“We need you to hope again.”
Nobody can deny the impact that The Dark Knight had on the superhero genre. It changed the landscape of moviemaking within the genre, and everything since that fateful day in July of 2008 has more or less been affected by how Christopher Nolan chose to adapt the DC comic. Four years later, Joss Whedon came to bat with The Avengers, a massive gamble that ultimately, and surprisingly, paid off in spades. The ambition shared between Nolan and Whedon’s game-changing films has influenced tone, scope, and world-building, above all else, with each successive superhero film, trying to mine the same fertile soil that birthed these two epic blockbusters. Unfortunately, none have come close. Even the best ones, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, seemed minutely impressive within the barrage of superhero fare, and Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises proved too sprawling and grandiose to compare to both of the films that came before it. For all the wrong and right that so many standalone superhero films have done, it was looking less and less likely that Nolan and Whedon were ever going to be met or matched. Until 20th Century Fox put hope back into the only Marvel property the studio still has in their possession.
The revival of the X-Men franchise has been a hope of mine for many years now. I saw X2 for the first time back in 2003 during its theatrical run for a friend’s birthday party. It was a wowing experience, buoyed by my lack of knowledge regarding the X-Men mythos and the little promotional material I had seen beforehand. The film astonished me, thus it remains a benchmark for superhero films even now. The four X-Men films to roll out between the Summer of ’03 and now have been a mosh pit of quality, flailing underneath the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s relentlessness, DC’s prayers to follow-up Batman successfully, and Sony’s aggravating reboot of Spiderman. But having contained themselves into a world only unto themselves, the X-Men have found a new lease on life thanks to the return of the director who brought them to the screen in the first place. The original pioneer of the 21st Century superhero film, Bryan Singer, is back at the helm to oversee this franchise’s course correction. With indisputable confidence and steadfastness, Singer builds from all that the six previous films have done – his own two, Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand, both Wolverine spinoffs, and X-Men: First Class – and boldly synthesizes them into a sequel/prequel/reboot that’s thrilling, funny, action packed, and all-around wonderful. X-Men: Days of Future Past is the X-Men film we’ve been deserving of for the last eleven years, and it made me as joyful as I was when I first watched X2.
Far off in 2023, the world has been overrun by a swarm of mechanical annihilators known as the Sentinels. They are human-made robots first created by Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in the early 1970s. They were incorporated as anti-mutant protocol before they started targeting humans as well. With much of humanity either wiped out or imprisoned, the mutant population is the only resilience, frantically searching for a way to end the war. When one is found, it’s a highly complex procedure: Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has discovered a way to transport the human consciousness into its past self, utilizing the steady mentality of companion mutant, Bishop (Omar Sy), to survive the trip through the time in order to warn other mutants of forthcoming Sentinel attacks. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), along with friend-foe Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) rendezvous with Kitty, Bishop, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and others to brainstorm the potential of sending a consciousness back into the 1970s to try and stop the war from ever happening. The legend is that a young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), corrupted by darkness, loneliness, and anger, takes the life of Bolivar Trask but is immediately captured. Deemed a threat, her mutant genes are dissected and tossed into Trask’s already-in-motion Sentinel program, thus allowing the Sentinel’s to take on Mystique’s power and adapt to any and all threats. Over fifty years later, Trask’s brainchild, which was supposed to protect the good of mankind, became the globe’s number one enemy.
Kitty, however, is hesitant. The consciousness is only as stable as the body that is carrying it and the fifty-year trip cannot be easily taken by anybody, even a mutant like Xavier. But Wolverine thinks otherwise. Not only is his body practically impervious, given his metallic skeleton and healing mutation, but by arriving in his younger self, he would physically look just about the same due to his agelessness. While fair, arriving in the 1970s is only the first task. Wolverine must find young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and convince him of the devastating future, and then unite him with an even more distant and far more extreme young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and assist them in stopping Mystique from ever killing Trask, thus changing the Earth’s future and all who inhabit it.
Evidently, the stakes are quite clear. Wolverine’s involvement in the past is set against a ticking clock frame, the bulk of the action involving McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence’s versions of the older mutants as well as Jackman’s younger Wolverine (except you would never know that he’s any younger, the actor looks better almost fifteen years after he first immortalized the role). Therefore, Days of Future Past is a First Class sequel for approximately 80% of its runtime. We begin in the future, and we cut back to the original trilogy cast a few times throughout, but the little time spent in Singer’s future world is spectacular and excitingly fresh. There’s an opening set piece involving some newer mutants, as well as Iceman and Kitty Pryde, which could have been the climax to an entirely separate X-Men movie. It’s clever, layered, and quite exciting, especially because of how it’s used to exemplify the tropes of the narrative. The sets are damp and dreary, the photography bleak and shadowy, and the vision unlike anything Singer has ever come close to previously. Before picking up where he and First Class director, Matthew Vaughn, left off, we get a peak at a brutal future that has molded many of our heroes into very different people, and completely erased some of the others that we used to see on screen. If Wolverine succeeds, it could have an even more powerful impact than just preventing a war. It can impact who these heroes grow up to be.
While writer Simon Kinberg floods most of the first act with exposition – why the future is so bad, how Wolverine can travel back in time, where young Xavier and Magneto are, why young Xavier can walk, etc. – it’s essential that viewers forgive this. As the center of the picture will show, this movie is big, big, BIG, and attempts to cover a whole lot of ground in an impressively economic runtime. At 130 minutes, X-Men: Days of Future Past manages to tell a complete story, maintain clearly motivated and expertly crafted action sequences, develop its key characters, impart witty humor, easter eggs, and bring it all to a fulfilling close. It has lofty ambitions, but Kinberg unites it all by effectively accomplishing his toughest task: finding a perspective. Wolverine was always offered more than the other mutants in the original trilogy, but in X2, the best ‘ensemble’ film of the series, he’s a guiding light with personal connections to the villain. Here, Wolverine is a similar kind of avatar, but he brings the narrative spotlight to the character that sensibly and necessarily deserves it: Professor Xavier.
