I’m somewhat torn on X-Men: Days of Future Past. But I think I can say it’s the film where the franchise passes firmly into the realm of serialized comic book fiction. Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies were relatively grounded (you know, considering) and the second one in particular was a genuine story that could’ve ended any which way you please. Even Brett Ratner’s relatively disastrous X-Men: The Last Stand had a certain grim finality to it. That leaves Days of Future Past as the first outing for the X-Men that’s an interim chapter: open-ended at both the start and the finish, leaving us more or less where we started, and seemingly part of an ongoing chain of replicable stories that could continue on ad infinitum.
The result is a film that feels rather like a really, really big TV episode. That didn’t appeal to me personally, especially given the bracingly apocalyptic notes the trailers often struck.
This is also the first X-Men film to really give in to the inherent frivolity and ad-hoc narrative construction that often plagues comic books. The plot revolves around the ability of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to project a person’s present consciousness back into their past body. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) realize this could allow them to undo a terrible war between humans and mutants that has consumed the globe. But the movie never explains how she came by this rather critical ability. Perhaps I missed something, but I recall her being able to run through walls, and I don’t remember this particular addition. She just kind of shows up with it.
Regardless, thanks to his healing powers, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the only one of them who can survive the journey. So the plan is to send him back to the 1970s, to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). The murder will lead to Mystique’s capture, providing Trask’s successors the DNA sample they need to complete work on the Sentinels – killer robots that will eventually spearhead the mutant slaughter in the future war.
So off Wolverine goes, and the bulk of the film is a globe-trotting alternative-history-with-mutants quest that hits the major 70s highlights: the Vietnam War, the Paris Peace Accords, the Nixon White House, the fashion, the cars, etc. The present-day X-Men, including Xavier, Magneto, Pryde, and plenty of others, are basically cameos. I suppose this should be touching – a Singer-organized family reunion of sorts – but instead it comes off as rote and gimmicky.
Furthermore, when Wolverine tracks down the 70s-era Xavier (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), a serum they’ve developed allows the latter to control his transformations and the former to walk around, while suppressing his telekinesis. Xavier’s eventual abandonment of the serum provides a critical character moment, but the introduction of the idea at all is just wacky. Xavier’s paralyzation and Beast’s metamorphosis were such moving character moments in X-men: First Class precisely because of their inescapable finality. To see both events effectively canceled out at the start of this film is jarring in a bad way.
There are also some big logistical holes, like present-era Magneto’s conviction that they’ll need 70s-era Magento (Michael Fassbender) to help convince Mystique to not go through with the murder. This proves catastrophically wrong-headed, and in a way the characters should’ve easily been able to anticipate.
All that said, Days of Future Past also comes with some strengths. The screenplay by Simon Kinberg is incredibly economical, packing in a tremendous amount of reversals and happenings; the performances are all solid, especially by Jackman, McAvoy and Lawrence; and as the director, Singer still knows how to have a good time. There’s a marvelous sequence in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a mutant who can move at blinding speed, takes out an entire room of armed guards. The scene slows down time so that we can watch him lackadaisically jog around the room, positioning guards to slip off their feet, moving bullets, and generally amusing himself, all before time resumes its usual pace and everyone falls on their ass.
Days of Future Past also achieves a kind of grandeur at the end. Singer uses cross-cutting between the future timeline and the 1970s to illustrate the way vengeance begets vengeance, and how violence twists in upon itself in an infectious and endlessly self-replicating loop. (Conservatives concerned about religious liberty could be in sympathy with the thematics: if the X-Men are a metaphor for gay Americans, it’s not much of stretch to see this film as a warning about how an oppressed class can, in the heady moment of victory, become the monster it has fought.)
Unlike so many movies, this is a film about an actual moral choice. Not simply a conflict between rival tribes, or two opponents’ mutual wills to power, but a conflict between two different visions of the world. Two different ideas about what the world can be, about what humanity can be, and of what we are obligated to risk and to sacrifice in pursuit of those possibilities.
Those are some deep tidal forces, and Days of Future Past also deserves kudos for the still-unusual decision to place a female character at the center of that vortex. Especially when that character began the franchise more or less as a sop to the adolescent boy fans in the audience. (How do you get a completely naked woman into a PG-13 movie? Paint her blue!) It is ultimately on Mystique’s own interiority that the climax rests, and the film is immanently well served by Lawrence’s casting. She grabs the moment and runs with it, and I have to admit the climax ultimately tips the film over into the “recommended” category for me.