REVIEW: "X-Men: Days of Future Past" Gives "Avengers" a Run for Its Money

After suffering through the character-deficient "Godzilla" and "Amazing Spider-Man 2" -- two films seemingly allergic to developing characters truly worth investing in -- Fox's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" shows them how it's done.

Confidently executed and briskly paced, director Bryan Singer's third film in the franchise is just shy of beating "X2" as the filmmaker's best. By firmly placing this time-travel epic's action on the backs of characters just as committed to the set pieces as they are to the emotional themes underlining them, Singer and his impressive ensemble deliver one of the best times at the movies since "The Avengers."

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After nearly 15 years with Marvel's mutants on the big screen, "Future Past" is the first film that allows our heroes to truly embrace their comic book roots, while simultaneously honoring the audience's time spent enduring their highs ("X2") and lows ("X-Men: The Last Stand," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine").

Serving as both sequel to "First Class" and clean-slate agent to the original films' messy continuity, "DOFP" is basically "Terminator 2" with mutants, casting Mystique (Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) in the Sarah Connor role. The shapeshifter plans to assassinate scientist Richard Bennett Dyson, er, Bolivar Trask ("Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage) before he unleashes the Sentinels to eradicate both mutant and humankind, resulting in a post-apocalyptic future where X-Men-killing robots patrol the skies over cities from New York to Moscow, which have been reduce to nothing more than mass graves.

Enter Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, rocking only-in-the-future greying temples, as the team's only hope. If both the X-Men and the people that fear and hate them are to survive, Logan must go back in time to 1973 and find Mystique before she can kill her target. But first, he needs to enlist the help of allies-turned-enemies Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). The former is hooked on a drug that lets him walk at the cost of his much-needed powers, while the latter is imprisoned deep below the Pentagon for allegedly killing Kennedy in '63. The X-Men, in both timelines, are at their lowest, and it's up to the guy who never wanted to join their little team in the first place to save both their past and their future.

Lots of punching and double-crosses ensue, as Simon Kinberg's script (from a story by Kinberg and "First Class" writers Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn) deftly balances the serious drama with strong doses of humor -- all while maintaining a firm grip on the emotional stakes holding this refreshingly-intimate spectacle together.

Sure, the means employed to reach back in time are a bit, well, ridiculous -- but the film wisely, and rather bluntly, spells out the rules of its time travel early on -- getting it out of the way so audience's can get their money's worth.

And one of the best bangs for your buck comes toward the end of the first act, as Wolverine and Co. enlist the speedy services of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to break Magneto out of prison.

Despite early images of the character evoking dismay from fans, Quicksilver is a much more welcomed presence than those first looks let on. He steals every one of his brief scenes. The way in which he uses his super speed to bullet-time effect during the escape should inspire a generous amount of applause and fist-pumping -- a joy rarely afforded at the multiplex lately.

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Appearing for the seventh time as Wolverine, Jackman is as assured and comfortable in the role as Connery was as Bond back in 007's heyday. A lot of "DOFP's" best laughs, and most dramatic scenes, center on Wolverine, but the film misses an opportunity to capitalize on Logan's past (er, potential future) when he briefly encounters a young version of the man who would make him Weapon X -- William Stryker. The moment flirts with the notion that all of Logan's efforts to change his fellow mutants' fate may end up sealing his own, but ends up bypassing the type of ironic complication audiences love in time travel movies for something much less satisfying. (The only thing more disappointing is Wolverine's would-be fisticuffs with a Sentinel. The fight features very little actual fighting, cheating fans of the great slash-fest they deserve after waiting so long for the Sentinels' big-screen debut.)

Lawrence, despite her character's pivotal role, comes off half-engaged with the material this time. She enters each scene as if she just stepped out of her trailer, giving the bare minimum of effort. This malaise seemingly infects Ian McKellan and Halle Berry's performances as well, resulting in low-wattage hero moments for the two during the film's climatic battle.

It's these last 30 minutes where the movie falters the most, as X-Men battle Gen-1 sentinels in the past while being massacred by their much-evolved counterparts in the future. Despite the inventive means by which minor X-Men are killed off during this sequence, scenes of the future X-Men literally waiting for the fight to begin, beats intended to create tension, instead just pad the running time.

The film's short-comings and logic-bending moments aside, Past works as a great piece of mainstream moviemaking -- its ambitions both grand and intimate -- thanks in large part to Singer's direction. He takes the characters seriously without it ever feeling too much so, finding every narrative opportunity to ground their larger-than-life missions upon very relatable, very human terms. One minute, Singer once again invokes the series' Holocaust imagery, this time with corpses being dumped into pits like trash. The next, he's embracing these characters' splash page origins with a costly siege of the White House -- all put through a lens more than capable of keeping up with the tonal shifts.

Singer does what Brett Ratner's "Last Stand" and the much-maligned "Origins" failed to do: Find the perfect balance between the fun and the serious, set piece and character. The end result packs as many emotionally resonate punches as it does actual punches, making "Days of Future Past" one of the best films of this, or any, summer.

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