As the seventh X-Men movie begins, New York City is in ruins, its residents nearly annihilated. Yet X-Men: Days of Future Past's true plight is overpopulation. The film is so stuffed with characters that including twin versions of Professor X and Magneto scarcely boosts the confusion.
The first X-flick directed by Bryan Singer since 2003's X2 clicks in its middle section, which mostly focuses on the younger crew of heroes introduced in 2011's X-Men: First Class. But that story, set in 1973, is framed by another tale that transpires 50 years later and is both ponderous and overcrowded.
Very loosely based on a 1981 Marvel Comics series, Days uses a sort of time travel to dovetail the two casts. In the future, robotic mutant-hunters called Sentinels murderously pursue the X-folks around the globe. Hiding at a ruined mountain temple in China — can't ignore the largest cinema market outside North America — a tentatively allied Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) discuss a plan.
Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can transfer the 2023 consciousness of the near-immortal Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to his pumped '70s body. Then he can rally that era's Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing mutie-hating inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who's about to get Nixon administration funding for his Sentinels program. By killing Trask, you see, Mystique has intensified — or will intensify — fear of mutants.
If that premise weren't complicated enough, most of the characters sport multiple names. The Prof calls Mystique "Raven," and he and Magneto address each other as, respectively, Charles and Erik. And don't even think about catching the handles of the globalized new recruits who make their first X-bows in this episode.
One exception to that advice: Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a hyperactive adolescent mutie who carries the movie's niftiest set piece. He helps Wolverine and the Prof rescue Magneto from a super-secure cell under the Pentagon — don't ask — in a sequence that uses slo-mo to depict how the speed demon views everyone else's snail's pace. Then the kid has the good taste to vanish and not further congest the story.
The filmmakers riff on 1973 with lava lamps, simulated 8mm film and a Roberta Flack ballad, and also enlist in the Vietnam War. Mystique flits from a Mekong Delta battlefield to the Paris Peace Talks, and finally to the White House, where she tangles not only with Sentinels but also Richard Nixon (comically impersonated by Mark Camacho).
As the younger Prof, who's rejected his mutant powers, McEvoy gets to be soulfully despairing, and Lawrence has a few frisky moments when she's not in her blue-reptile-skinned Mystique getup. Most of the time, though, they're as confined as the other actors: trapped in their supersuits, upstaged by the CGI and buffeted by editor/composer John Ottman's sub-Wagnerian score.
At least the droning Teutonic music befits the movie's heavier themes. The first X-Men movie opened at a Nazi death camp where the young Magneto was imprisoned; this one's introduction dumps piles of corpses in a scene that emulates archival footage of Auschwitz.
Such self-importance is a perennial problem with superhero movies. But Days of Future Past is lively enough to mostly overcome it. With characters like the impish Quicksilver, the movie recaptures something of the spirit of the comic's early days. Back then, The X-Men was all about that persecuted minority that knew the world hated it for being smarter, faster and just plain cooler than everyone else: the teenager.