Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender
Directed by Bryan Singer
20th Century Fox
“We need you to hope again,” Professor X tells his younger self in a psychic pep talk across time and space. But he may as well have been talking to an audience fatigued of X-Men sequels and prequels: We need you to hope again. Because X-Men: Days of Future Past is damn good.
The film is based on the classic comic book storyline of the same name by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, though it strips away nearly every aspect of the original tale down to its adamantium-laced bones. In a hellish future overrun by killer robots known as Sentinels, the X-Men send one of their own back in time to stop the shapeshifter Mystique from committing a political assassination that will put the dark future into motion.
Days of Future Past opens with a dazzling battle in war-torn future Moscow, as a team of X-Men led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) fight invading Sentinels. Blink (Fan BingBing) is the most eye-catching of the future X-Men, and she uses her pink teleportation portals for great effect, creating one of the best sequences of a superhero team working together in film.The future X-Men appear only briefly, but are instantly memorable.
Kitty’s team is reunited with more familiar faces from the original X-Men film trilogy, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), and the lynchpin of the film, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Kitty’s powers have evolved even further, and she can now phase a person’s consciousness back through time into their younger body–superhero movie science at its finest, but go with it.
Wolverine is predictably the only person who can survive the mind-jump, and he wakes up in 1973 with three missions: find Professor X, join forces with Magneto, and stop Mystique from killing the creator of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (the sonorous-voiced Peter Dinklage). What could go wrong? Well, in 1973, Professor X (James McAvoy) has turned his back on his school, his dream, and his powers; Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is imprisoned below the Pentagon (and while in the future, Magneto and Xavier are BFFs, at this point in time they’re at each other’s throats); and no one has seen Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in a decade.
One of the most surprising aspects of Days of Future Past is that seven movies in, the X-Men movie franchise still finds new facets and nuances for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. As the only character who wouldn’t age between 1973 and 2023, Wolverine is an understandable choice of time-traveller, and provides the connective tissue between the past and future X-Men. His characterization is sharp enough to show the differences between 1973 and 2023 Logan, and in dealing with Charles Xavier he finds himself in the uncomfortable new role of mentor and mediator. It’s good to see Logan facing situations he can’t snikt bub his way out of. He doesn’t overwhelm the film, but that may not be enough for fans of the classic comic, who were disappointed to learn he was taking over Kitty Pryde’s role as time-traveller. Replacing Kitty with Logan also unfortunately continues the problem that wrinkled the end of X-Men: First Class: namely, that in a story about Otherness and a metaphor for oppressed minorities, the heroes are a group of white men.
The film truly belongs to Charles Xavier, however. James McAvoy was a bright spot in X-Men: First Class, but in Days of Future Past he’s a revelation. Burned out, bleary-eyed, and looking more like Serpico than Captain Picard, Xavier is mentally disintegrating under the weight of his powers and the loss of his loved ones. He was abandoned by Magneto and Mystique at the end of First Class, but he can’t forget them, as the lingering camera shots of Raven’s picture and an unused chessboard tell us. It’s an unglamorous role that’s rare in superhero films, and McAvoy’s performance is full of urgency and vulnerability. His shared scene with Patrick Stewart, in which he faces his future and the grim future for all mutantkind, is riveting. Fassbender is given considerably less to do as Magneto, but his scenes with McAvoy crackle with live energy.
Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is more crucial than ever–she’s not the innocent sister of First Class nor the deadly second-in-command of the original trilogy, but someone in between. She’s convincing as a young woman seeking vengeance against the humans that have harmed mutantkind, determined to forge her individual identity while still torn between Xavier and Magneto’s warring ideologies. Re-imaging Xavier and Mystique as a troubled brother and sister was one of the film franchise’s boldest changes from the comics, and it works fantastically here.
And get ready to see a lot of silver-haired cosplayers at conventions this year, because Quicksilver is the film’s best new character. Portrayed by Evan Peters as a cheeky kleptomaniac, Quicksilver gives the film a shot of adrenaline. Quicksilver also shows off his super-speed powers spectacularly in a prison break sequence that’s both hilarious and jaw-droppingly well-choreographed. (Though what’s with Pietro being renamed “Peter”? There’s a lot that could be discussed about the X-Men movies American-izing international characters, but moving on….) He leaves the film early, but maybe it’s best that he didn’t overstay his welcome–a little Quicksilver goes a long way. (Yes, I went there.) Your move, Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is an extremely brisk two hours, spanning across time and space, jetsetting from New York to Paris to Saigon. With its large cast, it’s an incredibly big film, but never collapses under its own weight. The filmmakers have learned from the mistakes of the fan-reviled X3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, stopping just short of Ellen Page turning to the camera and saying, “We’re really sorry about that one. Try this movie instead?”
In keeping with the theme of time travel, X-Men: Days of Future Past features brief flashbacks to the previous films and homages X2 (Singer’s last X-Men film) in particular: Magneto imprisoned in a cell without metal; blonde Mystique seducing an unlucky drunk. It’s a fine line, but it never feels as if the film is coasting on nostalgia (“Hey everyone, remember the good X-Men movies?”). Rather, it gives the film a sense of much-needed continuity–at least until the end. Or not. Damn time travel plots!
X-Men: Days of Future Past’s warm resolution feels like, if not a conclusion to the film series, then at least the closing of a circle. We still have X-Men: Apocalypse on the horizon, along with one more solo adventure for Wolverine (let alone the proposed spin-offs), and hopefully they won’t feel like extraneous epilogues to the longest-running superhero saga on film. But who can predict the future?