This X-Men: Days of Future Past review contains some mild spoilers.
In an age of reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past is something of a franchise miracle. The seventh installment in a series that has definitely seen its ups-and-downs, X-Men: Days of Future Past not only continues the story of a film that came out 14 years ago, it delivers what might be the most satisfying onscreen X-Men experience yet and reinvigorates the franchise in a way that opens the door for numerous possibilities to come. And more importantly, we want to see those new roads taken. This is a defiant throwback to a style of moviemaking more than a decade old (a lifetime in summer blockbuster entertainment), and Bryan Singer has crafted a flick that has its adamantium claws and uses them too. It is not a reboot, but it reinvents its story in a way far more tantalizing than any recent film that has been one.
The obvious hook of this trip back into the world of mutants and their overeager oppressors is a meeting of the ensembles. By bringing in the most important fresh faces from Matthew Vaughn’s groovy X-Men: First Class (2011), the project is clearly looking to its own future, especially with the star appeal of Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, and James McAvoy on the rise. But with Singer returning to the helm, it also provides the opportunity for him to resurrect most of the original cast from the first three X-Men films that were not left completely mangled by the hugely mistaken X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), a movie that this installment grudgingly pays its respects to.
Nonetheless, this is most definitely the third X-Men movie that Singer never made and the first true follow-up to Singer’s earliest X-films, allowing the series to course-correct toward some of the weight and grandeur of its original heights. It accomplishes this by adapting one of the most sacred X-Men stories in all of comicdom.
Much like the original Chris Claremont and John Byrne comic book story from 1981, the movie version of Days of Future Past tells of an apocalyptic hellscape dominated in the future by chilling Sentinels, appearing in this era like a utilitarian H.R. Giger design crossed with vintage Fleischer Studios animation. They’re mean, they’re nearly indestructible, and they’re legion as they hunt down every last mutant who isn’t dead or in chains.
Fortunately, through a convoluted use of Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) mutant powers, a war-weary Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and friends-again Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) have figured out a way to win this conflict…they’re going to cheat Skynet style by sending perennial X-Men star Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to his 1973 body to change a major event that will prevent this war from ever occurring. It also is a good excuse to send the biggest name from the original X-films into the timeline of the “First Class” era, which includes McAvoy and Fassbender playing the younger versions of Charles and Erik, and Lawrence as Mystique, the vengeful mutant whose thirst for recompensing blood will inadvertently start the chain-reaction towards war and the disappearance of her soul.
With two different timelines and sets of casts appearing concurrently in alternating scenes throughout the movie, Days of Future Past is certainly the most cluttered chessboard yet set between the always cheerfully antagonistic Charles and Erik. Indeed, an early exposition dump given by an elderly Xavier is so thick that even Stewart’s boundless charisma cannot prevent it from burying the scene. Yet, any concerns ultimately prove fleeting as minor hiccups that were probably unavoidable when it came to tying together six previous films in the span of 15 minutes. And this is entirely the graceful result of the movie only being truly about five characters—even if two of them are played by multiple actors.
Despite the blankets of nostalgia that fold over the picture’s future sequences, resulting in an implicit mea culpa for that trilogy closer, this movie is primarily about the First Class characters and Wolverine muddling through 1973 after the glow of the ’60s. Indeed, if X-Men: First Class was a joyful 1962 groove into the Mad Men glory days by way of Bondmania, Days of Future Past’s carefully selected backdrop of the Paris Peace Accords and ending of the Vietnam War knowingly recalibrates the story during a time of uncertainty and depressed expectations. But none are more depressed than Charles Xavier.
Concluding the last picture still hopeful for his school, if not his legs, McAvoy’s Xavier is the heart and soul of this movie as much as Fassbender was in the previous installment. To all the fans worried that Jackman’s inclusion will steal the focus away from the other characters, rest easy. In many respects, Days of Future Past boils down to Charles overcoming the sense of loss 10 years after events on a Cuban beach cost him the use of his legs, his best friend in Erik, and the betrayal of the blue skinned little sister he basically raised.
When Logan finds Xavier, Charles has let the post-Woodstock daze consume him whole with his shaggy hair, shaggier beard, and “why me” attitude. After losing all his students to the Vietnam War, Charles retreated into himself with only trusted Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) to stand by his side, giving him a special spinal gene therapy that allows him to walk at the cost of his psychic powers. Still embittered at Erik and his wayward sister for falling into darkness, McAvoy is allowed to turn the bountiful empathy that has defined the character in nearly every other incarnation inward for a performance of endearing resistance to the civil rights messiah he must grow into—capsulized in a perfect scene when McAvoy and Stewart’s Xaviers defy the laws of time and logic to debate their legacy and destiny.
But the movie is not as ponderous as all that, with its action spectacle literally big enough to fill a baseball stadium. Also, while the movie belongs mostly to the same principals, one new standout is Evan Peters as Quicksilver, who proves instrumental when it finally comes time for Charles and Erik to reunite in a prison break that makes a better case for the use of super-speed than any live-action take on the Flash yet seen. And the Sentinels prove to be a visual wonder, with their 1973 counterparts reminding audiences of their colorful comic book roots.
It is thus almost a shame that there is not one fully formed villain in the whole movie for these characters to rally against. The Sentinels, while an effective computer-generated menace in the future scenes, do not exactly carry much onscreen gravitas. Peter Dinklage gets to rock his baddie side as their 1970s creator (while also rocking a ‘70s ‘stache), but he receives so little screen time that he’s not allowed to make the enormous impression Game of Thrones fans know that he’s capable of.
The closest thing to an antagonist for most of the movie’s running time is Lawrence’s Mystique, who gets to put away teenage angst from the previous film in favor of the cold-blooded badassery her character is usually known for. However, Singer and company wisely choose to maintain the humanity of Lawrence’s initial performance, thereby creating a far more conflicted character who merely walks the line between good and evil with even more trepidation than Magneto. It is another winning performance for Lawrence who shines when interacting with McAvoy, but the movie itself could have used more intimidation than an admittedly nifty third act twist.
Nevertheless, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a wonder to behold. Easily the biggest and most visually stunning of the X-Men movies to date—and reportedly the most expensive non-James Cameron movie 20th Century Fox has ever produced—this is a superhero movie that can stand just as eye-catchingly next to its post-Avengers peers. However, there is something more significant at play in Singer’s long-awaited homecoming to the franchise he helped birth; there is an excitement and exhilaration in the movie’s storytelling that is precipitous with its far more ambitious themes and characterizations, which are often found lacking in so many masked men peers.
There is an intelligence at work in Days of Future Past that proves far more engrossing than your run-of-the-mill superhero experiences and their collapsing cities. Instead, Singer creates something actually akin to suspense and elation by the movie’s third act, as opposed to bloated excess. X-Men: Days of Future Past might be the best X-Men movie ever made, and it is certainly the best superhero movie in years.