X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best X-Men film in over a decade and one of the biggest and most ambitious film events since The Avengers. It’s technically the seventh film in the series, including the original trilogy, two Wolverine spin offs and one prequel/reboot, and it pulls from all of those films to create a complex, interesting conglomeration featuring almost every actor who’s ever had anything to do with X-Men in any way. It’s based on one of the most popular stories from the comics, and it borrows heavily from films like The Terminator and Back to the Future. And while Days of Future Past is generally a success, it tries to include so much that it often loses focus and isn’t as compelling as those first X-Men films years ago. It’s great to see so many familiar faces, and the film has moments of brilliance, but I couldn’t help feeling while I watched it like I would have preferred something different.
Days of Future Past begins in the year 2023, a dystopian future where mutants and all those who aid them are rounded up in concentration camps or exterminated by adaptive robots called Sentinels. The few mutants that have managed to evade the Sentinels live in hiding, constantly on the run. One particular group includes Kitty Pride (Ellen Page), who has developed the ability to transmit the consciousness of an individual back in time with his memory intact, allowing them to escape before the robots ever arrive. This attracts the attention of Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), now forced to work together, who want to go back in time to the 1970s to change the past and prevent the deployment of the Sentinels. However, the only mutant who can survive such a huge time jump is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and before you know it, he’s waking up on a waterbed, face-to-face with a lava lamp.
His mission is to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (series newcomer Peter Dinklage), the designer of the Sentinels, an assassination which turns the world against mutants and convinces the government to commit to the Sentinel program. To do that, he’ll need the help of the younger versions of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The only problem is that Xavier has been taking a drug designed by Beast (Nicholas Hoult) that lets him walk but has removed his powers, leaving him depressed and belligerent, while Magneto is inside a concrete prison beneath the Pentagon.
This setup allows the filmmakers to include whatever and whoever they want from both the original trilogy and the prequel, while ignoring and even overruling entire plotlines (pretty much everything from X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The futuristic, post-apocalyptic setting is perfect for some spectacular mutant team-up action, while the 1970s capitalize on the period-piece feel and political unease of First Class. It’s definitely impressive to see so many appearances from the previous films gathered into one film, even if it means most of the new additions to the cast aren’t given much time to make an impression. The notable exception to this is Quicksilver, a speed-powered mutant from the past whom Wolverine recruits to break Magneto out of prison. His powers are visually inventive and used creatively, adding a large dose of humor and style to the film. It will be interesting to compare the character’s appearance in this film to the competing version of the same character due to appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron next year. (He already showed up during the credits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)
The dual time periods of the film may be the movie’s biggest strength, but it’s also the cause of some of my biggest problems with the film. The future sequences are so dark and tragic and dramatic that the sequences in the past seem somewhat mild and inconsequential by comparison. There’s a lot of humor in the 1970s parts of the film, which works very well on its own, but when taken as a part of the film as a whole seems kind of out of place. The stakes are so high and the possible future so serious, that the juxtaposition in tone is a bit jarring. The split between time periods also means that characters aren’t on screen for enough time to develop strong emotional arcs, and some characters’ motivations either feel forced or completely unexplored. The film handles the complexities of time travel fairly well, and the film is never confusing even if some of its rules seem pretty arbitrary. For example, once Wolverine is sent back in time, the future and the past are happening “simultaneously,” which makes very little sense and seemingly only happens in order to have events from both happening throughout the film. Also, unfortunately for the film, the action and fighting in the future is much more exciting and visually interesting than that in the past, but the future action feels somewhat inconsequential to the plot.
In fact, my biggest complaint about the film is one to which some people might object: the entire film feels like fan fiction created by studio executives. I don’t mean that as an insult to fan fiction, with which I have no issues, but I can totally imagine Bryan Singer and the studio brass sitting around building this film not as a story with a unified vision but as a melting pot into which they throw all the things that they think people will like. They took one of the most popular comic book stories but changed Kitty Pryde (who originally was the time traveller) to Wolverine because of his popularity. They kept the most popular aspect of First Class, the Xavier/Magneto interplay, while jettisoning the deadweight characters who were mostly forgotten by the time that film was over. They knew they had Jennifer Lawrence under contract, and given her current status as everyone’s favorite actress/celebrity they made her the key player in the plot. The casting of Dinklage feels simply like a way to capitalize on his fame from Game of Thrones, as he isn’t given much to do here in the way of acting. Throw in Hugh Jackman’s ass for those attracted to that sort of thing, some obscure references to the comics for the long term fans, plus a handful of new mutants in order to make the fight scenes look cool. Even the film’s best scene was seemingly reproduced (in from the most creative sequence from all of the previous films, the Magneto prison escape from X2. All of those sound great on their own, but the final result just felt like a bit of a mess.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a big fan of the original X-Men trilogy, didn’t like the Wolverine films, and was left pretty cold by First Class. I would have been happier with simply a sequel to The Last Stand (a film that’s not particularly good, but which I still enjoy on a superficial level). Days of Future Past felt more like a greatest hits album than something with a more unified vision. Bringing Bryan Singer back was a great idea, because he understands the screen version of the X-Men better than anyone else who’s had a hand in it, but even so there’s just too much crammed in to give the film much focus.
Despite all of that, I still enjoyed the film. Sure, it dragged a bit and wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but the X-Men movies are filled with interesting characters and some great actors. For the first time since 2003 I have a positive outlook on the X-Men franchise going forward, even if I’m less than enthusiastic about the two movies coming out in the next few years. The next film in the series, teased by the post-credits scene in Days of Future Past, will supposedly just feature the prequel versions of the characters, which I’m sure will appeal to a big chunk of the fandom. The next film will supposedly be another Wolverine stand-alone, which I’m sure appeals to no one but will still make money. There was a glimmer in Days of Future Past of what the series could be here in an age dominated by superheroes, and I hope going forward they can latch onto that instead of moving in the opposite direction.