X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the geekiest comic-book movies ever made — and one of the best. It’s easily the best superhero movie since The Avengers — and, like The Avengers, it plays as a triumphant climax to an uneven series of earlier films.
The difference is that, where Avengers assembled a team of heroes established separately in their own films, Days of Future Past brings together various strands of a franchise that sprang from a single source but has grown unwieldy over 14 years and six varying installments. At this point, there are two separate ensemble casts, with older and younger incarnations of major characters, and a pair of spin-off films cementing the status of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine as the series’ breakout star.
Days of Future Past gracefully harmonizes these tensions, weaving together different timelines with older and younger versions of Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy) and Magneto (Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender), and Logan (always Jackman) bridging past and future. In its time-bending, franchise-spanning bravura, Days of Future Past succeeds where Star Trek: Generations failed.
As you might have gathered by now, if you haven’t seen most or all of the X-Men films, this movie, if not this review, may not be your cup of tea. Let me rephrase that: If you aren’t a bona fide X-Men fan, you’ll be lost here (which isn’t to say you might not have a good time anyway).
And if you are a fan? If you still feel the disappointment of the clumsy threequel The Last Stand and the thrill of the ambitious prequel/reboot First Class, then Days of Future Past — the triumphant return of pioneering X-Men director Bryan Singer, with a story by the writers of First Class — will likely be a series high point for you. If your affinity for the X-Men extends beyond the films (particularly if you ever read the comics, especially circa 1980), you’re in for a huge treat.
Borrowing from an influential 1981 storyline by X-Men chronicler Chris Claremont and co-plotted by writer-artist John Byrne, the film opens in a dystopian near future in which the world has been ravaged and mutants hunted to the brink of extinction by giant robots called Sentinels, who rank among the most iconic X-Men adversaries.
How it is that Stewart’s Charles Xavier is alive after the events of The Last Stand (and McKellen’s Erik Lensherr is at full power) isn’t explained, though I suspect this has nothing to do with that film’s anticlimactic coda(s); instead, this is surely an alternate future a few dimensional clicks from the continuity we know.
In desperation, the X-Men hatch a bold plan to use the curious time-casting powers of Ellen Page’s Shadowcat — who can, it seems, temporarily project a person’s consciousness back in time into their younger self — to try to avert the entire Sentinel war.
Naturally, it turns out that only Wolverine can withstand such a dramatic time-jump. So Logan wakes up in his own younger body in 1973, with a limited span of time to make contact with the younger Charles Xavier and Magneto and try to stop Mystique from committing an atrocity that has a devastating effect on her as well as on history.
The climax for X-Men: First Class played out in 1962 against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Harking back to this period, Future Past offers its own take on the Kennedy assassination and suggests that JFK was a mutant. Mutation in the X-Men world has always functioned as a metaphor for stigmas, from race to sexual orientation, but it can embrace any difference; linked to Kennedy, it evokes his Catholicism.)
The setting here is the aftermath of Vietnam under Nixon, a cultural moment of disillusionment with weariness of destructive conflict vying with angry radical violence. It’s a perfect setting for the film’s themes, from the exhaustion of the Sentinel war to the revolutionary zeal of Mystique and Magneto. Charles and Erik always evoked the civil-rights era tension between the followers of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Nation of Islam; here, mutant-liberation violence suggests Weather Underground-style radicalism.
Crippled by a stray bullet at the climax of First Class, Charles is more wounded emotionally and psychologically than physically; in fact, he’s up and about, though he’s far from whole. In order to save the world, Logan must first help save the soul of the man who helped him piece together his own soul. It’s a touching role reversal.
The other soul hanging in the balance is Mystique, who grew up with Charles but was corrupted by Erik and now follows neither. Will she give herself to hatred and violence? Will Charles resign himself to despair and apathy? Or will they dare to hope for a better future than the one Wolverine knows? On these moral questions the fate of the future hangs.
There are flaws. Nothing distinguishes Peter Dinklage’s villain du jour from similar anti-mutant characters in earlier films; as good as Dinklage is, he can’t invest his character with motivations that aren’t in the screenplay. And while the climax technically satisfies the time-bending premise, it’s hard to imagine the momentous events of the climax not having dire consequences of some kind. (Unlike the First Class treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this story takes a glaring left turn from the history books.)
There’s a huge cast of characters, past and future, with many returning faces, if only in cameo. There are also a number of new characters, notably the anarchic speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose key role in a prison break leads to one of the film’s most entertaining and memorable set pieces. Even so, it’s a notably human story, focusing on the bonds of a few characters.
Even the action is generally, gratifyingly human-scaled, notwithstanding the apocalyptic prologue and a single outsize set piece toward the end. For once, action scenes are lucid and logical; Singer knows better than to chop action scenes into incomprehensible fragments.
Better still, he knows how to stage combat sequences involving superpowers in ways that make sense. The dystopian sequences with the X-Men battling Sentinels are genre standouts; more than anything in any other X-Men film, it feels like something John Byrne might actually have drawn.
Best of all, unlike nearly all recent comic-book movies, from The Avengers to The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel, the climax doesn’t come down to blowing up the big thing before the other thing blows up the city, the planet or the universe.
Instead, it comes down to the characters: what they are or aren’t willing to do; what kind of world they want to live in; and what they are willing to risk and to hope in for the sake of such a world. If more comic-book movies were like this, there’d be less complaining about how many of them there are.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
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Caveat Spectator: Much intense comic-book violence; brief disturbing images; an implied sexual encounter and brief rear nudity; stylized quasi-nudity; an obscenity, a profanity and some crude language. Teens and up.