The original X-Men did something that, more often than not, super hero flicks forget to do. Embrace the very things they're adapting. Way way back in 2000 it had seemed like the genre was already at a dead end but in comes Bryan Singer with his adaptation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's mutant tale. The same director who gave us Usual Suspects had the good senses to bring in the elements of those stories that made them work, amp up the melodramatics a touch and, in the process, galvanized the entire super-powered subset of cinema. These days comic book adaptations are old hat but back then? Singer's addition to the landscape was a big deal. The subsequent sequel X-2 raised the bar even higher and laid out the blueprint for all other films that followed in their wake. Look back at the Nolan Batman films or even the Marvel Studios pictures and you'll notice a lot of things Singer did first that have now become standard for this sort of work. Grounded in more "reality", less colorful costumes and despite the ludicrous circumstance not allowing things to fall into camp territory (Amazing Spider-Man 2 fails that test sadly). Okay. Now that's out of the way let's get to it shall we?
So, Singer was given the task to not only take a fractured franchise (We have the three original X-movies plus First Class) and bring it back together, juggle a time-travel story and also a metric ton of acting talent all in one movie. I am so happy to report that he was up to the task. Days of Future Past is what I wanted and then some. It is heady, complex but never collapses under the machinations of time-travel plotting and gives us stellar performances across the board. There is even an opportunity to soft-reboot the franchise and keep the supposedly infinite comic book movie engine barreling forward.
The grim future that we see in the beginning is one in which giant coffin-like craft shuttle around New York City in complete ruin, searching for new targets to imprison or eliminate. Human beings and mutants alike are hearded into holding cells while terrifying cybernetic hulks stand guard. The remaining X-Men fight valiantly against these harbingers of doom but are, ultimately, losing ground. The plan is hatched to have Kitty Pryde (Ellen Paige) use her ability to project someone's consciousness back to the 1970's when the Setinel project was first hatched by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Only Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has the ability to withstand being flung back that far and the rest of the crew are left to simply wait and hope for the best.
Time-travel is a device that can do far more harm than good. If you're smart about it, though, and stick to the rules you've made for yourself it can usually work out fine. Writers/directors who get lazy in that respect tend to have the entire thing fall apart on them. Thankfully Simon Kinberg and Bryan Singer not only keep the film moving at a swift pace but also make sure that the narrative remains as clear as possible throughout. The fact that this thing didn't collapse in on itself like a neutron star was a fine achievement in its own right.
There is no shortage of interesting mutants to fill out the roster. I'm pretty sure everybody possible is jam-packed into Days of Future Past. Some were given mostly glorified cameos yet it never seemed unnecessary. Every character, with the exception or one or two, had at least a strong moment to define them. The future mutants, in particular, could have easily been swallowed up by the momentum of it all yet they appeared as more than just action figures doing sweet things. Bishop, Blink, Warpath and even Sunspot had moments to shine along with Colussus and Iceman. Kitty Pryde didn't do much more than squinch her face in pain and sit stationary but, hey, at least she's vital to the plot. Professor X and Magneto the Elder (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) do their level best to add further volume to their turns on screen as well (though Ian McKellen looked a bit bored by it all).
The First Class crew along with Wolverine (Jackman who is always at his best playing the grisly rock of the franchise) carries the film, though. Charles Xavier is a far different fellow this time around. He has secluded himself from the rest of the world, addicted and hating himself. The School for Gifted Youngsters is but a distant dream now. McAvoy's Xavier is bitter, full of sorrow and regret and nuanced. Erik Lensherr (also known as Magneto) has been imprisoned under the Pentagon for ties to the Kennedy assassination. Fassbender, this time around, is fiery and convinced of his path. That is what makes him such a compelling antagonist. The optimism of Charles in regards to humanity and their place among it clashes so well against the much more nihilistic trappings of Magneto's world-view. It is a decades long (if you're counting the prior X-movies as well) feud that is renewed here. It certainly helps that Fassbender actually draws back a bit. His fury is all within the eyes and that lupine smile. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has been on her own for years now, helping her fellow mutants in often less-than-legal ways. She is the moral axis of the film as her decision to gun down the Sentinels' creator, Bolivar Trask, is central to the story but also to the entire ideology of both sides. Lawrence, who is one of the finest young actresses working in Hollywood today, continues to showcase her talents here. Mystique is anarchy and cold fury bundled into a blue bundle. Jackman brings a certain levity to everything as the time-traveling Weapon X. The evolution from savage to man has been a interesting one to see (aside from Origins. That was just awful). His stoicism belies the emotion that lurks just underneath the surface. This quartet of characters lead the charge and, frankly, I wanted more.
Quick note about Peter Dinklage in the film. Bolivar Trask, with his helmet of hair and thankfully scaled back villainous ways, was a great antagonist. Is he the only antagonist? No but I think it was worth mentioning as he is a lot of things. He, like all great villains, knows what he's doing is right. He's a bit of Mengele yet also knows there is a profit to be made in all this mutant cleansing. I wanted a bit more Trask in the movie but what we got was pretty damn good.
Bryan Singer, personal foibles aside, has delivered one of his personal best. He has always been able to, and do so effortlessly, extract the essence of comic book action and morality and deliver it with touches of realism and resonance. The balancing act of the time-travel story along with the long list of characters is a tough one to pull off yet he did. He gave us actual stakes as the future sequences are bleak and terrifying while the 70's segments are delightfully fun and decidedly retro. I could have used a bit of the famous X-men civil rights context throughout but Singer has never been overly concerned with that aspect of it all. Singer's tonal control throughout this dense film, that could have easily gone off the rails at any moment, is to be commended. He did one crucial thing, above all else, that I need to see more of from superhero flicks. Fun. The entire prison break sequence had people sitting up in their chairs and taking notice. Not only does Quicksilver steal the show but it reminds us that these movies can't just be self-serious and franchise-building opportunities. They have to be fun too. It is strange that such a summer blockbuster tentpole had such intelligence to it and this is the third superhero film in less than two months. I wonder if a bit of fatigue will set in with viewers going into the coming months. I hope not. Singer, yet again, has shown us that you can do serious dark and grim yet also have light-hearted elements that work as well. Marvel movies, for as much as I love them, tend to not stick with you past a few weeks. Great but, at times, ultimately forgettable. Days of Future Past is sticking with me for a while.
FINAL WORD: Bryan Singer's return to the superhero landscape is just as good if not better than when he first came to it in 2000 with the original X-Men. This is an intelligent and dense film that never loses itself along the way despite having potentially confusing time-travel bits. It is paced extremely well and crafted with expertise. Performances across the board are quite good though some characters were relegated to mostly cameo duty. It serves as a re-boot for the franchise yet if this is what we're to expect with future X-movies I'm all on board. Go. Go now and see it. Stop reading this and see it. Seriously.
Oh! Stick around for the post-credits scene. Nice little teaser there for the next film.