The X-Men films are our last, tenuous connection to a time before, a time when superhero movies were still a novelty and a time when ‘What did you expect, yellow spandex?’ was eaten up by fanboys happy to see their favorite characters taken with a resolute seriousness whose aesthetic had been lifted mostly from The Matrix and Blade. The great secret of the original X-trilogy is that none of the films are particularly good, and what’s worse they’re all bad adaptations of the X-Men. They get a character or two right here and there, but mostly they make a mess out of some of the most interesting and pleasantly soap operatic work in the history of serial storytelling.
The whole thing hit a nadir with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie so monstrously bad even Jenny McCarthy wants her kids vaccinated against it. The entire franchise was hovering on the edge of extinction. And then something remarkable happened: X-Men: First Class. This soft reboot served as a prequel to the previous films, and it established a whole new tone. The film was fun, and it embraced just the right hints of camp - the villain had a swinging submarine lair! What’s more the movie looked nice; no longer were the X-Men defined by a steel grey and pleather black aesthetic, an ugly remnant of the 90s.
After that came The Wolverine, another shockingly fun entry in the most lifeless superhero franchise of them all. It seemed like the people behind the scenes had, after four films and most of a decade, finally figured it all out. Then they brought back the guy who set the look and feel of the previous crummy movies, and I despaired.
There’s good news: Bryan Singer has made his best X-Men movie, and the second best X film to date. X-Men: Days of Future Past opens in an ugly, dark world - Bryan Singerland - but quickly jumps back to a more colorful, lighter 1973 and spends most of its running time there. In fact, the entire time spent in the past feels like a refutation of that dark future, and the whole plot is about trying to get rid of that dark future, which itself feels like the natural continuation of the original Singer films.
That future is our future, about ten years hence. Shit has gotten bad between humans and mutants - like concentration camp bad. Major cities lay in waste, and the skies are patrolled by mutant-hunting robots called the Sentinels. They find a secret mutant base and begin to attack, killing all the mutants, including Iceman, Colussus and other characters whose names you’ll only know if you read the comics or go to IMDB. But at the last minute everybody disappears. Where did they go?
It turns out that Kitty Pryde, introduced in X-Men: The Last Stand, uses brand new, never-before shown powers to send another character’s MIND back in time a few days. He tells his friends that the Sentinel attack is coming and so they scatter and find another base. They’ve been doing this for a while, getting killed and traveling back to warn themselves. When Professor X and Magneto, who are leading the resistance, find out about this trick they wonder why nobody’s tried doing it better - like going back before the war and stopping it all.
What they realize is that it all started in 1973. Mystique killed a guy and that led to the ramping up of the Sentinel program (well, ‘ramping up.’ Even in the film they mention it takes decades to get them online. It makes the stakes seem weird that there’s such a lag between the event and its impact) and so they have to stop that killing from happening. They send back Wolverine for reasons that make no sense (he seems to claim his healing factor extends to his mind, which it most certainly does not) and hope for the best.
The future is very much The Matrix, and the past is very much Life On Mars. Which is okay; the lighting is better, Singer shoots things more naturalistically and, more than anything else, the actors are better. Here’s the rub about the original X films - almost all the actors suck. Hugh Jackman, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan were the standouts, but almost every supporting actor was a lump. The prequel cast is far more lively; I prefer James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender over their older counterparts every day of the week. What’s more, the prequel cast includes Jennifer Lawrence, who has become a superstar since First Class and who thusly gets much more of a focus. Even Nicholas Hoult, the bouncing Beast, is a more interesting screen presence than a hundred James Marsdens smashed into one superdense ball of Marsdenery.
Once he’s back in this brighter, better past Wolverine discovers things are a mess. Professor X has locked himself away in his mansion, taking a drug that heals the spinal injury he got at the end of the last movie but that also takes away his powers. Magneto is imprisoned beneath the Pentagon, having supposedly killed JFK. And all the other characters from the first film have been killed (except Havok, for some reason), totally offscreen and between movies. He has to be the most un-Wolverine he’s ever been, guiding all these characters together to help each other and stop Mystique from offing Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinels.
That all happens fairly early; where it gets interesting is that as soon as they start mucking with history it becomes clear that stopping the assassination isn’t the same as making things better. They may, in fact, have made things much, much worse. The film takes off from there following some interesting time travel tangents without getting into that Back To The Future “I’m fading out” business (Wolverine’s adventures in the past will only take effect when he wakes up the future).
