There’s only one great scene in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” but it’s a keeper. A handful of Pentagon security guards have cornered the young Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and have opened fire; all appears lost. Just then the scene cranks to a standstill as the adolescent Quicksilver (Evan Peters) ambles about the room rearranging bullet trajectories, fists, and feet with bratty pleasure. In real-time, he’s moving too fast to be seen, but the movie lets us share this moment of empowered teen prankishness, Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” playing archly on the soundtrack. This is what the new Spider-Man movie should feel like.
In all other respects — and aside from its criminal misuse of a Moody Blues album title — “X-Men: Days of Future Past” upholds the acceptably high batting average of Marvel’s second-tier movie franchise. (The first, and the company’s primary ATM machine, is “The Avengers” and its attendant spinoffs). “Days” is fast, smart, well-acted, and intermittently inspired, and if you don’t know or care who Beast or Blink or Storm are, you can safely skip it. Seven films in from 2000’s “X-Men,” the series is playing to the converted — which by now is almost everyone under 30.
The plot involves one of those time-travel loops that science fiction series go to when they get bored. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” begins where most modern blockbusters end — with New York City in ruins — and then proceeds backward. In this Apocalypse Next Week, an army of government-built robot Sentinels has wiped out the mutants and any humans whose DNA indicates they may someday have a mutant. Our mutant heroes hole up in a last bastion and, using the temporal-relocation powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), send Wolverine back to 1973 to stop the event that spooked humans into building the Sentinels in the first place: the assassination of their inventor, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), by the renegade shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
This means two things. First, we get a quartet of classy British thespians instead of a pair: McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as heroic Charles Xavier young and old and Fassbender and Ian McKellen as villainous Magneto sub and prime. Second: waterbed jokes. Under the direction of Bryan Singer — back behind the camera for the first time since “X-Men” and its initial sequel — “Days of Future Past” manages to spoof the polyester verities of the Me Decade while attending to the main order of business with grim, propulsive flair. As in 2011’s “X-Men: First Class,” the movie encompasses real-world events like the Vietnam War and the 1973 Paris Peace Accords without too much ahistorical disrespect. Anyway, it’s fun to watch a giant blue mutant (Nicholas Hoult) tear up the Champs Elysees.
There are the usual set-piece action sequences, envisioned with above-average flair: an assault on the Pentagon to free the imprisoned Magneto, a climactic donnybrook in which Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium takes a little airborne jaunt to see the White House. By contrast, the battle scenes in the day-after-tomorrow sequences feel distinctly sub-“Matrix,” with the android Sentinels chasing down a bunch of uninteresting random mutants: Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Sunspot (Adan Canto), the portal-creating Blink (Fan Bingbing), the laser-shooting Bishop (Omar Sy). There’s a fellow named Warpath (Booboo Stewart), but I’m not clear on what his power is. Maybe finding lost car keys.
Where “Days” excels is in the comparative depth of its comic-book characters and the performances that bring them to life. (One exception: I love Peter Dinklage as much as the next “Game of Thrones” fanatic, but his Bolivar Trask is a dud.) McAvoy, always most watchable when playing conflicted wretches, puts some meat on the bones of the young Dr. X’s emotional crisis, and Jackman seems freed and fired up by the chance to star in a movie without the weight of a franchise on his shoulders. McKellen looks awfully tired by this point, but Fassbender makes the younger Magneto strappingly dangerous and genuinely unpredictable.
I do wish they’d found more for Jennifer Lawrence to do than run around in a blue nudie-suit and glower through her high kicks. The fact that one of the most mercurial young actresses of her generation is holding down not one but two mammoth entertainment properties seems a drag on her time, if not ours. In one scene, Mystique pulls Fassbender’s Magneto into a 1973 phone booth for an acrimonious chat about whether humanity deserves saving, and while it’s a fine, proficient bit, you can’t help thinking This is the best we can offer these two?
One aspect of the “X-Men” series that gets lost in this movie’s hullabaloo is its ongoing awareness of Otherness, of what it means to be different in a society hung up on normality. A potent metaphor and applicable to whichever group of social outcasts you choose, but not on the table this time. Instead — and it’s certainly a fair trade — “Days of Future Past” makes room for a deliciously bizarre extended cameo by Richard Nixon, played with beetle-browed brio by Mark Camacho. There’s even the briefly raised suggestion that the 37th president, among others, may have been a mutant with superpowers of his own. I guess those 18½ minutes of audiotape had to vanish somehow.
MORE COVERAGE:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.