1. Time-travel movies are cool.
Jumping around in time creates challenges for screenwriters, but it also opens up more imaginative possibilities. Days of Future Past gets rolling in a nightmare sequence in 2023, when Terminator 2-like shapeshifting robots called Sentinels, created by humans to extinguish mutants, are mopping up a war that has nearly destroyed the planet. Only Wolverine (a character who is ageless, hence played by Hugh Jackman in both eras) has the healing capacity to withstand the bodily stresses of traveling back in time to 1973, to stop Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, in a surprisingly prominent role for the world’s hottest actress) from assassinating the scientist (Peter Dinklage) who invented the Sentinels. She was hoping to stop the Sentinels from coming online in the first place, but the other X-Men decide that her move was counterproductive. The plan is to pacify humanity and prevent all-out war by saving the Dinklage character.
2. There are vectors of conflict shooting out in every direction.
The X-Men have always been an internally querulous bunch, and in the seventh movie the internecine battles are fierce and fun. This time, Magneto (played by Ian McKellen as an old man and by Michael Fassbender 50 years younger) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy) are allies in the future, but in the past they’re at loggerheads again. Wolverine, Charles Xavier and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are fighting Mystique, who is also fighting the humans, and they’re also trying to stop young Magneto as he devises an even more extreme plan to make war with humanity. This reaches a climax in a thrilling scene in which Magneto uproots a baseball stadium to form a prison around the White House.
3. It grounds itself in history without making cheap jokes.
Possibly the most questionable element of Days of Future Past is its co-opting of the JFK assassination: Magneto, who can move anything metal and even alter the trajectory of bullets, was involved in it (hence the “zigzagging bullet” Oliver Stone made famous in the 1991 film JFK). This storyline is in poor taste.
But the film also uses the tail end of the Vietnam War, the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 where the country’s fate was sealed and the Nixon administration without falling into traps. Nixon, for instance, isn’t played as a cheap comic caricature (the way John Cusack played him in The Butler) but rather as a sober leader who makes reasonable decisions. The film doesn’t delve too much into the politics of Vietnam, but there is a gratifying line about how American troops were denied the tools they needed to win the war.
4. It has some crafty staging.
Though the beginning 2023 sequence is overly indebted to The Terminator, a later scene in which Magneto is rescued from a metal-free prison cell underneath the Pentagon is expertly realized, with the hilarious new X-Men addition Quicksilver (aka Peter [Evan Peters]) saving the gang in a shootout using his super-speed to roam around the room and casually adjust everything to his liking while bullets are in the air. Singer choreographs this brilliantly to Jim Croce’s ’70s ballad “Time in a Bottle.” Mystique’s exploits at the Paris conference where she intends to assassinate the scientist is another smashing scene, as is the D.C. finale. Balancing the many super-powers of various characters in such scenes makes for multi-dimensional action that far surpasses more linear films such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, in which one superhero and one villain face off while smashing up scenery.
5. Motivations are honest and understandable.
Apart from the sinister Sentinels, there isn’t a true villain in Days of Future Past. Even though Trask (the Dinklage character) is to some extent the sworn enemy of the mutants, he isn’t portrayed as a cackling, bombastic madman (like, for instance, Rhino and Electro in Amazing Spider-Man 2) but rather as a genuine idealist who is saddened by U.S. losses (and Vietnamese ones) in the Vietnam War. In a robust and necessary speech, Trask explains that creating Sentinels to take out the X-Men could given humankind a common foe and end war as we know it. An interesting villain beats a ridiculously dastardly one every time.