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X-Men: Days Of Future Past Review: Future Perfect
The X-Men have a lot of history behind them. And I’m not referring to the comic books, with fifty plus years full of deaths, reincarnations, offshoots, alternate timelines, and enough parentage disputes to put Jerry Springer to shame. No, I’m just referring to the cinematic universe of The X-Men started fourteen years ago and spanning seven films, five directors, and just enough mythos to be confusing to the uninitiated. Like its literary counterpart, the various people chosen to create the separate entries have had divergent views and opinions on how the characters and stories should be handled, and the result in both cases has been a fractured, inconsistent universe with entries ranging from fantastic experiences (X2), to cartoony wastes (Origins: Wolverine), to abominable train-wrecks (The Last Stand).
And so we find ourselves at Days of Future Past, marking the return of Bryan Singer, the director who started series and made it great before the universe spun out on itself. Coming into this film, Singer could have handled himself in a few different ways; he could have ignored the previous entries entirely or he could have hand picked any number of films or elements to be what he wanted to consider “canon”. Instead, Singer decided to acknowledge the entirety of the series thus far, tie up all the loose ends and pitfalls left by previous directors without falling into them himself, and consolidate his favorite elements of all of them into one story that simultaneously caps off his original universe, eliminates the possibility of continuity fatigue, and passes the torch to a new universe that can continue on into a new X-Men universe. It was a pretty great decision.
Days of Future Past is loosely based on the comic run by the same name. In it, an apocalyptic future has murdered most of the X-Men from the original Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen led universe, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) must be sent back in time to the 70’s James McAvoy & Michael Fassbender led universe to stop the future mutant holocaust from ever happening. This involves fending off incredibly powerful, adaptive mutant hunting robots called “Sentinels” in the future, while simultaneously tracking down Mystique in the past and stopping her assassination of a prominent scientist that causes the terrible future to happen in the first place.
Sound confusing? It’s not. By establishing some basic rules early on and not reveling in the time travel mechanics too much, Singer is able to take some complex concepts and move forward fluidly without them gumming up the works. The two timelines primarily work in parallel, with the brutally gloomy future (and I do mean brutal; I had a rather gut reaction to seeing so many classic mutants being ripped apart by robots) providing a nice sense of scale to the lighter, more fun tone of the events happening in the 70’s. It should be noted that the 70’s are used extremely well here, with the events, politics, and style of the decade featuring prominently. Especially the style, as everybody seems to get a new incredibly cool 70’s outfit every other scene.
The first stop on the future altering express is to recruit Xavier himself, who has become something of a reclusive, degenerate asshole after losing his legs in First Class, and then everything else in the ensuing Vietnam war. James McAvoy as Xavier is fantastic, again. His counterpoint to Patrick Stewart’s genial, wise counselor was present in First Class, but even more prominent here, as his journey towards wisdom is fraught with self-doubt, depression, and an edge of arrogant nihilism. Still, he shows us glimpses of the great man he’ll become, and that duality is fascinating. With him comes Beast (Nicholas Hoult), probably the weakest performance of the movie, but just because they don’t seem to have picked a personality for him yet.
From there, Magneto and Quicksilver come into the picture in one of the standout sequences of the film. The Quicksilver action sequence is the spinning corridor from Inception, the most prominent highlight that we can grab a hold of in a movie full of highlights, and Quicksilver is used sparingly by Singer, in an extremely “leave them wanting more” move that is as frustrating as it is exciting. Magneto here is brought on board with the presumption that he’ll be able to help (are the X-Men ever going to learn that trusting Magneto with anything is never a good idea?) Fassbender also continues to be great, walking a fine line between charismatic revolutionary and straight up homicidal maniac who is way more likable than he ought to be.
From there the film becomes something of a chase movie, tracking and trying to stop Mystique from the world-ruining assassination she plans. Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is acceptable without really being great; she plays everything too reserved, and more than once comes across as a petulant child. Still, the Mystique style of fighting is just as impressive as ever, with her flipping and sliding around like a top gone awry. It is this section too that brought the realization that Jackman’s Wolverine, while still very much front and center, is not the focal point he had been in past movies. For most of the film he seems simply content to be there; Jackman is still great, but he portrays Wolverine in this one as far more reserved and laid back than in any previous iterations.
Meanwhile, the future timeline is simply trying to stay alive. Though there is not much going on the future sequences, and they aren’t used nearly as much as I would have liked (the screen-time ratio between past & present is something like 85/15) the action that takes places during their sequences is stunning. A host of new mutants, and some old ones, are present to fight their insurmountable foe, and those battles are colorful, brutal, and imaginative. These sequences are the opportunity for comic fans to see the X-Men fight like they do in the comic world, with spectacular shows of ability and teamwork. And their struggle works with the past events, leading eventually to some of the best parallel action I’ve seen in a superhero movie and which constitute the films thrilling climax.
THE BEST PARTS
Powers, Powers, Everywhere – Singer has always excelled at two things in these films: the melodrama and the set pieces. Melodramatically, the new cast has lived up to the old (with the exception of Hoult and Lawrence), but in the set piece department he continues to outdo himself. In this film, we get a number of astounding action set pieces featuring mutants using their powers to their utmost. In the future segments especially, where we have fire mutants, metal mutants, ice mutants, and teleporting mutants all working together, the fantastical use of these powers impresses. Blink, the young woman who throws portals and fights exactly how you might imagine an action version of the video game Portal to play out, is the highlight, using all the Escher logic she has at her disposal to dispatch murderous robots. In the 70’s, we get speedsters, beasts, and Magneto using his powers at a level we have yet to see. It is all executed brilliantly, and it is all terribly exciting.
Retconned – Singer had a lot of narrative to navigate through to get to this point in the story, and he did so with a deftness we’ve yet to see with these franchises. We’ve seen series reboot themselves for fear of their past canon (Batman, Spider-Man, the upcoming Fantastic Four), but Singer’s decision to include and fold in all the preceding films was a brave, bold, and ultimately triumphant exercise in managing a franchise while also telling a great story.
THE WORST PARTS
Lawrence-centric – I’m not against Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, I think she has been quite good in plenty of other places, but I’m not sold on her Mystique, which is unfortunate considering just how much this movie wants us to focus on her. Mystique is already a prominent part of the story itself (and that’s pulled right from the comic series), but the film seems to linger on her as much as possible, even when it doesn’t need to. The explanation is obvious, Jennifer Lawrence is a huge, popular star right now, so the more the films use her the better, in terms of advertising at least. So while there’s not much to do about it, I can hope future films feature Lawrence getting better in the role.
Required Viewing – This isn’t really a negative for me, though it might be for some. With this film serving as such a coming together of the series, there is a bit of a necessity to having seen the previous X-Men films. There are a number of references and even some plot points (like Wolverine almost losing his mind after encountering a young William Stryker) that might not make sense to someone who hasn’t seen or doesn’t remember the previous entries. Not a problem for most, and actually something that I usually enjoy, but let this serve as a bit of a warning.
Days Of Future Past in many ways feels like a send off. It feels like Singer returning to the cast he put together to give us a conclusion to them that is his own, on his own terms. It is the culmination of “the story so far,” and the cap on an impressive saga. Everything from here on out will feel new, like the real start of a new X-men franchise. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen will always be their respective characters in my mind, and if this is the last time they play those characters (and I believe it is) then they couldn’t have received a better send off. But as much as I loved them, I am also excited to see where the McAvoy/Fassbender universe will take us. What’s next for them? A giant blue god of a mutant dedicated to shaping the world after one mantra: “Survival of the Fittest.” And based on Days of Future Past, the X-Men have a good deal more surviving to do.