- - Thursday, May 22, 2014

It’s time we stopped thinking of movie stars as actors and actresses, and instead begin to think of them as placeholders in the Marvel or DC Comics cinematic universes.

These days it feels as if practically every performer spends much of his or her time bringing four-color comic book heroes to life on the big screen, and some — even a few very big stars — seem virtually inseparable from their superhero counterparts. The correct question when you meet a screen actor now is, “Oh, what superhero do you play?”

No film exemplifies this trend better than the latest installment in the long-running X-Men franchise, “Days of Future Past,” a swift, smart sequel that, thanks to magic of mutant superhero mind-powers and time-travel, cleverly combines much of the cast of the first X-Men trilogy that began with 2000s “X-Men” with the cast of 2011’s throwback prequel, “X-Men: First Class.”

The new film features an exhaustingly large cast; it’s practically a Rolodex of screen performers working today. Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, Omar Sy, Shawn Ashmore, Evan Peters and a handful of lesser-knowns appear in supporting roles of varying size as the movie’s titular mutant heroes, some of whom are not even named, but all of whom boast visually spectacular, easily identifiable powers.

Peter Dinklage joins the crew as Dr. Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the Sentinels, mutant-hunting robots that drive the film’s multilayered, time-traveling plot. And Josh Helman plays a young version of Major Stryker, a character previously seen as an older man, portrayed by Brian Cox.

At the center of the story, as always, are Professor X, played again by both James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart, and the X-Men’s occasional ally and frequent archenemy Magneto, played by both Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen.

And, of course, the movie makes ample space for the series’ most popular character, the ferocious tri-clawed mutant Wolverine. Hugh Jackman returns for that role, his seventh outing as the character in 14 years, counting a cameo appearance in “First Class,” which means that he has been playing the character for longer than some its fans have been alive.

It is hard to imagine Wolverine without Mr. Jackman — even the comic-book version has been reshaped in his image — and it is equally hard to imagine Mr. Jackman’s career without Wolverine.

Similarly, it is hard to imagine the X-Men on screen without director Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two installments in the franchise, and helped kick off the wave of superhero movies that has dominated the box office in recent years.

In “Days of Future Past,” Mr. Singer successfully juggles the massive cast, as well as the labyrinthine narrative complications required to get them all together. The plot works from a 1981 comic-book story that begins in a dark and desolate world, after Trask’s mutant-hunting Sentinels have wiped out nearly all living mutants. There’s time-travel, political machinations, references to Vietnam and JFK, and all manner of mutant mayhem involved.

Mr. Singer has a particular talent for illustrating the vast array of mutant superpowers required by a movie like this — a scene in a Pentagon kitchen makes particularly great use of one character’s talent for moving very, very fast.

But even more than that, he has an intuitive feel for the fundamentals of the comic-book movie and its flawed fantasy characters. Under his direction, these pulpy, larger-than-life creations become both tragic and relatable. They are comic-book superheroes, yes, doing their duty by battling each other in spectacular fashion. But they are also something more.

Mr. Singer has taken these actors and made them sufficiently super — but he’s made them seem like real people too.

★½

TITLE: “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Story Continues →