X-Men: Days of Future Past
More exciting than the rebooting of the franchise creatively with 2011’s “X-Men: First Class” was the return of Bryan Singer to the franchise, albeit as an executive producer and story writer. After directing the first two “X-Men” films, Singer bolted to make his wet kiss to Richard Donner (better known as “Superman Returns”) before gradually making his way back to Fox and Marvel’s mutant franchise. It was a good thing, too: Brett Ratner’s rushed “X-Men: The Last Stand” and the troubled production of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” left a bad taste in the mouths of fans of the franchise. By showing the ways in which Professor X, Magneto, Mystique, and others came together in the ’60s, Singer and co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn (who was originally Singer’s replacement on “Last Stand”) infused the franchise with young blood and an energy that was palpable and powerful, giving the earlier movies weight they hadn’t carried before.
Now, Singer is back in charge of the franchise he helped define with “Days of Future Past,” which takes it’s name from one of the most famous graphic novels in the comic series’s history, but makes the story it’s own as it brings both casts (original and “First Class”) together for a story that will change the face of the X-Men universe forever. Even though I bought the graphic novel recently, I still haven’t read it, but since Singer and co. have always played it fast and loose with tales from the comics (for better or worse), I’m not in that much of a hurry to read it and see how the film compares. For now, I’m inclined to just sit back and contemplate the success of how Singer, screenwriter Simon Kinberg, and this extraordinary cast of X-actors tell such an epic, emotional story.
The film starts in the future (or present, in the film’s case), and it’s a dark time for not just mutants, but humanity. A powerful weapon known as Sentinels has been unleashed on the world to exterminate mutants once and for all. At a certain junction, they have been programmed to identify any mutant genes for even future mutants (children or grandchildren not yet born), making humans a threat, as well. In this world, we first see a group of mutants (including Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Colossus, Blink, Bishop, and Warpath) under Sentinel attack. However, Kitty has a trick up her sleeve– the ability to send Bishop’s consciousness back in time a couple of days to warn the group of the attack so they can high tail it out of there. They manage to meet up with another group of remaining mutants (Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)), and set a plan in motion to reset the world they live in. Using Kitty’s powers, they will send Wolverine’s (the only one able to physically endure the trip) consciousness back into his younger self, in 1973, to try and convince the younger Professor (aka Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy) and Magneto (aka Erik Lehnsherr, played by Michael Fassbender) to stop Mystique (aka Raven, played by Jennifer Lawrence), whose assassination of scientist Bolliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) that year is what starts the Sentinel program into being. Not an easy task, and not just because, as Wolverine tells the older Charles, “Patience isn’t really my strong suit.”
Everybody got that? I would understand if you didn’t, especially if you’ve seen all six of the previous “X-Men” films these past 14 years. The key one to watch above all, though, is “X-Men: First Class,” the 2011 reboot that set up the character dynamics in play throughout most of “Days of Future Past”; in fact, it can almost be said that in the post-“First Class” era, the events of the first three “X-Men” don’t appear to have happened (although we see glimpses of most of them through Wolverine/Logan’s memories). I wouldn’t start pulling too hard at the threads of this film’s timelines, though, because honestly, you’ll probably go crazy, and be unable to enjoy the thrilling adventure Singer has in store for us. His approach to the casual use of mutant powers and action sequences (especially in that great opening sequence), and character moments laced with suspense and emotion, is on-par with his last “X-Men” film, 2003’s “X2,” and almost feels like he never left the franchise to direct the likes of “Superman Returns,” “Valkyrie,” and last year’s criminally underseen “Jack the Giant Slayer.” A big part of that is that John Ottman, Singer’s longtime composer/editor, is back in the picture, as well, and these two have an envious chemistry together as collaborators. In particular, working on the “X-Men” franchise together seems to bring out something in each of them that inspires great work, and while Ottman does seem to quote Hans Zimmer’s score for “Inception” (in mood, if not music) at times, both do the finest work they’ve put out in years for “Days of Future Past.” This is a crisp cinematic adventure, clocking in at just around 2 hours at the time when most action films tend to go into the 140 minute range in running time. Is there more that could have been told in this story? Absolutely (and perhaps, some of it SHOULD have been told, especially when it comes to character motivations), but Singer and Ottman know how to keep a film moving, and to focus on the absolute essential beats of a story to hold the audience’s interest. I don’t know if the film as a whole will be embraced by the Academy (although from a technical standpoint, I can think of a few categories it should be a shoo-in nominee for), but Ottman deserves to find himself on the shortlist for at least his editing work.
