Three years ago, Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn reinvigorated the Marvel franchise with the clever historical revisionism of 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which boasted a superb new cast, cool retro style, globetrotting intrigue, and a refreshing emphasis on character. Bryan Singer, the series’ original creator on board as director for the first time since 2003’s X2: X-Men United, confidently carries that same momentum, combining the gravitas of the early films with the playfulness of Vaughn’s follow-up. Making for exceptional pacing and relentless drive, Singer pulls together an ambitious, suspenseful film and secures a future for the franchise at the same time he continues to reinvent it.
The X-Men series has always been somewhat unique among its kind because it wears its allegorical heart on its sleeve. By chronicling the adventures of a despised minority, it pokes around some interesting social and political issues. The theme of ostracized, oppressed outsiders empowered to fight against their social stigma in ways both good and evil runs throughout the seven films to date. The central conflict is the endless moral argument between Professor X and Magneto, between the idea that mutants should fight for the redemption of mankind and the insistence that they should defend themselves by any means necessary. This time around, their misunderstood humanity is amplified by extreme physical vulnerability, their struggle framed by a genocidal battle in the near future.
Deadly, shape-shifting Sentinels, designed to track and destroy the mutant X gene, have been set loose to descend from coffin-like airships and exterminate an entire race along with any of its human supporters. The only way to survive is to rewrite history and prevent the Sentinels from ever being built. Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry, without much to do) hunker down in the rubble of a monastery in China along with other faces, some familiar and some not—among them Fan Bingbing’s portal-punching beauty Blink, French actor Omar Sy’s Bishop, and the opposites of Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman and Adan Canto’s Sunspot. But it is perhaps Kitty Pryde (Juno’s Ellen Page) who plays the most important (and most under-developed) role in the story, using her consciousness transference powers to send Logan/Wolverine back to the post-Vietnam Paris Peace Accord of 1973. Around this time, U.S. military scientist Dr. Bolivar Trask (Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage) was developing the Sentinels program.
Wolverine, because of his ability to heal, is the only one capable of surviving the 50-year time jump, and the movie milks some humor out of having the least diplomatic X-Man travel through time into his younger body, comically woken up in a waterbed with a woman that should not be in his bed, staring at a lava lamp and listening to Roberta Flack. Wolverine has to rouse the younger, hipper version of Professor X, then known as Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) from a drug-addicted malaise enabled by Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult)—“You and I are going to be good friends,” Logan informs Hank just before punching him in the face. “You just don’t know it yet.” With the same confidence, the time-traveler proves persuasive enough to convince a reluctant Charles to join forces with Magneto, a.k.a Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), to work together to stop the events that led to the present (or technically future) mutant-killing hysteria.
Writer-producer Simon Kinberg’s time-bending screenplay ponders whether time is immutable while raising the possibility of infinite outcomes. More relevantly to the series, it calls into question many events from the original three movies, providing a blanket license to erase continuity lapses among the films and creating a temporal loophole to usher in fresh developments moving forward. This is a stealth reboot.
The hopscotching back and forth through time might seem rather confusing, especially when the past converges with a side story in which a young, renegade Raven/Mistique (Jennifer Lawrence) plans to kill Trask, without realizing his assassination would only accelerate the mutant-extinction program. It’s not confusing—if anything, I hoped Singer would make it a bit more challenging for us to puzzle the pieces together. The smooth, carefully controlled transitions between the dark, brooding present and the softer, more colorful past are superbly executed and easy to follow throughout. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, aided by editor (and composer) John Ottman’s seamless cross-cutting, keeps the two periods markedly distinct in tone and mood, and the decision to give certain public moments the grainy, bright-colored look of ’70s newsreels adds a touch of immediacy to the period stylization.
In one of the film’s most emotionally—and logistically— rich scenes, the past and present Professor X come face to face across the time-space continuum. Here and in many other scenes, the film, devoid of either cynicism or sentimentalism, touches deep chords of feeling with bracing emotional directness. To balance out the pretentiousness a time-traveling plot can easily be addled by, sly humor is crucial, keeping the film this side of strained seriousness—or conversely, high camp—and Singer peppers his movie with knowing winks to the series’ fans (as when Logan, now without a reinforced skeleton, lets out a confused sigh of relief when passing through a metal detector).
McAvoy and Fassbender make an electrifying duo, giving full force to the complicated swirl of love, anger, kinship, and betrayal that binds the characters and underscoring the more subtle notes of Stewart and McKellan’s gentler exchanges. The standout performer in First Class, Fassbender’s got charisma to burn, but it’s Jackman and Lawrence who walk away with this movie. Reprising the role of Logan/Wolverine for a seventh time after last year’s The Wolverine, Jackman continues to invest the character with nuance and depth that go beyond most superhero/sci-fi action franchises, bringing the same powerful physicality, laconic, often gruff humor, and only half-hidden grief that carried his solo outing. As the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique, Lawrence makes it hard to decide whether her slinky, reptilian mutant or seductive human form is sexier by seamlessly stepping back and forth, while the character’s lifelong friendship/romance with Charles and her complicated relationship to Erik add a note of poignancy to balance out the computer-generated destruction.
Surprisingly—and refreshingly—said destruction is kept to a minimum, which only heightens its impact. It might come as a strange and novel idea to blockbuster-makers everywhere, but not blowing up skyscrapers, not leveling cities, and not threatening the wholesale annihilation of the planet can be a hell of a lot more thrilling if done right, using action to define character and explore psychological depth.
Which is not to say Days of Future Past skimps on the special effects; the film is filled with showstopping action sequences, including one in which an angry Magneto lifts a sports stadium and plops it down on the White House lawn. But the best set piece in the movie comes early, when Wolverine and Charles need to spring Magneto from lockdown—he has been blamed for the Kennedy assassination. This perfectly staged, standout sequence features the film’s most exciting new addition, the silver-haired, Pink-Floyd-T-shirt-wearing, mischievous Peter (Evan Peters), graduating from petty theft to breaking into the most secure building on the planet. In intricate, freeze-frame ballet slapstick, the mutant who will become Quicksilver uses his super-speed skills running around the walls in the kitchen of the Pentagon, changing the trajectory of bullets by hand, and taking the time to mess with the guards suspended in slow motion to the whimsical notes of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.”
A spectacle film that’s also intimately scaled, Days of Future Past is a superhero movie for people who like superhero movies and for those who don’t. It’s a rousing adventure that’s far more thematically and dramatically demanding than the average popcorn summer fare, an action epic of mind and heart.
Note: The visual effects and CGI work are impeccable throughout, but the image gets dark enough in 2D—which is how I saw the film—to make me doubt the choice of a post-conversion third dimension. IMAX without the 3D seems like the best option. And sit tight through the end credits.
Please click here to read my review of The Wolverine.
Please click here to read my review of The Wolverine.