In theaters Friday, May 23
3 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
Let out a cheer and a sigh of relief.
A superhero story that spans 50-odd years and mixes casts from two franchises? This could have easily been one of those blockbusters that seemed tantalizing in the crowded hallways of Comic-Con yet resulted in a convoluted cinematic disaster. What we have here is the best case scenario: An electrifying ride that grips until its last frame. Very last frame.
Cut first to a bleak dystopian future. (As if there's any other kind). Brilliant robots called Sentinels have invaded the world, armed with the ability to kill mind-reader Professor X (Patrick Stewart), metal-bender Magneto (Ian McKellen) and their peers. The only reason they've survived is because phasing mutant Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can warn them of impending danger. But as the crime fighters convene in a Chinese safe house, they know defeat is a certainty.
Kitty has a rescue plan, and it's a doozy: She'll send rugged Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to 1973 to stop young shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from firing a gun at the military scientist (Peter Dinklage, inspired casting) who created the Sentinels and ignited the madness. To pull it off, he must seek the help of leaders' younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively). Back in the day, you may recall, they were still sworn enemies. Plus, for extra fun, the professor (i.e., Charles Xavier) is an angry, medicated recluse who wanders aimlessly around his mansion, while Magneto (i.e., Erik Lehnsherr) is stewing underground in a Pentagon prison.
Maybe now would be a good time to mention that an education in mutant-ology — at the very least, familiarity with 2000's X-Men and 2011's X-Men: First Class — is beneficial to fully comprehend the ambitious (and occasionally murky) plot and enjoy its sly nuances. When Charles recognizes Wolverine, he tosses off an expletive-filled line that's actually an inside joke. Even a menacing glare between Mystique and Erik holds more resonance to those well-versed in their backstory.
Not to say that anyone should tune out a scene between Lawrence and Fassbender, only the two of the most alluring actors currently working in the business. (Note to the dazzling Lawrence: Sitting in the makeup chair all day for that blue body paint was totally worth it). The origins characters dominate the set pieces, and it’s a treat to see a pedigreed group of stars speaking intelligently and kicking butt. The collateral? Two card-carrying, Oscar winning actresses, Halle Berry and Anna Paquin, utter about 7 1/2 words between them. And poor Page spends most of the movie hunched over Jackman in the safe house, her fingers wedged to his forehead temples.
An ace cast is a bonus; a third act not dependent on an explosion extravaganza is practically miraculous. This is the rare popcorn fare that dares to emphasize emotional themes such as universal acceptance and redemption over budget-blowing special effects. During the climax in Washington D.C., with the lives of all the top government officials at stake, director Bryan Singer refuses to blow up the White House let alone decimate the front lawn. And instead of one-note villains spouting punch lines, complex characters grapple between right and wrong in their do-or-die moments.
Even the eye-popping action sequences have a unique flair: Guarantee that nobody will ever hear the wistful '70s ballad "Time in a Bottle" the same way again thanks to its amusing and memorable usage in a slow-mo prison break.
The next X-Men installment arrives in 2016. Nobody should change a thing.