It took an entire film, but Bryan Singer has set things right in the cinematic mutant universe with X-Men: Days of Future Past, a great-looking sequel that exhibits a genuine feel for its comic book origins and packs a whole lotta fun into a story that combines the present-day X-Men from Singer’s previous films with the 60s flashback versions from Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, and adds in some interesting new characters along the way.
Back in 2000, the first X-Men movie helped usher in a new era of comic book films, which went out of fashion after the savage reception of Batman & Robin a few years earlier. But Singer’s film was made with great reverence for the material and a surprising thematic richness – and his sequel, X2, was even better – and now we’re getting at least a half dozen of these things every year.
One of those was Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which undid everything Singer’s first two films had built – in terms of both cinematic quality and story direction – moving the series to a place, seemingly, from which it couldn’t recover. So it moved sideways – with two independent Wolverine movies – and backwards, with Vaughn’s decades-earlier prequel.
But with Singer back in the director’s chair, he’s defiantly dared to pick up where Ratner’s film left off – in a futuristic 2023 apocalypse so dark and gloomy it recalls the “real world” outside of The Matrix: here, bands of mutants attempt to hide from all-knowing Sentinels sent to locate and exterminate them. The familiar world of man as depicted in the earlier films has vanished.
We glimpse a group of these mutants in the film’s opening action sequence, which is blandly written (all slam, bang, wash, and repeat) but gloriously realized by the director, who has a real knack for shooting these things coherently (we’re always aware of what’s going on during the action) and beautifully capturing every small detail: regular cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Drive) carefully lingers on every mutant and their power during the action scenes with the fascination of a child seeing this all for the first time.
A lot of the characters – at least in the opening scene – we are seeing for the first time: there’s Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), and Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) from the previous films, but they’re joined by energy-absorbing Bishop (The Intouchables’ Omar Sy), portal-creating Blink (Bingbing Fan), the solar-powered Sunspot (Adan Canto) and a super-strong Warpath (Booboo Stewart) as a group of young mutants on the run from Sentinels.
The Sentinels – Terminator T-1000-like robots with mutant abilities in this future vision – wipe out the mutants with ease, but the group always manages to evade death: when Warpath senses incoming Sentinels, Kitty Pride sends Bishop’s consciousness back through time a few days, where he warns the others about the imminent incoming danger.
It’s a way of survival, but not much of a life. That’s where the last remnants of the X-Men come in, as Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Storm (Halle Berry, under-utilized as usual), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) – now fighting together with Magneto (Ian McKellen) – devise a plan: Kitty can only ‘stream’ a mind a few days back without destroying it, but a self-healing brain like the one in Wolverine’s noggin might be able to go back a bit further.
Welcome to Nixon-era 1973. The plan: stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating military scientist Bolivar Trask (Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage), an action which led to her capture and the Trask corporation making a breakthrough in the Sentinel program. Now, I have some quibbles with this: how are they so sure everything will turn out hunky-dory if this one action is prevented? And why not take much more certain measures (like oh, say, wiping out the whole Trask corporation) if this really is their last chance?
To help the cause, Wolverine must recruit the younger versions of Xavier (played by James McAvoy), who is doped up and powerless, and Magneto, who is imprisoned under the Pentagon for assassinating JFK. To help break him out, Logan recruits Quicksilver (American Horror Story’s Evan Peters), a young mutant who is “really, really fast”; Peters is a riot here, and an ingenious scene of him jogging around the room while other characters are virtually frozen in “normal” time is the best sequence in the entire film.
While Fassbender, McAvoy, and Lawrence are back in action from the Vaughn film – which was a little cheap-looking and rough around the edges, but in many regards the best film in the series – Singer doesn’t seem to have been a fan of the other mutants from First Class; Beast (Nicholas Hoult, who starred in the director’s previous film, Jack the Giant Slayer) features heavily throughout, and Havok (Lucas Till) shows up in a cameo, but the rest have been written out of the script. Major players from Singer’s original X-Men movies – like Rogue (Anna Paquin), Cyclops (James Marsden), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and the adult Beast (Kelsey Grammar) – show up in cameos here.
By the end, Days of Future Past rights the bone-headed wrongs of Last Stand: it looks and feels terrific (every bit of that $250 million budget is up on the screen) and I loved seeing these characters treated – once again – with the love that they deserve. This is likely to wind up as the best-reviewed (right now, sitting on 94% on the Tomatometer) and most popular film in the series.
But as a standalone feature, the story here didn’t completely do it for me: plot threads seem to be dictated by contrivance, the film lacks a memorable villain (or even conflict – the ultimate showdown feels slapdash), rich sci-fi ideas are boiled down to over-simplified throwaway lines, and the thematic parallels of the earlier films – the mutant struggle served as a metaphor for gay rights (or whatever else you wanted it to) – have been all-but eroded.
But maybe I’m just asking too much of my X-Men movie. This one’s plenty good enough.