, mutants are people, too.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Scale)