As ubiquitous as the superhero genre has become in the last fifteen years, it’s interesting that we’ve come to a point where that first wave of comic book movies has mostly been usurped. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies have been replaced by the Marc Webb’s, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series has run its course and will soon be replaced by a new Batman played by Ben Affleck, and the various one-offs like Daredevil, Hulk, The Fantastic Four and Superman Returns have all been replaced or forgotten as well. Pretty much the one and only franchise from the early 2000s that’s still going strong is the one that started it all: Bryan Singer’s X-Men series.
That’s not to say that it’s always been smooth sailing for the X-films. On the contrary, the series was almost completely derailed by a pair of god-awful movies (2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and last year’s The Wolverine wasn’t all that great either. Fortunately, things really started to turn around in 2011 with the release of a great prequel installment called X-Men: First Class, which managed to refresh the series while still respecting the existing continuity. At that point it was clear what the common link between the quality X-men films was: Bryan Singer, who directed the stellar first two installments and produced X-Men: First Class. Singer has certainly made some questionable stuff of the years, but for whatever reason he’s uniquely suited to this franchise, and that made it doubly exciting that he would be back behind the director’s chair for the series’ latest installment: X-Men: Days of Future Past.
X-Men: Days of Future Past begins in the future, not an overly distant future if the actor’s ages are to be believed, but certainly a dystopian one. The sky is black and there are killer transforming robots called sentinels hunting down mutants. For all intents and purposes, the forces of evil have won and the surviving X-Men have all assembled to hatch one last ditch effort to save the world. It’s been discovered that this horrible future is rooted in a moment in 1973 when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murdered a mutant hating scientist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) but is captured on the scene, and it was from experiments conducted on this captured mutant that the forces of evil were able to invent the killer sentinels in the future. Determined to stop this from happening, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) work together on a scheme to use a newfound power of Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) to send someone’s consciousness back to 1973 and stop this fateful meeting from happening. It’s determined that the only person from that era who can survive such a transference is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), because of his healing powers. As such, the modern Wolverine’s knowledge is sent to the 1973 Wolverine’s body, and he’s sent on a mission to find the young Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and save the future.
As you can tell from that summery, there is a LOT going on in this movie. Conventional wisdom in the post-Joel Schumacher era has been to keep your superhero movies as stripped down as possible in order to keep things under control, but this movie proudly says “fuck that” and fills itself with well over twelve name actors with speaking roles. It should be noted however, that most of the actors from the original X-Men cast other than Hugh Jackman (including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, and Anna Paquin) are largely relegated to the future sections of the film, which are essentially a limited framing story. Many of the newly introduced mutants like Bishop, Blink, Warpath, and to some extent Quicksilver also have limited screen time and don’t really get a full showcase. For the most part this should probably be viewed more as a sequel to X-Men: First Class albeit one with a continuity altering twist that is somewhat reminiscent of the 2009 Star Trek. The focus is mainly on Wolverine and the younger iterations of Magneto, Xavier, Beast, and Mystique.
To fit all this stuff into a modest 131 minute runtime X-Men: Days of Future Past really needs to run at a breakneck pace. Indeed, it goes from one action scene to the next while weaving in all sorts of continuity twists and mythology all while occasionally finding time to cut back to the drama going on in the dystopian future timeline. I can’t imagine someone going into this movie without already being pretty well versed in the previous X-Men films, because it wastes zero time recapping or reestablishing characters. Given all the stuff that the movie needs to work around, it does a pretty commendable job overall, but there most certainly are elements that have been retconned without explanation (such as how Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier has been resurrected, why Kitty Pryde suddenly has time travel powers, or how the coda from The Wolverine fits into the timeline).
The film’s dense plotting and fast pace are in this regard its best friend because it never really stops anywhere long enough to allow its audience to really ask questions like “just what are the rules of time travel here?” or “how can the existence of mutants still not be public knowledge at this point?” or “Why is Mystique still obsessively going after this one target?” Deep down, I have a sinking suspicion that this is a movie that’s going to get torn to pieces once the professional nitpickers of the internet like the “Honest Trailers” and “Everything Wrong With…” crews get their hands on it. Then again maybe this holds together beautifully (or at least as well as it possibly could) and I’m getting worried over nothing. I don’t think I’ll know for sure until I give it another look or two. Still I feel like, given how cluttered the film is, I’m not entirely to blame for being a little suspicious. I think I may actually prefer the cleaner and more streamlined X-Men: First Class to its busier follow-up, but that isn’t to say I didn’t really enjoy my time with X-Men: Days of Future Past. I really like this franchise and this latest installment is something of a celebration of everything that’s gone right for it while also paving a promising future for the franchise.
***1/2 out of Four