Here is possibly the most important thing you can know about X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST - my wife's only exposure to the X-MEN at all is a viewing of about half of FIRST CLASS and she really loved the film. For a story that spans two incarnations of the franchise and touches on storylines that encompass not only the original three films but the WOLVERINE spinoff and the FIRST CLASS prequel, it's nothing short of a miracle that the film works almost as well for the uninitiated as it does for the faithful.
(HOW uninitiated was my wife? Afterwards, she said that when the film started, she was surprised to discover that "Captain Picard" was in this and then remarked how cool it was that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were cast "as the older versions" considering how notable and adorable their real-life friendship is. So anyone telling you that someone can't walk into this movie cold and understand it really isn't giving the average viewer much credit.)
Before we saw the film, I expressed concern to my wife that she might be a little lost. She brushed that off, saying, "They always make these movies so you can follow along even if you've never seen the others." In an ideal world, she'd be right but many a franchise has come undone when its focus becomes too insular. Actually, I can even envision another version of this film that ends up being total "continuity porn" with the references to Trask from X2 and WOLVERINE, Jean Gray's death in X3, and many other grace notes in the epilogue.
By the way, massive spoilers follow, so steer clear until you've seen the film...
Everything one needs to appreciate DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is contained within the text of the film itself. That means that the film carries the burden of not just the history I've alluded to, but even further connections, all of which must somehow be incorporated into the film as exposition without feeling like exposition.
We begin a few years in the future, where mutants wage a war against futuristic Sentinels who are capable of adapting and overpowering any mutant attack. It's a devastating post-apocalyptic time, with only a few surviving mutants that include Professor Charles Xavier, Storm, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde and (surprisingly allied with our heroes) Magneto. The war is all but lost, but Xavier and Magneto have hatched a plan to use Kitty Pryde's powers to send Wolverine's mind back in time 50 years into his old body. There he'll have a chance at stopping this war before it starts.
One of my few issues with the film is how Kitty suddenly has the power to project minds back in time. This ability is new to this version on film and the movie doesn't really dwell on how she's able to do this. In any event, she's able to project Logan/Wolverine back, but the catch is that they have to stay alive long enough in their present for him to complete his mission. If the Sentinels find them and kill them all, future Logan's mind will die and 70s Logan will wake up with no idea what he's been up to. This neatly establishes some urgency and a ticking clock
In 1973, Logan needs to convinces a broken and reluctant Charles to rejoin the fray so he can stop Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask, the head of Trask Industries and the man who designed the Sentinels in the hopes of convincing the U.S. Government to purchase them as weapons against the mutant population. In the original history, Mystique's mission has unexpected results. She kills Trask, but is taken prisoner herself and experimented on. With access to her shapeshifter DNA, scientists are eventually able to develop that ability as a feature in later versions of the Sentinels, allowing them to counter any mutant attack with ease.
Of course it's not that easy. Not only is the younger Charles a broken recluse, but he's also sacrificed his mental powers as a side effect of the drug that lets him defeat his paralysis. And even once Wolverine gets him in the game, they have to collect the younger Magneto... who's currently held in a prison 100 feet below the center of the Pentagon.
The solution to breaking a man out of the most heavily fortified prison known to exist turns out to be a speedster named Quicksilver. The prison break might be one of the most inventive set pieces in any of the X-MEN films and I say that as someone who was blown away by several of the action scenes in X2. There are some clever moments where we experience things along with Quicksilver, who's moving so fast that everything around him appears to be standing still. (This is also doubly amusing to anyone who remembers that the internet reaction to the first Quicksilver still and the Carl's Jr. commercial was certainty that the character would ruin the film.)
If that set-piece is a fun moment of levity, several others are squeezed for maximum tension, particularly the third act set-piece that involves Magneto lifting up a baseball stadium and dropping it around the White House while manipulating Sentinels to do his bidding. The eyes of the world are watching as President Nixon is about to announce the Sentinel program and by this point Charles, Logan and Beast know that Mystique is going to make another attempt on Trask's life (following the failure of the attempt that succeeded in the original history) If Mystique kills Trask - and possibly the President for authorizing the program, all it will do is inflame mutant/human tensions and give humans even more reason to fear the mutants.
