Marvel's X-Men franchise involves multiple characters, multiple aliases, multiple story lines, comic books, TV shows, seven blockbuster feature films and a legacy of esoterica dating back to 1963. One would need an Anti-Perplexity Superpower to keep all the history straight.
Now, they're mutating history itself.
"Days of Future Past," which brings the latest X-venture to theaters Friday, involves traveling through time, changing the past and several characters meeting not only younger versions of themselves, but Richard Nixon. It's like a runaway supertrain.
And yet ... some things remain the same -- and have, since the mutant outsider X-Men were birthed at the height of the Civil Rights era.
"One of the great things about the films," said Patrick Stewart, who has long played the patriarchal Charles Xavier, "is that they've always been about something. From the first moments of the first film, when we found ourselves outside the gates of Auschwitz, the films have been fundamentally serious about the nature of prejudice and discrimination, and otherness. That has never been far from any of the X-Men movies."
Stewart and Ian McKellen are the grand old men of the franchise, Stewart having played Charles since "X-Men" of 2000, with McKellen ever-present as his frenemy, the metal-manipulating Magneto. Among the younger members of what seems to be a moviemaking fraternity is Ellen Page, who returns as the time-tampering Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat. She agreed with Stewart.
"The series explores otherness," she said. "And difference. And how the fear that we have about people who are different manifests itself in inequality and violence and suffering in the world today.
"It's what I find cool about the franchise, and why it's had the longevity it's had -- the X-Men are deeply grounded and relatable and moving."
And they blow stuff up, and fight bad guys in 3-D.
"Days of Future Past," directed by Bryan Singer -- who withdrew from the media campaign for his film because of recent sex-abuse allegations -- is a sequel to both "X-Men: First Class" (2006) and the prematurely titled "X-Men: Last Stand" (2011). It marks a return to the series of Stewart, Page, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy. Given the ruddy health of the ongoing enterprise ("X-Men: Apocalypse" arrives in 2016) and the way actors and characters come and go in its various chapters, it seems like some kind of club.
"It's a sweet club to be in," said Page.
"A club? I don't know," said newcomer Evan Peters, who plays the faster-than-light Quicksilver. "They don't have any cars."
"I pray every morning I'll stay in the club," laughed another newcomer, Omar Sy, who plays the energy- channeling Bishop.
Some of the established regulars appear fleetingly, others centrally -- Jackman, for instance, who is playing the razor-taloned Wolverine for the seventh time. McAvoy plays the younger version of Xavier, whom Wolverine encounters when Shadowcat sends him back to 1973.
"I have to be honest and say I have not, over the years, projected my youth onto James McAvoy," said Stewart. "But having seen it, I think it's brilliant."
Quelling mutant phobia
The goal of time travel is to prevent the development of a super race of mutant-killing robots, based on the DNA of the shape-shifting Raven, aka Mystique (Lawrence). She has not yet become the assassin she would be when played by Rebecca Romijn in several earlier X-Men movies, but is certainly hot under her scaly, royal-blue collar: She has discovered the horrors inflicted on mutants by Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), an industrialist who has whipped the Nixon White House into a froth of mutant phobia and who must be stopped, lest the future become a hellish nightmare for our heroes. The idea that Trask is the Josef Mengele of the X-Men story won't be lost on many viewers.
"Trask is an interesting character," said Hoult, who plays the younger Beast (and did so previously in "X-Men: First Class"). "But he's driven by fear; almost everyone is. Even the relationship between Xavier and Magneto. They take different means to the same end, but they both fit into the same world, and are alternately friends and enemies."
One of the more mundane aspects of "Days of Future Past" was getting the older/younger characters to correspond correctly with each other vocally: One can hear Stewart and McAvoy, for instance, modulating their accents -- British and Scottish, respectively -- to sound more alike. Hoult already had experience prepping to play the younger Beast, who in an earlier incarnation ("X-Men: Last Stand") was played by Kelsey Grammer (who has an uncredited cameo late in the film). "I watched a lot of 'Frasier,'" Hoult said, quite seriously. "But what I sounded like was more like Niles."
Comedy is no small part of "X-Men: Days of Future Past," or, for that matter, any of the films in the franchise. "We're always concerned with making it too serious, too dark," said Hoult. "We all warm more to people who may be in a terrible situation but try to cope -- and have a sense of humor about it all."
Franchise rivals to 'X-Men'
There haven't been quite as many X-Men (or Women) in the X-Men movies as there have been in the X-Men comics, but the cast grows each time around. Presenting your 2014 mutants, "Days of Future Past" edition, and one memorable villain:
BISHOP The energy-channeling/energy absorbing Bishop is played by French import Omar Sy, whom foreign-film audiences will remember from the Oscar-nominated French film "The Intouchables." Playing a mutant is a long way from pushing an aristocrat in a wheelchair. "It's my first Hollywood movie and my first movie at all with this level of special effects," Sy said. "I learned a lot."
QUICKSILVER Played by Evan Peters (FX's "American Horror Story"), Quicksilver has moves that are literally quicker than the eye: An extended sequence in "Days of Future Past" involves his saving his new X friends by moving around a team of assassins, altering the trajectory of their bullets and doing it at such a leisurely high speed it becomes low comedy. How the character will develop seems unclear. "It would definitely be fun playing a bad guy," Peters said. "He has a mischievous side. He could go both ways. He's kind of teetering... ."
BLINK Played by Chinese starlet Bingbing Fan ("Iron Man 3"), Blink isn't given much screen time, but she has dimension-warping powers that give her the ability to teleport her fellow mutants.
WARPATH With his super strength, agility and stamina, Warpath will provide an enormous asset on the battlefield. With his previous appearances in the "Twilight" series, Booboo Stewart will provide an enormous asset at the box office for the X-Men.
TRASK The X-Men's worst enemy, Trask (played by Peter Dinklage, "Game of Thrones") is an evil industrialist who sees mutants as a threat to humanity and liquidating them the only option.