With yet another spring and summer movie season overstuffed with superhero extravaganzas, 20th Century Fox's X-Men series, which debuted in 2000 and spans more than half a dozen films, now feels like the granddaddy of the genre. It certainly felt ready for retirement at the conclusion of Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), a sequel so over-amped and underfed that it mothballed the series, allowing 2008's first Iron Man movie to usher in the era of Marvel-produced spandex spectaculars.
Nowadays though, franchises don't die, they're rebooted with a 9-figure budget and an eye towards an exploding Chinese moviegoing market that was hardly a consideration during the high times of DVD. That's why Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class (2011) was such a pleasant surprise. It was a retro-cool and whip-smart infusion of new energy into a tired series. Unlike Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man, released 13 months later, the '60s set X-Men: First Class was fresh and exciting. Its success, of course, required the creation of another X-Men saga. So three years and $200 million later, here we are, hoping X-Men: Days of Future Past continues the series' upward trajectory.
The sequel sees the return of Bryan Singer, who directed the first X-Men 14 years ago and established the franchise's mix of mutant / human dialectics and fanboy action. Singer has been in a slump lately (Jack the Giant Slayer, anyone?) and could use a hit. X-Men: Days of Future Past is definitely it – and more. It's a rollicking, if sometimes convoluted, good time, featuring a high-toned cast and a seriousness of purpose that sets it apart from the candy-colored Marvel-produced films and Sony's underwhelming Amazing Spider-Man series.
X-Men: Days of Future Past, like the best of the X-Men films, never backs away from what it's really about: outsiders struggling to navigate a world that doesn't understand them and won't accept them, a theme that resonates strongly with the teens and young adults who comprise a healthy percentage of comic book readers. The action in Simon Kinberg's dense, twisty screenplay is always a result of character, no small feat considering the film takes place in two time periods and features what might as well be two different casts.
'X-Men: Days of Future Past': Convoluted by gripping plot
In the bombed-out, dystopian future, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), his former nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen) and a group of other mutants hide in a Chinese monastery from an army of vicious robots – called Sentinels – who've wiped out most of the mutant population and reduced the world to rubble. Humankind's only hope involves the “just shut up and go with it” use of time travel, here employed in a manner (highly) reminiscent of James Cameron's The Terminator. The plan is for Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) to transport the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to stop the assassination of Sentinel creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). In a less polished story, the plan would be to assassinate Trask; in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the plan is to prevent his assassination, since his murder hardened anti-mutant sentiment and led to government approval of the Sentinel program.
It's no coincidence Wolverine is deemed the only mutant who can survive the temporal time trip. He's nearly indestructible and he's the series' most popular character, having been gifted a pair of mildly entertaining spin-offs. As before, Hugh Jackman completely owns Wolverine's gruff cynicism, but this time he's less of an ass-kicker and more of a mediator. His task, assuming he survives '70s-era horrors like waterbeds and lava lamps, is to convince young Xavier (James McAvoy) and future-Magneto Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) to put aside their differences and find the blue-skinned Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the key figure in Trask's murder.
In doing so, we're reminded that the X-Men movies carry the weight of human interaction and consequence more than any other superhero series – a low bar to be sure, but still an accomplishment. Everyone is on the defensive in X-Men: Days of Future Past, either emotionally or physically, none more than Xavier. Wolverine finds him a disheveled, drunken wreck, living in the ruins of his beloved School for Gifted Youngsters and estranged from lifelong friend Mystique. Even his powers are severely curtailed, a side effect of the serum that allows him use of his crippled legs.
Watching the reawakened Xavier, with his ever-hopeful humanism, rhetorically duke it out against a kill-or-be-killed revolutionary like Magneto is one of the movie's chief pleasures. But first, these two frenemies must be reunited, which requires breaking Lehnsherr out of a prison deep below the Pentagon, where he's been stashed away for his role in – wait for it – the Kennedy assassination. Springing him from the pokey are Wolverine, Xavier, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and a new character, Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Quicksilver has two powers: he can run at supersonic speeds and he can steal every scene he's in, culminating in a cheeky and altogether fabulous slow-motion sequence where he dashes around the Pentagon kitchen redirecting bullets and fists away from the escaping X-Men.
'X-Men: Days of Future Past': Treating the audience like adults while reminding us what's been missing from other superhero movies
It's refreshing to watch a superhero movie that treats the audience like adults, and that's not just a reference to the profanity. X-Men: Days of Future Past weaves historical events into its story without feeling cheap, pretentious, or disrespectful. Trask's assassination is meant to happen at the Paris Peace talks that ended the Vietnam War, which is where Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique come together for the first time. Disguising herself as a Vietnamese general, she is hellbent on carrying out her role in the event that will result in Earth's nightmare future. Yet, while Mystique is crucial to the story, she actually doesn't have much to do except fight, leaving Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) a more muted presence this time out.
Otherwise, performances are practically Shakespearean for this type of movie. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender underplay their anger issues, a camp-free strategy that gives the movie a genuine heart. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, two old pros, lend funereal weight to the end of their lifelong struggles. On the downside, most of the other mutants are either wasted (Halle Berry's Storm, Anna Paquin's Rogue) or just run around fending off Sentinels (including Blink, played by Chinese beauty Fan Bingbing in the now-obligatory nod to the Chinese market). It's a busy story with lots of moving parts and editor John Ottman (who doubles as composer) keeps it all together and mostly coherent.
Both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 climaxed with enormously scaled superbattles meant to widen the eyes and moisten the lips of fanboys everywhere. X-Men: Days of Future Past does not end this way and it's a better movie for it. Most superhero films consider emotional authenticity an inconvenience when there's still a couple buildings in the immediate area that haven't been leveled to the ground. As far as it goes, X-Men: Days of Future Past satisfies in ways those other films don't, reminding us what's been missing in the modern era of superhero moviemaking.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). Dir.: Bryan Singer. Scr.: Simon Kinberg, from a story by Kinberg, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn. Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, Fan Bingbing, Evan Peters, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage, Anna Paquin, Omar Sy, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Michael Lerner, Gregg Lowe, Kelsey Grammer, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Morgan Lily.
Hugh Jackman as The Wolverine in X-Men: Days of Future Past photo: 20th Century Fox.