It was a tall order for Bryan Singer – who returned to helm the film franchise he fathered after a decade’s absence – to bring together two ensemble movie casts in an ambitious (and perhaps foolhardy) time travel story that celebrates the past and the future of the longest-running continuous superhero film series. I’m pleased to report that X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is, for the most part, a sturdy, thoughtful, often exhilarating and well-performed mutant extravaganza.
In the near future, cities have been reduced to desolate wastelands by Sentinels, nigh-on unstoppable killing machines designed to track and exterminate human mutants, who are hunting for the final pocket of resistance, the few surviving members of the X-Men. In order to avert the dark future they inhabit, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) decide to project Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time to his younger body in 1973 in order to prevent a key event that catalysed anti-mutant feelings and lead to the creation of the Sentinels. Wolverine must find and convince the younger Professor X and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) to work together and stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) whose assassination of the Sentinel mastermind Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) will ultimately seal their kind’s fate.
There are appearances from mutants old and new, but it is super-speedy Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) brief but deliriously entertaining turn that steals the show. The key set piece built around his abilities, while being highly unconventional scene in its conception, rivals Nightcrawler’s stunning introduction in X2 as the best action sequence in the series. I fell completely in love with Peter Maximoff as a character to the extent that I want him to play a part in every one of the future X-movies, and Peters’ portrayal of a young man clearly enjoying having superpowers is so refreshingly different from the usual broken, troubled souls that usually inhabit the spandex. Aaron Taylor-Johnson has a veritable mountain to climb to best Peters when AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON comes around next year.
Quicksilver’s action scene follows on from busting Magneto out of his cell below the Pentagon (where somehow Erik has managed to stay clean-shaven in his ten-year, metal-free incarceration) and Fassbender is pleasingly bringing more McKellen out in his performance this time round, which somewhat makes up for the latter not having a whole lot to do. It’s nice to see most of both casts return, even in minor roles or surprise cameos, but it’s inevitable that some characters are under-served, and after all the series has always struggled to balance ensembles (apart from in X2).
The beating heart of the film smartly still comes from the strained sibling relationship between Charles and Raven, which is just as compelling as it was in FIRST CLASS, and also gets a certain amount of closure here. Lawrence’s Mystique drives much of the action, but also brings out a lot of the film’s pathos. Nicholas Hoult is reliable as usual, as is Jackman playing Wolverine for the seventh time, but McAvoy is the one who really has to work to sell the emotional and physical pain for his unique dilemma. Writer Simon Kinberg has come up with an interesting idea to give young Xavier more conflict, and a stronger character arc, which I won’t spoil here, but it results in one of the most important and powerful moments in the film, and in turn leads to the much-hyped telepathic conversation between past and future Professor X, which is brief, but absolutely perfect in terms of fitting with and developing on what we’ve learned about their characters over the series.
Out of the future X-Men, Ellen Page probably stands out the most, and Shadowcat’s place as facilitator and stabiliser of the time travel element of the plot adds a certain amount of jeopardy and need for her character to make it out unscathed. Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) and Storm (Halle Berry) do a fair amount of fighting along with new additions of the portal creator Blink (Fan Bingbing), the agile Warpath (Booboo Stewart), fiery Sunspot (Adan Canto) and comic fan favourite and massive future gun wielder Bishop (Omar Sy) but don’t have much dialogue. It’s a shame that Storm, Iceman and Colossus, who have been part of the series since the first films weren’t given more of a chance to act, but the newcomers and their abilities are all too visually interesting to be wasted, and will doubtless be back in future instalments.
In terms of being a celebratory X-movie, lots of attention has been dedicated to referencing the franchise’s own history. I personally got a particular kick out of the reprisal of X2-esque title sequence and John Ottman’s main theme music. As well as having the highest stakes, and the gloomiest implications, it’s also the funniest X-Men film, with gags aplenty referencing the previous movies (and the characters’ chronological futures) and poking gentle fun at the comics they are based on. There’s a casual, almost throwaway line that acknowledges a certain mutant’s parentage in a manner similar to a conversation that took place in X2 that will raise a smile from those in the know. It’s also fun to see certain mundane aspects of 70s life and culture – the fashion (Xavier and Hank wear terrible shirts and flares), the gimmicks (Wolverine wakes up on a waterbed next to a lava lamp), the limited technology (Hank seems very proud to have linked up all three TV channels in his tech room), appropriated by this really out-there story for comic effect.
The film is well-served, but not over-stuffed in terms of action. Sadly, comic book movie audiences will now always be expecting another AVENGERS, and lightning likely won’t strike twice or thrice on these terms until Avengers 2 and 3. The film opens with an inventive sequence of the future X-Men working together and combining their powers to try and hold off a pack of Sentinels who have just discovered their sanctuary. As already mentioned, Quicksilver’s playful action scene is fantastic, Mystique kicks all kinds of ass and we get to see what Magneto can do with a freight train and later, an entire football stadium. The Sentinels, particularly in their ultimate dark future forms, are interestingly designed and convincingly adaptable and deadly, and Singer doesn’t shy from showing you just what they can do to our favourite mutant team. I usually hate the appropriation of real-world disasters in blockbusters where the events are trivialised for the sake of spectacle (as the Cuban Missile Crisis was in First Class), but the right balance is struck here with JFK’s assassination and the Vietnam War informing the plot in the background, but never used as the main focus of the story.
A question you have always have to ask with a time travel film is “does it make sense?” Or, if not exactly sense, “can you follow the logic?”. Days of Future Past follows the principal that actions in the past don’t change future events until the traveler returns to their point of origin (apparently this is related to String Theory). There is always a tension with Wolverine’s consciousness remaining in the past to achieve what he has to achieve, which becomes more difficult as he witnesses traumatic events in the past and experiences real physical trauma while his body is prone and helpless in the future. The act of changing past events also implies a different timeline for future X-Men films – like with JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK reboot, Singer and any other filmmakers who become involved with the series are no longer limited by what has come before. This, promisingly, could mean a prominent return of characters who were perhaps underused in the previous movies (Cyclops and Rogue in the sequels, for instance).
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a good time travel film, a great superhero sequel and a fascinating leap forward in the journeys of these iconic characters. It doesn’t quite mask the continuity errors that have cropped up in such a long-running franchise, and some characters aren’t given their dues, but the ones that matter are allowed to progress in their journeys, and to really evolve. It’s refreshing to see a major blockbuster not dominated by excessive action sequences too – what there is is original and unusual and inventive, and revolutionise superheroic set pieces to a large extent. But most satisfactorily of all, for once the final kick comes from character development rather than outright scale, which was a smart move from Singer and Kinberg, and promises much for the future of the X-Men. SSP