When David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Dune was released, theaters showing the movie handed out flyers to people buying tickets. These cheat sheets, “Dune Terminology” they were called, were meant to be read immediately and memorized somewhere in between the time you bought your popcorn and the moment the trailer for The Breakfast Club began. If you didn’t bother with it and/or had never read the novel Dune before your cinema visit, it was likely you’d be totally baffled by what happened on screen.
Never seen an X-Men movie? Or maybe you've half-paid attention to just a couple of them? Thinking of waltzing into X-Men: Days Of Future Past and following along? Think again.
Director Bryan Singer is back at the helm of this latest installment, a sequel to the prequel X-Men: First Class. It references the original trilogy of X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, while presumably building a bridge toward those stories with a densely-packed re-write of the future, one that involves dual time lines, moral gravity, doubling up with younger and older versions of the same characters, cheeky humor and thundering action. And while Singer’s in total control of the material, including a head-spinning final act, you should do your homework before you lay eyes on it. “Should” may not be a strong enough suggestion; you must.
In a future where robotic Sentinels are engaged in a triumphant campaign to eradicate mutants and their human sympathizers from the planet, the X-Men have gone into hiding. There’s no winning this war unless Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can use her consciousness-shifting powers to transport Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the Roberta Flack-and-wocka-chicka-intensive 1970s. Pre-Adamantium Logan’s job: enlist the help of young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and young Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) to prevent young Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the Sentinels’ inventor, the villainous Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). There's much, much more going on than that, but that's the core.
The path toward this imperative involves leaping back and forth in time and juggling more characters than ever. It rewards the kind of deep fandom most superhero films try to work around in the name of pulling in the most casually attentive audiences. But one of the pleasures of a series that’s lasted this long is the way it appreciates that fandom and keeps itself interested and committed to its own integrity. There’s no wheel-spinning or dumbing down going on here, thanks to Singer and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Jane Goldman, all of whom have this universe's best interest in mind.
At its heart the X-Men story is a parable about difference, subjugation and redemption, an alternate history of humanity where justice evolves as the oppressed model the decency and responsible use of power they’ve been denied; and it’s just inherently more awesome to watch that sort of thing played out among characters who’re blue, made of metal, are able to control the weather or possessed of the skill to hyperspeed themselves (Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters, gets the film’s coolest action sequence) and defeat bad dudes while doing it.
Having established this moral narrative in the first films, Singer doesn’t re-invent it or the metallic meat-and-potatoes style the series has established. Better yet, he never allows action and effects to get in the way of the script’s character development. It’s a mature, reverent approach that knows when to take itself seriously and when to have a little fun, and the results, entertaining and sometimes demanding more from the audience than usual, should ensure that these folks will be around for as long as there are stories about them to tell.