(dir. Bryan Singer)
“Are we destined to destroy each other, or can we change each other and unite? Is the future truly set?”
The X-Men franchise has had its share of ups and downs. At 14 years, Fox’s band of merry mutants (as they were almost known) is the longest running superhero franchise. Over the years it’s been through creative shakeups, behind the scenes controversies, dwindling box office returns, and continuity errors. The history of the film franchise isn’t so different from the comic series it’s based on, which has also faced its own share of creative issues and convoluted histories. After the negative response to X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class rejuvenated the series with a younger cast and a 60s setting that brought something new to the superhero genre. Vaughn instilled a sense of fun that had been mostly missing from Singer’s more serious and post-Matrix influenced films. As interesting as X-Men and X2 were with their political and social commentary they feel somewhat dated, given how far the genre has come. With X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he started and with a bigger budget and a better handle on the universe. He gives Vaughn a run for his money with the best X-film yet.
Days of Future Past begins in a dystopian future in which mutants have been rounded up into concentration camps and are executed by mutant hunting robots called Sentinels. In order to prevent the creation of the Sentinels, Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan) and the rest of the X-Men decide to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back to his younger body in 1973 to help prevent the creation of the Sentinels. There, Wolverine brings together a disillusioned and drug-addicted Charles Xavier and a government-wanted Magneto to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinels. There’s a lot going on in the story, but the film wastes no time jumping in and works under the assumption that you know these characters and don’t need much rehashing. It’s not a film for newcomers to the series, but it’s a rewarding experience for those who’ve followed the franchise.
All of the returning actors are more than comfortable in their roles. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are true standouts once again as they continue to reveal the flaws of men so convinced and enchanted with their own ideologies that they are inherently fallible as leaders. And the new actors playing the group of X-Men in the future do well with the few lines they’re given. Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask is convincing as a man who would execute an entire species to achieve peace amongst humans, though he is somewhat underutilized given his considerable talents. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is given a standout scene and a memorable personality, especially given his brief screen time. It’ll be interesting to see what Joss Whedon does with the character next summer.
As exciting as it is to see familiar faces from the original X-Men series (Iceman, Kitty Pryde, Storm, Old Magneto and Professor X) they aren’t the focal point of the film. The scenes in the future amount to about twenty minutes of screen time. It’s an exciting twenty minutes that’s well-spaced throughout the film, but the franchise is definitely more focused on the cast introduced in First Class…and Wolverine, because he’s Wolverine. There’s no doubt that Hugh Jackman excels at playing the role, but the original trilogy focused more on him than the rest of the X-Men, making the films seem like they should be retitled: Wolverine and the X-Men. Days of Future Past isn’t really a team film, in the 1973 there are no X-Men and in the future they are more survivors on the defense then a team actively working towards Xavier’s dream. What’s interesting is that in this film, one that lacks a true team of X-Men, Wolverine is finally allowed to support the other characters instead of being the primary character in which the plot and resolution must revolve around. Mystique’s actions define what the future will be and it is her choices that are the most important in the film. It’s refreshing to see that a female character who started in the “sexy henchwoman role” becomes the one whose choices have the most impact and change the direction of the franchise.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about the film is the amount of restraint Singer and screenwriter, Simon Kinberg show. Superhero movies are well-known for attempting go bigger with each subsequent installment—more action, more characters, more special effects. And while the film has no shortage on characters, the film doesn’t become overstuffed with unnecessary cameos. The time-travel elements and its effects are grand in nature but handled in a way that’s easy to follow and places more attention of characters than special effects. The action sequences and climax are not the biggest, but Singer achieves a level of tension missing from many big-budget films in that the stakes feel real and in a series that’s 14 years old he proves that anything can happen. It’s a film that will keep you guessing and no character ever feels completely safe.
X-Men: Days of Future Past opens up an infinite amount of possibilities for the franchise’s future. While a number of the continuity errors and some frustrating lingering questions (such as a Xavier’s resurrection) aren’t addressed, by the end of the film they’ll matter a whole lot less (stay after the credits for a look at what’s coming next). The X-Men universe is crazy, colorful, and messy, and while Singer previously eschewed the craziness and the color to avoid the mess, this time he moves closer to the X-Men established by the comics while still highlighting the social and political issues that drew him to the characters in the first place. He leaves a little bit of a mess behind him, unable to fully do damage control on the films he didn’t have a hand in, but the final film and results are well worth it. It took a trip to the past for Singer’s X-Men to finally find its footing and modernize itself enough to secure the franchise’s future.