Along with 1998's Blade, the original X-men helped to kick-start the modern superhero genre. While a few hallmarks of the original X-films (more serious focus, toning down of the colorful comic book elements) saw themselves reflected in movies like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, there was very little else to the early films of the franchise of note, other than giving screen appearances of varying quality to an increasing roster Marvel mutants. As the franchise hit choppy waters with X-men: The Last Stand and X-men Origins: Wolverine, Fox looked for ways to breathe new life in to the franchise.
This paid off with the pretty good The Wolverine from last year, and the very good X-men: First Class from 2011, but interestingly enough it's this year's Days of Future Past that not only restores the franchise's financial success and brings it to new critical heights, but finds a unique twist that both makes Days a compelling film, and also gives the franchise something to truly call its own in a continually crowded field.
In creating one of the most "comic book-like" films ever made, this franchise has actually retconned it's own history.
For those unaware, a "retcon" is a term that's been a part of the comic lexicon for a while (short for "retroactive continuity"), and basically means the writers decide "nah, that never happened" and write a way out of a story point, character turn, or anything else that they don't want to be a part of their fictional history. The go-to example of this would be DC's mega-event in the 80's "Crisis on Infinite Earths" where legions of superheroes got decades of history rewritten, erased to start over, or were themselves killed outright.
With Days of Future Past however, it's not a crisis that brings this about, it's the desperate actions of a few surviving mutants, hunted nearly to extinction, to stop a war before it begins.
Much like the Chris Claremont comic on which it's based, the story begins in a dark future where giant robots called Sentinels are tracking, hunting, and exterminating mutants. The surviving X-men, including familiar faces (Iceman, Shadowcat, Colossus, Charles Xavier, Wolverine, Storm and Magneto) and newcomers (Bishop, Blink, Warpath, and Sunspot) have been fighting a losing battle against the machines. Their one hope: to send someone's consciousness back through time to their younger body and stop Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask, the Sentinel project's head scientist. That "someone" ends up being Wolverine, partly because his body can heal from the trauma that going back decades in time would cause, but mainly because Wolverine sells crap-loads of tickets.
That's a lot of dense exposition and story and the film ends up having to indulge in quite a few "tell everyone the plot" moments early on, but it's in service to setting up a very clever ticking clock narrative that's part period heist film (in terms of "putting together a team to do a thing," including breaking Magneto the Younger out of Pentagon Jail), part sci-fi adventure, and part allegorical drama. In spite of the omnipresence of Wolverine in the film's premise and marketing, the focus winds up being the battle for Mystique's soul that's waged by the militant Magneto and the idealistic-but-broken Xavier. These three work just as well together as they did in First Class, and Mystique actually has a more compelling journey in this film than the last.
Here is where the script gets some serious props, because it's not only building on relationships from First Class and developing independent arcs for this film (Xavier's drug-dependency is both a great metaphor in this socially-conscious series and is a smart way of setting a lot of plot in motion that Xavier can't just literally hand-wave away with his powers), as well as bringing the character of Wolverine full circle on a journey that he's been on through 5 previous films. The film also keeps the focus on mutants as a metaphor for civil rights (one that Singer zeroed in on from the first film), and uses the historical events surround the characters to entertaining effect. There are more than a few points of logical incongruity (and odd anachronisms, but this series has always had non-period sci-fi elements), but these are over-powered by the film's handling of drama and compelling stakes, as well as some clever parallel story elements at play.
Incidentally, his film really is a testament to how the impact of The Avengers and the rest of Marvel's grand cinematic experiment have changed the game. Ten years ago, Fox never would have spent this kind of money on such a dense and "out-there" concept as this. The X-men films toned down the grandly cosmic Phoenix Saga, but went "full Claremont" on this concept, and what's more they genuinely pulled it off. This film maintains an enviable focus in spite of dozens of characters and intertwining plot threads through multiple time periods, has a masterful tone that keeps the drama grounded but revels in fun the way Marvel Studios' own films do, and uses action to punctuate specific beats rather than pummel the audience into a stupor.
It's a minor miracle that a fifth film in a series (seventh if you count Wolverine's solo outings) manages to not only be good, but raise the bar for the franchise and even add something meaningful to the genre. The fact that Days of Future Past is using decidedly comic book rules so freely in a modern blockbuster might only be of major interest to serious nerds, but casual audiences can enjoy the well-rounded character-driven action film happening at the same time (including a stand-out sequence starring the goofy-looking but highly entertaining Quicksilver, which had my audience applauding).
If this is to be the send-off for "original" cast members like Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart (who get to share some brief but wrenching moments here), then it's more than a worthy one, but it also lays an exciting foundation for future adventures in this series. A future that's now looking brighter than ever.