Well, they pulled it off. Days of Future Past, one of the darkest and most complicated stories in the Marvel universe, has been successfully translated to the screen. This is no small feat. With its time travel elements, it could have easily been bogged down in exposition. But thanks to tremendous action, editing and acting, it's arguably the best X-Men film ever.
The film begins in the distant future, when nearly all mutants have been executed or imprisoned. A small band of rebels, featuring some familiar faces (Iceman, Colossus) continue to fight against the terrifying Sentinels sent to destroy them. But to end the losing battle, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to stop the Sentinels from ever being deployed.
Now obviously it gets a little convoluted here, with timelines folding on top of each other. But there's just enough exposition to explain what's going on (and yes it's tough to hear Jackman simply be a plot summarizer for much of the first half) without derailing the momentum of the film.
Days of Future Past works in part because it manages to strike the perfect balance of action, humor and terror. The movie doesn't shy away from death and destruction. But it's never too grim. Evan Peters is essential comic relief as Quicksilver, who helps break Erik (Michael Fassbender) out of prison in the best scene of the year.
It also helps that the younger characters, including Charles (James McAvoy) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), are morally ambiguous. Their motives are above reproach, even when their actions are not. Plus, it's hard not to hate Oliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), who always conveys evil despite his diminutive frame.
Stripping away all the costumes and superpowers and time travel, this is a story about redemption and free will. There's a tremendous scene near the end where Charles has nearly killed himself trying to force Raven to rethink the murder she's about to commit. It's then he realizes that you can't make someone turn from a bad path. All you can do is guide them toward a better one.
If I have a complaint about Days of Future Past, it's that the peripheral characters are completely disposable. They're essentially human shields, which is a little disappointing. I've been dying to see Bishop onscreen since I was a kid, and they've got a great actor in Omar Sy. But to see him do nothing more than fire his gun in anger is a letdown.
But these are minor complaints for a comic book film that gets pretty much everything right. It's dark when it needs to be but never feels like it's trying to hit above its weight. It's definitely not for kids, and it feels like it's been a long time since I could say that about a non-Batman movie.
X-Men: Days of Future Past makes up for The Last Stand, improves upon First Class and sets up a grand finale (Apocalypse, due in 2016) while standing on its own. It feels like a true event, not just another installment on the way to something else.