What’s Michael Fassbender out to prove this summer? That he can look leading-man cool in silly headgear? In August, he'll be putting on a giant papier-mâché head for the duration of indie comedy Frank. Before then, he's back in Magneto’s S&M-meets-Viking helmet for Bryan Singer’s time-hopping new instalment of Marvel's X-Men series, a bouncy and fun but brain-achingly confusing blockbuster. Seriously, if you don’t know your X-Men, don’t make this your starter film. Or at least take a geek to whisper the backstory as you watch.
Singer doesn’t dawdle. He kicks things off in the apocalyptic future, with humanity under attack from giant man-made robots called Sentinels, invented by brainiac scientist Bolivar Trask (nice work from Peter Dinklage, playing it straight rather than all scheming Dr. Evil). It’s the end of the world as we know it. So Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) patch up their differences and send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to throw a claw in Dr. Trask’s masterplan.
Most of the action takes place in the 1970s, where Logan has never looked more at home, in the thick of all those sideburns and bare man-chests. The Vietnam War is coming to a close, and mutants are soon to become Public Enemy No. 1. Logan finds the young prof Xavier (James McAvoy) drunk. Meanwhile, naughty Magneto (Fassbender) is in maximum-security lock-up again. There’s a brilliantly inventive set-piece as the gang busts him free: Cocky teenage mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters, a keeper), whose superpower is lightning speed, outfoxes the military police. Time appears to crawl to a standstill around him, glass shattering in a slow-motion ballet as he changes the direction of bullets.
It all trots along at a brisk pace with genuinely impressive special effects and decent gags. Bryan Singer really cares about his mutant outcasts, weaving just enough drama into the superhero shenanigans. When you’re asking actors to spout nonsense quantum physics while they're dressed like backing dancers at a gay club, it helps if they’re an A-team cast of heavyweights like this. Best of all is shape-shifting assassin Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), slipping from her snakey-blue skin into any form she chooses—a one-woman mutant army. It’s through her character, radicalized by human attacks, that Singer explores his theme of mutants as a metaphor for minorities.
Just don’t expect to have a clue what’s going on. You won’t need to by the end anyway, at which point Singer wipes the slate clean for X-Men films of the future. Speaking of which, don’t leave before the credits run if you want a taste of who’s coming next.