The newest X-Men film, directed by Bryan Singer, is set in a troubled future, where the few remaining mutants are holed up in China, and under attack from drone-like machines known as Sentinels. But what if someone could go back in time, prevent a fateful act from occurring and thereby guarantee that Sentinels are never created?
Thus, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to 1973 — you'll know it by its groovy Roberta Flack soundtrack and an expected mishap Wolverine has with a waterbed — to sort the future out. His tasks: to convince the young Professor X (James McAvoy) of what the future holds, and get two troublesome mutants — Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) — to cooperate with the plan. "It's not him I'm worried about, it's us," says older Magneto (Ian McKellen), referring to the younger versions of himself and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) that Wolverine will find back in 1973.
That most of the story occurs in the past is a narrative cheat that lets the film revisit its basic story: Mutants are scattered throughout the world; regular folks fear mutants and want to destroy them; and mutants can save themselves if they band together and utilize their unique skills. (Days offers a chocolate-box selection of amusing mutations: turning to ice, fire or gold; ability to cause holes in the air; making people vomit; and having a super-long, snake-like tongue.)
But perhaps of interest to contemporary viewers is the film's deep wariness about the drone-like Sentinels, deemed necessary for protecting mankind from dangerous "others," like mutants. Unlike humans, the film shows, machines are incapable of nuance and of changing their minds to become more accepting of the diversity of humanity.
As befits an origin tale occurring simultaneously in the past and the present (technically, our future), the more a viewer already knows about the X-men universe and its key players, the better one gets the in-jokes and the layered plotting. (My own Marvel education is a bit lacking and I missed some jokes, and occasionally struggled to remember from earlier films who was who and what their mutation was.)
On the downside, there's not much tension to this story: It's hard to believe any sentient film-goer believes the popular franchise and its major characters are in any real danger of ceasing to exist. But pleasures await in smaller aspects: There's a crowd-pleasing and clever scene where the super-speedy Quicksilver runs rings around the Pentagon; Jennifer Lawrence, pretty much in blue body paint, and Wolverine sans pants provide a bit of naughtiness; and every scene with Fassbender as the quietly scary young Magneto feels more portentous than the rest of the plot.