This is brilliantly cross-cut with what's happening concurrently in the future timeframe, as the Sentinels have found the citadel where our last few heroes are hiding out. The mutants need to make one last stand in order to buy Wolverine enough time to secure a better future.
In a particularly elegant bit of writing, the climax comes down not so much to whose powers are stronger or who can hit harder. No, the axis of the future revolves around Mystique's choice. Can she choose the path Charles advocates? Or will she surrender to the desire for revenge and justice that fueled her initial attempt and now has only become stronger? Magneto's involvement raises the stakes even higher, but even if he's dealt with, the most critical moment in the film hinges on the action she'll take with the eyes of the world on her. Charles can try to appeal to her soul, but in the end, she defines mutant/human relations forever with her decision.
Charles gets a fair amount of character development as this younger version is a far cry from the serene wise man of the first three films and the mentor/older brother figure of FIRST CLASS. Seeing the professor in this new circumstance also forces Logan into a bit of a role reversal. Suddenly he's the seasoned veteran who has to help his former mentor find himself. Magento is largely the same man he always is, but the script and Michael Fassbender give the character a lot of dimension. He might not undergo much change, but this isn't a film that treats it's human characters like chess pieces to be moved through action beats.
And then there's the ending. I've made no secret of my feeling that X3: THE LAST STAND is possibly one of the worst comic book movies ever made. Recently I've seen some rumblings on the internet from people who claim that it only takes a lot of heat because people think it's fashionable to hate its director Brett Ratner. I still contend that it's an awful film that makes horrible choices with its characters and then doesn't even have the balls to stand by those choices, immediately introducing the trapdoors that can undo them. (Except for the really terrible deaths of Scott Summers and Jean Grey.) The reset button is so primed by the end of that film that it renders most of the events of the movie utterly pointless and a waste of time.
The ending of this film seems like an apology of sorts for X3, as all the timeline shenanigans lead Logan to wake up in a reconfigured present where the Sentinel war never happened. As he wanders the halls of Xavier's School for the Gifted, he sees several of his old friends, alive and happy: Rogue, Iceman, Kitty. And then, in a doorway, he sees her... Jean Grey, the woman he loved and killed.
Of course, this is no longer THAT Jean Grey. The implication is that X3 never happened (and probably not her death in X2 either.) Then, as Logan is still reeling from this return, an old rival steps into the reunion - Scott Summers. And why wouldn't he be? If Jean never went bad, then she certainly never would have killed him. If this really is the last time we see the cast that launched this franchise 14 years ago, it's hard to think of a better way to tie things up than with the promise that all of these X-MEN are still alive, still out there, and are living on just as they have in the comics.
The amazing thing is how much impact this sequence has for someone who didn't see the earlier X-MEN films. There's an earlier exchange between Wolverine and the younger Beast where Logan mentions that Beast isn't still alive in his future (having died off-screen between X3 and this film.) Thus, the brief cameo of the older Beast in the rebooted timeline allowed my wife to get that "aw, Logan saved his friend."
The Jean Grey resurrection was easily appreciated via a flashback to Logan having to kill her, which is slid into the film within a scene where Logan urges the younger Charles to look into his mind. In that scene, the flashback's apparent purpose is to show us all the horror Logan has lived through as a way of leading up to how Logan has gained much from his friendship with the older Xavier. It's not bald exposition - it's organic to the scene in the moment, even as it sets up a more impactful payoff later.
Am I saying that that wonderful final sequence played as emotionally for my wife as it did for someone like me? No, I doubt it hit quite THAT hard. But it certainly works as a denouement to aspects of this film itself. For that reason, it transcends just being a convenient way to ignore unpopular sequels and their elements.
X3's teased resets were infuriating because they were unearned emotionally. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST makes the reset a feature, not a bug, and the justified payoff of everything the film builds to. This isn't just a great comic book movie, it might just be the best X-MEN movie yet.