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If you could travel back in time and change the past, would you do it? Would you go back and kill Hitler and thus save the lives of millions of Jews and others who died in concentration camps? Would you stop Kennedy’s or John Lennon’s assassinations? Would you disregard the ripple effects changing these fixed points in time could have on our own present?

For Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) there are no ands ifs or buts about it. The survival of both mutant- and humankind depends on changing such a fixed point in time: Raven/Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) 1973 assassination of the creator of the Sentinels, the gigantic government-run robots responsible for the almost complete annihilation of mutants and their human allies in the future.

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“X-Men: Days of Future Past” marks the return of director Bryan Singer to the movie franchise he helped launch more than a decade ago. It acts as both a sequel to the comparatively lighter “X-Men: First Class” directed by Matthew Vaughn and a reboot of his own “X-Men” films. It smartly incorporates and refers to crucial plot elements from past “X-Men” films (and one Wolverine) while altogether dismissing others (Professor X’s “death” in the Brett Ratner-directed “X-Men: The Last Stand,” for example). But, most importantly, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kingberg (working from a story idea by Vaughn, Jane Goldman and himself based on a 1981 X-Men story written by Chris Claremont) play up the comic book’s science-fictional roots.

The movie opens in a dark, not too distant future as what’s left of the X-Men fend off another Sentinel attack. These first images are truly harrowing: mutants with the letter “M” branded across their faces fill concentration camps in New York City while bulldozers bury thousand of cadavers on a mass burial site. Turns out that Mystique’s assassination of Sentinels’ creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) led to the government approval of the Sentinel program and to Mystique’s capture. Her shape-shifting DNA was used to enhance the Sentinels’ weapons capabilities.

Professor X and Magneto decide to use Kitty Pride’s (Ellen Page) abilities to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) unconscious back in time to stop Mystique. It’s not going to be easy: Wolverine has to convince the younger Professor X and Magneto to set aside their differences and join forces once again to rewrite the future. After the events of “X-Men: First Class,” Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) has turned into an alcoholic recluse who, with the help of a serum created by Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) allows him to walk while blocking his psychic abilities. Magneto (Michael Fassbender), on the other hand, is imprisoned in an underground concrete cell in the Pentagon for his presumed participation in the assassination of President Kennedy.

After finally convincing Xavier that he is not a lunatic, Wolverine, Xavier and Hank recruit a teenaged silver-haired smart-ass named Quicksilver (Evan Peters) —whose high-speed could give DC’s The Flash a run for his money— to spring Magneto out of his cell. What follows is one of the film’s true highlights: a sequence that is so much fun, so full of verve and energy, you almost demand an encore. It shines a big, bright light on an otherwise bleak film.

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Magneto, Wolverine, Charles and Hank head off to Paris where the Peace Accords that formally ended the Vietnam War are being signed and where Mystique is scheduled to bump off Trask. Things don’t go according to plan…and I won’t tell more. Suffice it to say that the events in Paris lead to a final showdown in Washington, D.C. where President Nixon unveils the Sentinels program and Magneto takes matters on his own hands.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is surprisingly dialogue-heavy for a modern Hollywood blockbuster…and that’s a good thing. Singer and Kinberg are not afraid of having their characters tackle big ideas and big emotions face to face. By anchoring the action in the 1970s and using as backdrop actual historical events, Singer and Kinberg give the film added gravitas just like Vaughn did when setting the action of “X-Men: First Class” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Trask may be referring to mutants when he talks about a greater danger to this country after the war, but I couldn’t help think that there is a larger subtext to his remarks. That, indeed, the script is referring to those threats, real and imagined, that have driven this government’s international and military policies since the mid-70s.

Unlike other superhero movies, the action sequences never overwhelm the film. They arrive at the right moment, when the story needs them. Mystique’s rescue of a group of mutant combatants in Vietnam from Trask’s underlings and the young Magneto’s final, almost catastrophic action are as breathtaking as the final half hour of “X2: X-Men United,” still the best in the series. However, the scenes set in the future lose their power when seen in 3D, the stereoscopic photography making these scenes look even murkier than they are (frankly, this is one movie you can easily, and cheaply, see in 2D).

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As Trask, Dinklage turns into gold a sadly underwritten role. I wished McKellen had been given more to do as Magneto. And poor Halle Berry: Storm is given little to do. The film truly belongs to the dynamic duo of McAvoy and Fassbender. The latter is appropriately cold and secretive, playing the younger Magneto as a man who never betrays what he is truly thinking. McAvoy enjoys an advantage over Fassbender and the rest of the cast: his character is the only one with an actual narrative arc. To encounter a foul-mouthed, bitter Charles Xavier is quite a shock. But his transformation from a dejected man who no longer gives a damn to one who finds his path again is compelling; it lays down the seeds to his eventual growth into the wise, good man X-Men fans know and love.

One final note: don’t leave before the credits end. In pure Marvel fashion, there’s an extra scene that sets up the next X-Men film.

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