James McAvoy was an inspired casting choice in First Class and he’s engrossing on screen as a tattered young Xavier. His school a victim of the Vietnam Draft and turgent America, not to mention the spinal injury that has relegated him to his iconic wheelchair, he’s become lost in his regrets: Losing control of a friend he deeply cared for – Magneto – and worrying for a woman he loved like a sister – Mystique. He faces an unbelievable duty that could rectify most of what has ruined his life, but he’s become afraid. Xavier’s belief in humanity was always clearly expressed but never conclusively justified. This film roots Xavier’s open-minded perspective, and the film does some really beautiful things with Xavier in both the past and the present. McAvoy gives a beautiful performance, and Stewart continues to embody the role that he was always perfect for. The two together access Xavier like no other X-Men film has even considered.
McAvoy and the recent Academy Award nominee, Michael Fassbender, are Shakespearean opposite one another. They were aces in First Class, but with their characters reuniting under far different circumstances, there’s an unfeathered edge to each of them, sustaining McAvoy’s rawness and Fassbender’s stoicism. Unfortunately, Fassbender isn’t given the strongest treatment like in First Class. He is the catalyst for most of the set pieces, but Magneto isn’t united to his ‘old friend’ like in X2 or First Class, nor is he the villain like in X-Men or The Last Stand. He’s another powerful piece in an elaborate, time leaping chessboard. But now that Fassbender and McAvoy are sharing the screen with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, it’s exceptional just how believable it is that the young versions of these two men could age into the elder versions from the earlier films. The power of performance rings true.
And regarding the villain, that’s one of Days of Future Past’s few weak spots. The villain, Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask, is hardly one at all. We know Dinklage can be threatening and can project a presence that far exceeds his physical height (Game of Thrones, anyone?), but Trask’s stance as a villain stems from archetypal motivation and a watered down belief system reminiscent of William Stryker from X2. And speaking of Stryker, he pops up in this film as well, a much, much younger version than in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. We see the inspirations for what will develop into his vile persecution of the mutant race, but he mostly idles by as a walking, talking easter egg. But during the singular instance that he encounters Wolverine, it’s an effective plot point that ripples out over a number of this franchise’s features. The real villain though is the future, to consider it abstractly. And as the climax nears and the stakes become more pressing, the future is much more intimidating that any single mutant or prejudiced human in the film.
I was surprised to discover that Mystique was going to be the crux of the plot. I’m a big Jennifer Lawrence fan, but she didn’t leave a lasting impression in First Class, and here, her character is literally a symbol for the fate of humans and mutants alike, which doesn’t provide a lot of wiggle room for Lawrence to take hold of the role like Rebecca Romijn. Lawrence is now a seasoned actor, but this role, as opposed to Katniss Everdeen, still doesn’t fit the young performer like a glove. Meanwhile, Hugh Jackman, having expanded his range and had great success outside of his iconic role, makes a character that he’s played seven times feel fresh. He gets to fight and brood and quip, but he also gets some poignant emotional moments. The ending, as many will see, is sure to spark some debate (I, a softie for these films and these characters, was all over it happily), but Jackman plays it out nicely.
And before I forget, welcome Quicksilver to the X-Men ensemble. Among the few new mutants on display here, Evan Peters’ iteration of the famed runner whose gestation from page to screen has been in the works since The Last Stand was in development, makes the greatest, and most memorable first impression. The mutant gets a single scene to show us what he’s really made of and it’s one of the most creative visual sequences that Singer has ever employed. It rivals Nightcrawler’s White House invasion at the opening of X2, but while that was an establishing action sequence, this one is unabashedly playful and perfectly in tune with the character as Singer, Kinberg, and Peters have brought him to form. It’s truly so excellent, it’s likely to become everybody’s favorite scene. Best of luck to Joss Whedon with his take on the same character in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is exactly the film that I hoped it would be, promising ambition that it not only delivers but that Singer comes to meet successfully at almost ever turn. Singer left the franchise to resurrect Superman, then kill Hitler, and then unleash CGI giants, none of which were in the same league as his work with the X-Men. He’s returned to them as a stronger filmmaker and visionary than ever before, along with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who works to balance the moody palette of Singer’s films a decade ago with the stylized aesthetic that Matthew Vaughn attributed to the period of First Class, as well as double-dipper John Ottman both scoring and film editing. When Ottman’s score rides with the opening credits, I beamed with nostalgia-fueled excitement, and Ottman’s cutting is tight and energetic; I give him major respect for grappling this complicated a narrative. You can tell a great deal was either cut or readjusted in the editing suite (just watch the first trailer from last fall and there are a lot of clips missing), but Ottman keeps Singer’s story on track, totally clear and completely coherent (except I still don’t really understand how Professor X came back to life at the end of The Last Stand…).
Away from The Avengers and all other superheroes currently in play, the X-Men remain so beloved in my heart despite the heavy disappointments and few shining moments between this film and X2. I have a strong attachment to this series and Days of Future Past looked like it was hoping to make the X-Men relevant again; Singer was going to take a page from J.J. Abrams’ handbook and give X-Men the Star Trek treatment. Without question, that is exactly what Singer has done. Fox gambled just like Warner Brothers did with Nolan and Marvel Entertainment itself did with Joss Whedon, and this time I chose to hope for the X-Men film I had been wanted for over a decade.
The result was an evolution toward a much brighter future.