"Stick with me, baby. Stick with me anyhow. Things should start to get interesting right about now."
"You'd best be careful what you wish for friend, 'cause I've been to hell and now I'm back again."
"Keep what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own."
Bruce Lee Sing-Lung
Buckle up fanboys. Summer is here at at last, with a blast of a blockbuster to set the bar remarkable high. It's hard to believe that it's been almost 15 years since Bryan Singer first kicked off the still-strong wave of superhero films with 2000's X-Men. With top-shelf thespians and sleek direction, Singer followed in the footsteps of Donner and Burton in developing a way to depict comic-book superheroes with seriousness and a degree of intelligence. X2 was even better, a bigger and more complex sequel that set up many possibilities with its finale which unfortunately never came to fruition. Sadly, the X-Men franchise was left floundering directionless with the director's departure, devolving in a serious increasingly poor sequels. Elsewhere, Singer's career disappointed frequently, with the misconstrued Superman Returns and the amicable but unimpressive Jack the Giant Slayer. Finally regaining a degree of sanity with the the Singer-produced First Class, the man who started it all is back in the director's chair to attempt to untangle the franchise's increasingly unwieldy mythology, massive cast, and increasingly irrelevance against Marvel Studios excellent lineup. And he succeeds wildly, with easily the best superhero outing since at least Joss Whedon's The Avengers, juggling the film's ensemble cast, pop gravitas, twisty time-travel narrative, and slick, James Cameron-style action sequences, in adapting one of the comics' most celebrated storylines. It took ten years, but this is finally the sequel X-fans deserved, and more.
The story opens in the not too distant future, when the X-Men are on the verge of extinction, being hunted by massive robots known as Sentinels, designed by eugenicist Bolivar Trask in an attempt to wipe out mutant-kind. Hunted in a horrify holocaust in a post-apocalyptic world, the surviving mutants, hunted to near extinction, have discovered a method to travel in time and avoid their pursuers, at least in the short term, but there's a catch going back further than a short time, allowing the temporary avoid the ever-more powerful hunters. Going back any further is too rigorous for anyone to survive. Except maybe a certain iconic adamantium-clawed mutant with healing powers. Going back to 1973 to stop Mystique from assassinating Trask and starting the anti-mutant mayhem, Wolverine finds Xavier a bitter and broken man from the events of First Class, and desperately tries to convince him to and his only remaining pupil, the Beast, to try to change the course of the future.
Wisely discarding most of the irritating "X-kids" from Vaughn's overrated X-Men: First Class while retaining the effective cast members-Mcavoy, Fassbender, Hoult, and Lawrence-and throwing in a delightful bonanza of cameos from the original cast, giving them a proper send-off after Brett Ratner's hideous X-Men: The Last Stand, Singer swings for the fences. Though the future cast is disappointingly underused as they aren't the meat of the narrative, seeing McKellen and Stewart back is simply wonderful, their chemistry and repartee remaining as delightful as ever and adding gravity to the proceeding, though the majority of the narrative takes place within the past, with Hugh Jackman returning to the role he was born to play in Wolverine. Jackman remains the most perfect bit of superhero casting since Christopher Reeve donned the Man of Tomorrow's cape, Fassbender and McAvoy, especially with Stewart and McKellen alongside them (McAvoy and Stewart meet in one of the film's most inspired passages) as counterpoints, and Lawrence continues to justify her superstar status, blending sexy femme-fatale action chops with surprising vulnerability, even under layers of makeup.
Finally free of the gaudy excesses of Ratner, Vaughn, and Hood, Singer's sleek style, reminiscent of James Cameron at his peak, lends pop-gravity to the proceedings, succeeding in precisely what Vaughn attempted in First Class-tying the films historical setting with social upheavals like the original comics did. Whereas Vaughn felt like he was simply connecting the dots though, Singer properly shakes things up as much as you can in a comic-book world where nothing ever really changes, making full use of his massive budget and getting every cent up on the screen. Though the underutilized future cast feels a bit disappointing, it allows Singer to thin the ever-growing cast to allow for stronger narrative focus. The central fulcrum-the relationship between Mystique, Xavier, and Magneto-allows for an actual character-based narrative with understandable motivations on all sides. As a result, it approaches that obvious but all-too-rare point in blockbuster FX-fests of giving actual weight to the proceedings and reasons to care among the fireworks.
Elsewhere, the jokes are all zingers, particularly some lines for the fans, without spoiling too much, the resolution is wholly satisfying both on its own and a retcon to hideous previous finale, and the set pieces are all rollicking good fun. Singer's action sequences actually make spatial sense, the Sentinels are inspired in design and execution, both as futuristic hunters and clunky 70s tech, the many set pieces executed with the clean choreography of the best pop cinema, reminiscent of James Cameron at his peak, full of clean lines and a clearly delineated sense of who's doing what to whom, ending with an action climax that's both visually spectacular and emotionally satisfying. Singer cites many of his favorites as pop cinema's very best-Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Spielberg's Jaws-and if he's not quite in their company, he's certainly on the right track. Qucksilver is an inspired creation, his bullet-time style FX as a particular highlight. Signer's use of silence, tension, judicious slow-motion, impressive choreography (some of it courtesy of ace second-unit director Greg Smrz, a John Woo alum who's clearly learned his lessons well), and the stylish cinematography and punchy editing of his top lieutenants- superb DP Thomas Newton Seigel and and editor and composer John Ottman, who lend the film a gorgeous, slightly expressionistic color palette (shot in rich digital) and strong rhythm. For once, bloat isn't a problem as the film's outward expansion actually suggests a larger universe (rumored deleted scenes hint at future treats as Blu-Ray extras) and the film's running time flies by.
Setting the bar impressively high for the rest of the summer, X-Men finally earn some of their glory back, suggesting that this franchise, once on life support, might still have some life left in it yet. Sleek, smart, stylish, funny, and thoroughly entertaining, the gang's all here, and they're better than ever. Though this proves a satisfying denouement, a post-credits stinger nonetheless hints at a new villain and future adventures. But if the world is in peril again, we needn't worry. With Singer back at the helm, we're in good hands. It's great to have him back at last. To me, my X-Men.