X-Men: First Class reveled in its period; Days of Future Past feels constrained by it. Where Matthew Vaughn went full Mad Men in his depiction of the world - with some era-appropriate comic book scifi flourishes - Singer is bored by tube TVs and combination safes. Bolivar Trask displays his Sentinel designs on an LCD flatscreen, while Cerebro is now housed in that same 90s brushed metal basement it was in the first film. The Sentinels themselves have nothing of the space age about them and rather look like Steve Jobs designed them. Singer’s inability to give in to the aesthetic of the time - which results in some mildly anachronistic feelings that younger audiences won’t even notice - reflects his whole take on the X-films in general. He’s doing whatever he feels like doing, not what’s right or what fits.
Which extends, by the way, into his own continuity. The continuity of the X-films are already a total mess, but you’d think he might stick to at least the films he directed. The entire premise of this film - that the government captures Mystique and uses her mutant morphing power to give the Sentinels the ability to take on any mutant power - is fatally flawed. See, Mystique (as established in the first film) just takes on the looks of others, not their powers. It’s Rogue who takes on powers. Internal logic be damned, though - Singer and scripter Simon Kinberg opt to drop continuity to give Lawrence a bigger role*.
Which is good because she’s great. Like the rest of the First Class surviving cast. Days of Future Past is the Singer X-film that feels closest (and yet so far!) from what I liked about the X-Men comics; it has a sense of soap opera and family dynamics. This is one of the few times I’ve ever seen a prequel work; watching Professor X and Magneto’s relationship change and evolve is exciting and feels dynamic. The characters are serviced right in this film, and while it’s still heavily the Wolverine Show, he’s not the only character getting a spotlight. Singer’s almost become adept at juggling his cast.
He - or his previz people or his second unit people - has certainly become more adept at action scenes. Days of Future Past is not action-packed, but the action scenes are well-realized, each filled with small character moments and super power spotlights. They’re also scaled well, which means that each gets more interesting than the last. That’s great because the final action sequence - which cuts back and forth between an assault on the White House in 1973 and the future X-Men desperately trying to keep the Sentinels away from their time travel experiment - actually has weight. Some of that weight comes from the fact that Singer is free to kill future mutants at will, and because of the time travel aspect of the story he has a chance to kill many of them twice. I believe this is how Blink will be forever defined on film, as having been stabbed to death by robots multiple times in one movie. Not that the character deserved more.
That escalation of action is especially refreshing in a hardcore destructive cinematic landscape; when Magneto lifts up RFK stadium you feel the enormity of the act. It isn’t just another building being blown up. It feels important, which is rare in this pixelfuck movies. It matters.
Speaking of action, this is as good a time as any to address Quicksilver. He’s cool. He’s funny, he’s fun and he’s the center of the best action set piece in the film. As the team breaks Magneto out of his Pentagon prison they’re waylaid by security and Quicksilver immediately jumps into action and does some fun superspeed stuff predicated on concepts of inertia. He also makes no sense - he puts on his Walkman (anachronism) and listens to music while he goes so fast nobody can see him. He’d just be hearing one droning sound! That nitpick aside, I also have a nitpick that this isn’t Quicksilver. He has no relation to the comic character, so why use him? And his paternity - in the comics he’s Magneto’s son - is tossed aside with a very, very bad joke.
He sums up how you must approach X-Men: Days of Future past, and that is ‘not as a comic fan.’ It actually even helps if you don’t remember too much about the previous films either (I can’t imagine what bit of history changing in this movie makes Peter Dinklage end up as Bill Duke in the future). The future X-Men stuff is a nice nod to the original trilogy, but this is truly and mostly a sequel to First Class. Because of a draggy structure (the film is missing one set piece that should come sometime after the attempt on Trask’s life, in my opinion) and a reduced sense of discovery this film doesn’t quite match the fun of that reboot, but it’s still a blast. It’s what this series should have always been, a story about a small family of misfits who argue and disagree and sometimes betray each other, but who still can’t help loving one another.
* By the way, give me a No-Prize: what if the government tests stripped Mystique of the ability to copy the powers of other mutants, which is why she can't do it in the first film? Of course if she had this in the last movie or in the ten years between the two films, why wasn’t she copying Professor X’s and Magneto’s powers ALL THE TIME? I can’t No-Prize my way out of this hacky bit of plotting.