Most impressive about the film is not just the size of the cast, but how everyone is given moments to shine. Unfortunately, the “future” scenes are few and far between, but Stewart, McKellen, Page, and everyone else makes the best of their scenes, with Stewart and McKellen’s chemistry as fine as ever, and Page providing an anchor as the lynchpin of the whole plan to send Logan back in time. About Logan/Wolverine, Jackman doesn’t act like a guy playing this role for the seventh time– he’s just as enamored with the character as ever, and even though he seems to go from interview to interview uncertain about his future plans for the role that made him famous, his performance would indicate he’s got at least 1-2 movies left in him as Wolverine. That’s especially true when he’s back in 1973, and is acting alongside McAvoy, Fassbender, and Nicholas Hoult, back as Hank McCoy (aka Beast). He raises his game big time, especially with McAvoy, whose Charles is initially depressed and lost when Logan finds him, and has a long way to go before we see glimpses of the Professor that Logan knows, allowing for some of the most emotional moments in the film.
McAvoy isn’t the only standout during the “past” sequences, though. Fassbender continues to show the dark edges surrounding Erik’s personality that allows us to understand how he became the Magneto played by McKellen in later years, and his scenes with McAvoy are brilliant, showing the connection that will stay between these two characters for decades to come, even as they are on different sides of the debate over mutant’s role in society. And don’t be surprised if you’re biggest applause for the film are reserved for Evan Peters as Quicksilver, though, whom Charles, Hank, and Logan enlist in trying to break out Erik (who starts the film in prison for killing JFK), in a sequence that is probably the most remarkable in conception and execution of Singer’s career, and really sets the bar high for when Joss Whedon uses Quicksilver in next summer’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The central figures to the story are Mystique and Trask, however, and it’s here where Singer and Kinberg stumble a bit. Trask’s motivations for wanting to develop the Sentinels, and why he’s so concerned about mutants, are underdeveloped, leaving the great Dinklage without much to play in terms of nuance, although he certainly does his best– it just would have been nice to see a little more of his Tyrion Lannister persona from “Game of Thrones” come out, because Trask seems like the same sort of schemer, if you ask me. Mystique’s motives for killing Trask are clearer– he’s killed mutants and friends in his researche –but less clear is how Erik lost her in being able to reason with her (we saw her abandonment of Charles at the end of “First Class”), and how death became a means to an end for the character. Some people have criticized Lawrence in the role, and it’s true that it’s hard to see the Oscar winner and “Hunger Games” superstar as a villain, but as the film shows, Mystique is less a villain, and more of a tragic figure, and that’s definitely within Lawrence’s range, and she has some fine moments as Erik and Charles team up to try and stop her, and change history.
By the end of the film, the history of the world of X-Men on-screen has changed, and looks brighter, and the same can be said for the franchise, in general. By having events play out as we’ve seen on-screen, Singer and co. have set things up for a second chance at not only telling certain stories (maybe a redo of Wolverine’s origins, not to mention the Dark Phoenix arc?), but doing so with a cast that seems to have gotten a second wind thanks to the inspiration “Days of Future Past” has allowed the filmmakers. Singer’s own past came under question before the film was released (in a series of allegations I will not discuss here), but hopefully, the plan to have him back for “X-Men: Apocalypse” in 2016 will hold steady, and the director will be able to continue to inject his voice into a franchise he obviously holds dear.