The new, smashing X-Men movie proves that gags and light touches aren’t unwelcome in serious, near-apocalyptic stories

Whenever I say that Christopher Nolan takes himself too seriously, I’m told that that’s because Batman is a serious character and there is no way those films could be anything but serious. But Tim Burton, in his two Batman movies, managed to strike a balance between the character’s inherent gloom and the realisation that even a dark film, set mostly at night, can use some lightheartedness.

And now we have the new X-Men movie, which tells a serious story (the mutants could be wiped out in the future unless they go back into the past and change history) and features serious, angst-riven characters (Magneto is easily the equal of Batman in the I’ve-lost-everything stakes), and yet devotes the odd minute or two to make us smile, like in the scene that involves an elevator, a roll of duct tape and a hapless security guard. It’s a throwaway visual gag, and it’s one that can easily make its way into a Batman movie.

And then we get the kind of set piece that instantly – as we are watching it – slips into cinematic history, like the slo-mo bullets in The Matrix, or the shape-shifting villain in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The sequence, involving a mutant named Quicksilver, made me dizzy with delight. It has wit and sparkling choreography and exquisite visual effects and, at the same time, we are aware that people could end up dead. The tension is very real. But the music makes all the difference. It’s a dead-serious moment that’s played with a light hand.

When we think of the big set pieces in the Nolan oeuvre – say, the zero-gravity stretch in Inception – we recall the heavy strings and the insistent percussion that make us go “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” But that’s the most obvious way to score these scenes, because the scenes themselves are making us go “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” and when the score (however skilfully) mimics this tension, it’s like two people pointing us in the same direction.

But in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the scene with Quicksilver unfolds to the strains of Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle, a wistful song that’s backed by something as basic and unfussy as an acoustic guitar. The effect is contrapuntal. The scene is making us go “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” but the score makes us smile. This is how a good filmmaker can make something as shopworn as a special-effects-filled action sequence seem fresh, surprising and funny.

Another time this technique was used brilliantly was in Face/Off, my favourite John Woo movie. Again, it’s an action sequence – guns, breaking glass, a little boy stuck in the middle. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. But the minute the boy’s mother clamps a pair of headphones on him and we begin to hear the song (again, a wistful number, Somewhere over the rainbow), the scene turns gloriously... musical, in the sense that a straightforward action stretch is imbued with the sensibility of a musical.

For my money, X-Men: First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes are the best franchise reboots, maybe ever. I have my issues with each of these films, but at their best, they demonstrate what’s wrong with most of the summer blockbusters these days. They have strong storylines, characters we care about, affecting dramatic trajectories and, most importantly, wit. They don’t take themselves too seriously.

Finally, how can we talk about time-travel movies without at least a reference to The Terminator, which established the template that all future time-travel films would draw from? The efforts by machines named Sentinels to crush the X-Men reminds us of the efforts of the Terminators to crush the rebels, and with her shape-shifting powers, Mystique recalls T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

That franchise is getting a reboot too, with Terminator: Genesis, due in 2015. I wasn’t very impressed by the heavy-handed Terminator Salvation, the last film in the series, but I have hopes for this one. It’s directed by Alan Taylor, who, in Thor: The Dark World, orchestrated a superb climactic battle that married the traditional hero-villain clash with a series of uproarious mix-ups caused by the opening up of portals between various worlds. In other words, it was both grim and goofy, a non-stop stretch of “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”