Even though the story behind ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ has been around for 33 years now, the idea of a superhero movie meshed with a movie about time travel seems, let’s say … daunting. Especially for a superhero franchise like X-Men, which is known for having a lot of superheroes.

It’s just that it’s hard enough to make a big-budget superhero movie make sense (as the so very recent ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ taught us) -- and adding the cinematic equivalent of pai gow (at least, nothing confuses me more than pai gow) to this whole equation seemed like kind of a bad idea. I mean, how many time travel movies make sense in the first place, beyond the ‘Back to the Futures’ and the ‘Loopers’ and the ‘Primers’ of the word? And none of those movies have dozens and dozens of mutants to keep track of their whereabouts.

The most remarkable thing about ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ is just how coherent it is – a movie that almost has no right to be this coherent. A movie that, if it were the mess it should be, could almost be forgiven in a, “Well, there was a lot going on,” kind of way.

Well, let me backtrack a little bit. ‘Days of Future Past’ takes place both in the years 2024 and in 1973. Thankfully, we are spared from having to spend too much time in yet another dystopian, bombed-out future that is somehow only 10 years from this very moment, but looks like it takes place 200 years from now.

(I do wonder about this: If you woke up tomorrow and it was 2004 instead of 2014, how long would it take you to notice? Setting aside that you probably live in a different location than you did in 2004 and own different things, if you were just walking around, how long would it really be before you convinced yourself that you had somehow traveled back in time? I would guess at least 10 minutes. Which may not sound like a long amount of time, but it certainly wouldn’t be an immediate realization. There would even be advertisements for a movie called ‘Spider-Man 2.’ My guess is that it would be after you see the seventh person in a row with a flip phone.)

In 2024, the Sentinel project – highly advanced machines programmed to kill mutants and humans who have the genes necessary to spawn mutants -- has reached its apex. Sentinels have the ability to adapt their bodies to whatever mutant they happen to be fighting. (It’s unclear if a Sentinel can adapt just by looking at another being, but, considering its ability to shoot fire out of its face, I would assume that every Sentinel has seen the first ‘Thor’ movie.)

It’s become an unwinnable war for what mutants are left, so Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) come up with the idea of having Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to his younger, 1973 self (the one we saw, briefly, in ‘X-Men: First Class’) in an effort to stop the whole Sentinel project from being started in the first place. (Note: in the comic book story, it’s Kitty Pryde herself who goes back in time. Another note: Hugh Jackman is a very famous man and people love Wolverine, so, here we are.)

Anyway, everything mentioned to this point happens in the first 20 minutes of the movie. The overwhelming majority of the film takes place in 1973 alongside the cast we met in ‘X-Men: First Class.’ (Though, every now and then the film will cut back to the future just to remind us that they are there.)

Once ‘Days of Future Past’ gets into that aforementioned past, boy, it becomes a different movie. The gist is: the Sentinels gained their adapting power from Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) DNA, so Wolverine must unite an incarcerated Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and a really sad Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to prevent Mystique’s DNA from getting into the hands of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

See: pretty simple! Plus, it's a treat to watch Jackman verbally spar with Fassbender. (Highlighted by Fassbender's Magneto sarcastically asking Wolverine if they are "buddies" in the future.)

(Time travel movies always become complicated when it comes to what happens to the person’s physical body who is traveling through time – which causes a whole mess of scenarios and questions. ‘Days of Future Past’ avoids all of this by only sending Wolverine’s consciousness into his younger self. His physical unconscious body remains in 2024. This may be one of the tidiest time travel movies to ever be made.)

It’s weird to say this about an X-Men movie – especially with an X-Men movie that involves time travel – but it’s almost like the attitude with this complicated story is “less is more.” There’s certainly action, but there’s really no grand spectacle -- no overreaching computer generated juggernaut (not even the character) to act as a diversionary eye candy in the wake of a coherent plot.

But that’s kind of where we’re at with the machine that is the summer (hopeful) blockbuster: Basic simple competence is rewarded. And that’s fine, because these movies make a ton of money either way, so basic competence should be rewarded. And ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ is one of the more competent summer movies to come along in some time.

In other words: It’s not often I leave the theater after a summer movie and say out loud, “You know, that movie made a lot of sense.”

'X-Men: Days of Future Past' opens in theaters on May 23.

Mike Ryan is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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