America’s sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence truly can do anything. In the course of three months, she’s managed to graciously lose an Oscar (her third nomination in four years), swan above the mansplaining condescension of a male pundit who tsk-tsked her for getting drunk in public, and burst into the summer blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past as a politicized ’70s soul sister grimly fighting for mutant equality by any means necessary. It’s no coincidence that in one scene where she embarrasses herself before a crowd of normals, her shapeshifter changes her skin from blue to black and holds her head high under the weight of a righteous afro.
When we first met her in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, Lawrence played a well-behaved do-gooder named Raven. Radicalized by the murder of her mutant friends (including January Jones’s plot-haltingly wooden Emma Frost), Raven ditched her establishment name and rechristened herself Mystique. When we meet her again in 1973, the setting of most of Days of Future Past, Mystique is plotting to assassinate anti-mutant activist Dr. Bolivar Trask (an eerily calm Peter Dinklage). That act of aggression will lead, 50 years later, to the total destruction of life on our planet.
How do we know? Because that’s where the film starts, in a present-day apocalypse made of gray rubble with jolts of neon: purple lasers, yellow mind-control pogs, and piles of lime-green corpses, some fresh and some already artistically mulched. The last of our aging X-Men — Patrick Stewart’s Professor X, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, and Halle Berry’s Storm, i.e. those actors who are happy to collect another X-Men paycheck as long as it doesn’t require anything more strenuous than stalking across a room — are days away from death.
With help from Ellen Page as pocket-size quantum physicist Kitty Pryde (I’m giving names because the film itself doesn’t bother), the X-Men seize on a Hail Mary last hope: send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness half a century back in time into his younger body so he can find Mystique before the pivotal murder and, you know, very nicely ask her not to. For kicks, he must enlist the Professor and Magneto’s earlier selves, even though the former (James McAvoy) is a depressive addicted to painkillers and the latter (Michael Fassbender) is locked in a dungeon 100 stories beneath the Pentagon for killing JFK.
Wait, JFK? “What else explains a bullet miraculously curving in the air?” glowers McAvoy’s bitter mentalist, who still hasn’t forgiven the once-powerful Magneto for crippling him in the last film during the Bay of Pigs. Now in the Nixon era, their tensions mirror the real-life fallout of the Vietnam War: The Professor is the martyred peacenik Ron Kovic, Magneto the unrepentant Kissinger, and Mystique the guerilla soldier who answers to no one but her own conscience.
You have to admire X-Men‘s audacious rejiggering of history to fit fiction. Stan Lee launched the series in 1963, the dawn of the civil rights movement, and even at their clangiest the films have never forgotten that these metal, ice, claw, and magma brawls are really metaphors for acceptance. Luckily for the franchise, we’ve marginalized so many groups that each generation can layer its own struggle over the mutants’, be it black power, brown power, gay rights, or god help us, Bronies.
Still, all this good-intentioned selflessness means that the movies don’t have room to enjoy themselves. Future Past starts fast and never slows down. There’s not a line of dialogue that isn’t exposition, as though screenwriter Simon Kinberg feared that if he ever stopped drilling home his messages about peace, love, and social panic, we might think we were simply in the theater to have fun. It’s like discovering your box of Milk Duds is really chocolate-covered vitamins.
What fun there is slips in through director Bryan Singer’s visuals. When Wolverine wakes up in the ’70s, the first thing he sees is a lava lamp. Everyone’s a fashion disaster, from Professor X’s wide floral lapels to Magneto’s bell-bottoms. As for Jackman himself, over the 14 years he’s played Wolvie, he’s somehow gotten more ripped. Now 45, he’s so lean that when the sun dapples his veiny shoulders, they look like tree bark.
Wolverine has always factored into the franchise as an apathetic demigod, an Achilles roused to fight only when war gets personal. Here, he’s stuck in the unusual role of moral compass, the Freak of Christmas Future, while the younger mutants get the good fights.
The best of the gang is Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a fast-moving teenager who can’t resist hotdogging while he saves the day. In one showdown, while swatting away bullets aimed at his friends, he takes a few short breaks to sample some soup, steal a hat, and rearrange the bad guys so that when the clock catches up, they punch each other in the face like the Three Stooges. He’s so entertaining that it’s a disappointment when Wolverine and co. choose not to bring him along for the rest of the film. Quicksilver will return in The Avengers 2, but the rigmaroles of multi-studio Marvel contracts require he be recast with a different actor. Listen, Fox and Disney: If mutants and humans can learn to share a universe, maybe you can, too.