The path a man takes can cause ripples affecting others (or in this case movie franchises). That’s what happened when Bryan Singer walked away from the X-Men series when he decided to helm a reboot of Superman. While Superman Returns did okay its overall cost to return ratio made Warner Bros. hesitant to move forward with a sequel. So the studio relaunched the Batman series with Christopher Nolan at the helm, which ultimately raised the bar when it came to superhero movies. Singer, on the other hand, would bide his time working with Tom Cruise on the WWII thriller Valkyrie and the less remembered Jack the Giant Slayer before looking to reclaim his director’s chair after bolting the X-Men franchise a decade prior. Full of nerdy comic book zeal, Singer returns to right a number wrongs that occurred after the second X-Men sequel, X-Men: The Last Stand, left a bad taste in the mouths of viewers and comic book fans alike.
With more lulls than high points in the franchise, including the disastrous standalone films involving mutant hero Wolverine, Singer would need to be on his game so that his third outing with the X-Men be a triumphant return. Luckily for him, the story’s time traveling plot allows him to go back and tweak some problems with the original trilogy. Nothing as egregious as when George Lucas had Han shoot second, but just enough that fans may quietly mutter, “this is heavy,” as Marty McFly was known to do when he went back to the future.
Originally a two-issue storyline in 1981’s The Uncanny X-Men, “Days of Future Past” envisioned a dystopian future where mutants are hunted down by giant robotic Sentinels. The feature film changes up the plot for story purposes and has Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) use her powers to transport Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness into his 1973 body, hoping the link to the past will prevent an assassination that would ignite a war between humans and mutants.
Any time a movie involves a time traveling plot suspicions mount when it comes to story logic and continuity. X-Men: Days of Future Past rewrites the history of the X-Men franchise and succeeds in making up for bad movies in a movie property that was in search of a new beginning. If Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class did the heavy lifting of re-establishing the important characters of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender), better known as Professor X and Magneto, Days of Future Past manages to be an entertaining superhero sequel that sticks the landing even if the foundation of its story is tenuous at best.
The prologue sees a dark dystopian future where Sentinels have decimated cities in their attempts to wipe out the mutant race in search and destroy fashion. A quick shot of a pile of bodies being thrown into a large grave gives off a genocide vibe, and the revelation of mutants being used as unwilling test subjects in medical experiments alludes to the types of experiments Josef Mengele conducted at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. The future is bleak and ash-colored and the end appears to be nigh. The remaining X-Men convene in a China temple to set up a base of operations and stand watch as Kitty Pryde uses her powers to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time. Yeah, it sounds crazy, so don’t over think matters. Just be like Queen Elsa and let it go.
The trick isn’t in stopping the creator of the tall Sentinels, Boliver Trask (played by the diminutive Peter Dinklage); the trick is getting the 1973 versions of Charles Xavier and Magneto to work together. The Herculean task is like reuniting John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Yoko of this equation is Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue-skinned shapeshifter who is like a sister to Xavier and is like a, um, well I don’t know what she is to Magneto exactly. She’s the one who inevitably kills Trask and sets into motion the mutant genocide that’s to occur. Both Xavier and Magneto have their own means to prevent Trask’s assassination. One involves talking things out; the other involves silencing Mystique before she can get a shot off.
X-Men: Days of Future Past has some action sequences but on a whole the story is built around its sci-fi constructs. It’s not all about the mutants claiming victory in impressive spectacular fashion. Actually, the film only has a few major set pieces and it lacks a dominant villain. There’s Trask but he’s far from a compelling antagonist. There are the Sentinels, of course, but when the story switches from a 2023 dystopian future to post-Woodstock 1970s they are nowhere to be found. Then there’s strife between Xavier and Magneto as well as Xavier’s inner turmoil, in which he’s basically resigning to Howard Hughes mode, sheltering himself from the world in his dilapidated School for Gifted Youngsters. A mangy-haired sad sack, minus the collection of toenail clippings, if you want the truth.The film contains a message that seems to be a real-world occurrence currently, where citizens will cede liberty in favor of security. The message isn’t unlike what Captain America: The Winter Soldier explored with its gunship drones and a kill list with noticeable names like Tony Stark and Bruce Banner as targets to be eliminated. But that film aspired to 1970s espionage movie roots. Days of Future Past is set in the ‘70s yet feels devoid of the time and place. The only exception would be the scene involving the appearance of the lighting-fast mutant called Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who totally plays up the archetypical ‘70s teen. He has the film’s signature highlight in a sequence set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.”
While I applaud Singer’s downscaling of action in favor of story, the addition of familiar faces of past X-Men adventures is cause for aggravation, especially seeing the limited screen time given to Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier and Ian McKellan’s Magneto. Come on, you have Jean-Luc Picard and Gandalf and this is how you use them? To counterbalance this miscarriage, we are afforded some nice bits of humor with special inside jokes – like the origin of a certain mutant’s father – but the best may be the movie’s aha conclusion where Singer extends a metaphorical middle finger to Brett Ratner and his less than appreciative X-Men: The Last Stand.
It’s a toss up to say if X-Men: Days of Future Past is better than Bryan Singer’s last X-outing, but the film does its job of bridging the past with the future and hopefully sets the X-Men franchise back on course. We shall see in two years, because as the scene after the end credits indicates the X-Men haven’t cancelled the apocalypse just yet.
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer(s): Simon Kinberg, based on a story by Jane Goldman & Simon Kinberg & Matthew Vaughn
Notable Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage