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Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine played the most fleeting of cameos in the last X-Men adventure, X-Men: First Class, and got the film’s biggest cheer by sending fellow mutants Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr packing with a blunt one-liner that reinforced his status as the mutant world’s ultimate outsider. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, however, the lone wolf has not only become a team player, he’s the figure on whom the whole story turns.

Indeed, Wolverine is the pivot uniting the two generations of X-Men: the characters encountered in the series of films kicked off by 2000’s X-Men and their younger selves, as seen in 2011’s First Class reboot. With original director Bryan Singer back at the helm, Days of Future Past brings the two timelines together in a cunningly constructed plot that finds the X-Men striving to bridge time as they fight for their very existence.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The film opens in a dystopian near future in which mutants are being hunted down and exterminated by an unstoppable army of robot Sentinels. Holed up in a Chinese monastery, allies Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) and their dwindling band of X-Men have one last hope of survival: send one of their number back in time to 1973 in a bid to alter the course of history by nipping the Sentinel programme in the bud.

And this is where Jackman’s Wolverine steps in. The plan hinges on the ability of Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde to project a person’s consciousness back in time, but the ageless, self-healing Wolverine is the only one who can withstand the stress of being zapped through time over a span of decades. Unfortunately, the process also requires a calm that has not hitherto been a notable feature of his emotional makeup. ‘Think peaceful thoughts’, instructs Kitty before dispatching him back to 1973.

X-Men:Days of Future Past Hugh Jackman

With Roberta Flack’s version of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ playing on the radio, Wolverine wakes up to find himself in the era of lava lamps, waterbeds and dodgy hairdos; all good for a laugh before the mission turns serious. His goal: stop Jennifer Lawrence’s shape-shifting Raven/Mystique from assassinating scientist Dr Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and thereby inadvertently setting in motion the Sentinel programme.

To do so, however, he must first rouse James McAvoy’s Xavier (the younger version of Stewart’s Prof X) from a torpor of self-pity and persuade him to join forces with bitter foe Magneto (Michael Fassbender as Ian McKellen’s younger self), an alliance that can only be forged if they first spring Magneto from an impenetrable prison cell deep in the bowls of the Pentagon.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The jailbreak is the film’s most giddily entertaining episode. The venture requires the services of young mutant Quicksilver, a mischievous prankster who moves so fast that from his point of view time is frozen for everyone else around him, as we discover during a standoff with a bunch of guards in a Pentagon kitchen that comes to resemble a Cornelia Parker installation (remember her exploded shed?).

To the strains of Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’, Quicksilver impishly rearranges the X-Men’s antagonists, diverts bullets from their course and shifts flying utensils, while also finding a moment to dip a finger into a splash of liquid suspended in space. Witty, cheeky and utterly disarming, like Quicksilver himself, the scene is a delight.

The rest of Days of Future Past can’t quite match this episode, but Singer and writer Simon Kinberg maintain a high level of smart spectacle throughout, and the counter-factual play with 1970s history is great fun – look out for Nixon and Kissinger – even if the time-travel plot threatens now and then to tie itself in knots. Fortunately, the acting – particularly by McAvoy and Fassbender – has an emotional clarity that cuts through the storyline tangles and gives the film’s crises and dilemmas deeper resonance than you might expect.

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Certificate 12A. Runtime 131 mins. Director Bryan Singer.