About midway into the latest X-Men flick, Bryan Singer's generous, delightfully convoluted "X-Men: Days of Future Past," there is a prison break so exuberant and uncharacteristic of superhero movies that you sit up a bit in your seat. You feel the audience around you snapping to. Not because Singer's return to the 14-year-old film franchise feels undernourished (it doesn't). Or what comes before seems perfunctory (it's not). But because the sequence — Wolverine, the Pentagon and "Sanford & Son" — is so eccentric you're reminded that a little charm has been in the contract between audiences and superheroes all along:
Oh, right, it's supposed to be fun.
For more than 50 years, the Marvel Universe's innovation, grounding its characters with relatable, everyday problems, has been its calling card. But in 2014 that back and forth between metaphorical angst and CGI spectacle, played out several times a year in 3-D and heralded with ongoing marketing maelstroms, lapses into an insistent, schematic ho-hum-ity. The superhero genre, like the Western before it, is in serious danger of becoming too familiar. Peter Parker has love troubles (but first another throwdown in Times Square), Iron Man is full of hubris (but the suit is cool), Hulk prefers to smash (but Hulk depressed). I enjoy many of these films, but like soap operas without end, over-determinism settles in and air gets sucked out.
That prison break, though.
It features Jim Croce. Also a coffee tasting. And duct tape, steely Michael Fassbender, aviator goggles, some slapstick and the fastest, most cheerfully annoying man alive, Quicksilver (an excellent Evan Peters, from TV's "American Horror Story"). As much as a pricey, box-office-savvy international franchise can indulge in fun anymore, it does here. And the audience, perhaps more obligated to than elated over superhero movies lately, brightens. Because Singer's own innovation, while not straying so far from Marvel's playbook, is subtle: Stay light without being frivolous, remain emotionally committed without lapsing into imaginary gravitas.
In a genre in which cities are flattened and worlds destroyed with offhanded frequency, "Days of Future Past" — despite, yes, flattening our world — walks a rare line between casual and urgent. Since the outcome for the bad guys is not promising, and the audience instinctively understands this, Singer looks for curlicues, gags, expressions, always keeping the drama between the X-Men themselves.
Which is wise.
There is so much plot in "Days of Future Past" that slavish reverence for the material (or the grander Marvel game plan) would verge on the morbid; the film is adapted from a beloved, deeply confusing early 1980s X-Men storyline by Chris Claremont. Indeed, when the lights came up in the theater and the credits rolled, the person beside me leaned over: "I didn't know the Fantastic Four were going to be in this." This person was serious. I assured her that the Fantastic Four were not in the X-Men. But I sympathized: There have been so many X-Men, spread over seven movies now, so many alliances and machinations, a moviegoer should receive flashcards at the door. There are approximately 5,621 X-Men in this film: There is the guy with black eyeballs, the guy who shoots tattoos, the guy with a toad tongue, the woman who can rip the fabric of the universe. There's a character named Warpath whose power is staring off meaningfully into misty canyons; a character who is his own toboggan; a character who transforms into a campfire and another who generates fire balls.
There's a lot of redundancy in the X-Men locker room. And those are just the secondary characters.
You can almost understand why Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, with a B-movie flair for villainy) is so eager to thin the herd. Problem is, when the film opens, he's thinned the herd a lot: It's the future, and mutantkind (and mankind) are endangered because Trask created killer robots to seek out the mutant gene that allows fireballing and such. The war got away from everyone. Trask is nominally the bad guy but mostly the plot motivation. After an opening salvo of quasi-Holocaust imagery — a nod to Singer's first X-Men film, which established Ian McKellen's anti-villain Magneto as an Auschwitz survivor — the remaining X-Men retreat into a temple at the top of a mountain in China. There, a patient Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and ornery Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) — and Halle Berry's Storm, and Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde, and several others (seriously, no flash cards?) — decide (stay with me now) to send Wolverine back to 1973 and the origin point of their extinction.
Can they change history?
And if so, dear God, the ramifications … The Captain might never meet Tennille.
As for that plan: Kitty, whose powers include an ability to send a consciousness back in time, must place her hands on the side of Wolverine's head and work her magic. She does this seemingly for days — hands on a hard body, indeed. Once safely, metaphysically, in 1973, Wolverine, in his younger self, has to find the younger Professor X (James McAvoy) and younger Magneto (Fassbender) and convince them to work together to locate well-meaning, blue-skinned shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). If she succeeds in assassinating Trask, the U.S. government and Richard Nixon, not about to be pushed around by some hippie freaks, will weaponize her cells and initiate Trask's plan to hunt, capture and destroy the X-Men.
A lot of plot. The film brings together the cast of the original X-Men films and the upstarts of the clever 2011 reboot "X-Men: First Class" — effectively teaming up several generations of X-Men (and ensuring that someone seated behind you will be asking, "Wait, OK, who is that again?"). And yet Singer keeps what matters clear and snappy enough. And what matters here, aside from a handful of impressive (albeit warily inevitable) special-effects smack-downs, are merely four actors: McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence, with Jackman serving more or less as the connector between casts and time periods. The core of the movie is a triangle of strong wills, and the fragile alliance between Magneto and Professor X plays out with poignancy, particularly between their older selves, who wonder why they spent those years bickering. Fassbender seems to retreat a bit too coldly into Magneto (the playful warmth of McKellen barely registers), and Lawrence, a cog in a gigantic pastiche, struggles to work up her usual spunk and urgency. Strutting through an airport in a floppy suede hat and Joni Mitchell garb, she's relegated to Instagram J-Law.
The film belongs to McAvoy.
Aside from the funny use of Wolverine's leather bomber, a lava lamp and a water bed, Singer doesn't have as much fun with the '70s setting as, say, Lawrence did in "American Hustle." That "Days of Future Past" barely acknowledges here the civil rights subtext of early X-Men comics is an especially lost opportunity. But McAvoy, who plays Professor X as a '60s washout in the first half, charts a convincing, archetypal '60s-'70s path. He goes from early idealism to burnout and disillusionment, then back again. He lives isolated in a castle, taking a special drug to numb the pain of being able to listen in on the thoughts of the entire world. When he shoots up (tying off his arm in a soft '70s light), the drug allows him to regain the use of his legs. But the drug also dulls his powers, including his ability to read thoughts, to sympathize. It's a remarkable invention, a superhero whose directive is empathy first, butt-kicking second. The needle and the damage done, indeed.
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG- 13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language)
Running time: 2:11
Opens: Thursday night