The X-Men series really is a movie franchise like no-other right now. It started 14 years ago, and is often credited with kicking off the superhero boom we’re still very much experiencing. Yet it’s somehow managed to survive and still be a major part of the current blockbuster climate. It’s not so interesting just that it’s still going though, it’s what it’s been through to get here.
Box-office returns were ever an issue for the X-films, but quality was. After one solid introductory film and a more satisfying follow-up, it quickly veered off course with the troubled third film, and then delivered the even worse Origins: Wolverine spin off. Prospects weren’t looking good, but somehow, despite another rushed production schedule, Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn managed to completely re-invigorate the series with 2011’s X-Men: First Class. A film that served as a prequel and sorta-reboot to the series, ignoring some continuity but retaining general aspects of the timeline, plus a couple of cameos. The stinger on the second (and better) Wolverine film last year brought back two of the original trilogy’s best characters and suddenly, we have the prospect of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Several of its key players have undergone considerable career boosts since the series began, yet still maintain loyalty to the films, but this film also brings back original director Bryan Singer, (whose departure and swift replacement for X-Men: The Last Stand appeared to originally signal the beginning of the end for the cinematic X-Men). It’s a film that has the tricky task of being both a prequel and a sequel to the original X-films, combining the two timelines and casts into one universe-uniting whole (not to mention that this seventh entry in the series is both the sequel to a sequel of a spin-off, and the sequel to a prequel).
If that wasn’t hard enough to wrap your head around, the main plot involves time travel.
Matthew Vaughn played fairly loose with continuity when it came to making First Class, and indeed the series already has numerous issues in that department, but Days of Future Past takes unexplained occurrences to a new level. The presence of Magneto and Professor X at the end of The Wolverine made for a neat little moment, but anyone thinking this film is going to justify their reappearances will be sorely disappointed. Likewise, how has Wolverine re-gained his metal claws? Did he voluntarily have them re-grafted? The only backstory given is a brief bit of voiceover from Xavier informing us about the sentinel war that’s led to the desolate, ravaged earth of the future scenes (it takes place several years after The Wolverine).
Days of Future Past kicks off in a futuristic China (presumably for Chinese box-office reasons) where a group of surviving mutants are battling the sentinels (essentially giant, mutant-hunting robots). Just as Singer began X2 with Nightcrawler’s incredible attack on the White House, here he gives us a remarkable action sequence showcasing a number of the mutant’s powers, both old and new. Soon, a familiar group, (Magneto, Professor X, Storm and Wolverine) show up, and they hatch a plan to send Wolverine back in time to the seventies, to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the sentinel’s creator, which they believe could prevent all the destruction.
The idea comes from a decades-old X-Men storyline, even if it does all sound rather contrived for the sake of these movies. Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) somehow has the ability so send other people’s consciences back to their younger selves (how is never even questioned) and Wolverine’s conveniently the only one who can survive the trip, with the added bonus that he’ll ‘basically look the same’.
He gets to the seventies fairly promptly, and after pausing to give the audience a gratuitous nude scene, sets off to find the younger incarnation of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). A lot’s changed since First Class, Xavier’s school is abandoned, and he’s become a depressed shut-in, addicted to a substance created by Dr Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) that represses his abilities. Meanwhile Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is being held in a concrete prison far below the pentagon.
Singer doesn’t so much juggle the two storylines but puts nearly all his focus into the ‘past’ one, with only occasional cutbacks to the ‘future’. It’s a method that works reasonably well, providing the film with a clear drive and purpose. It’s great to see the younger Professor X and Magneto and their fascinating friend/foe dynamic again, and Jackman’s Wolverine is dependable as always. This is the seventh time he’s played the character, and we’re still always happy to follow him. Roger Moore was on A View to a Kill by now, it’s quite something to see an actor who’s gone from unknown to bona-fide Hollywood A-lister still be willing to regularly return to the role that made his name.
Presumably due to her similarly increased fame, Jennifer Lawrence plays a larger role this time round, the whole plot practically revolves around her. Although many of her best moments are physical (and more than likely not actually performed by her), she shows more depth and is thankfully no-where near as annoying as she was in First Class.
You might think with all these returning characters there wouldn’t be room for anyone new, but there are a couple of excellent additions to the X-universe’s expansive cast. Firstly Peter Dinklage as Dr. Bolivar Trask, a man of science driven by what he believes to be the right thing to do, is a very different kind of foe from the super-villains we’ve become accustomed to. Also Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who came in for much pre-release criticism, is highly amusing and the star of what’s probably the film’s best individual sequence, when he assists Magneto’s prison escape, clearly loving the abilities he possesses.
All this focus on the past storyline unfortunately results in there being little for the older mutants to do however, and while I doubt anyone’s going to bemoan there not being enough Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Halle Berry and Ian McKellen hardly feature at all (Storm probably speaks fewer than 30 words). Anna Paquin also receives a prominent credit but literally less than 10 seconds of screen-time.
Time travel mechanics nearly always cause plot holes, and Days of Future Past gets around these by just never really allowing them to come forward. There’s a Dr Who-esque theory from Beast at one point but in general the film assumes a timeline where any changes Wolverine makes will result in a different future. The story’s fast-paced enough to breeze by without pausing to reveal any problems in its internal logic, and as it’s only his ‘conscience’ that’s sent back, there aren’t two Wolverines running about the place.
It also boasts a final set-piece that, unlike most recent superhero films, doesn’t resort to just giving us a massive, effects filled battle sequence. Though it’s not one of the highlights, it’s still quite a spectacle, despite featuring yet another poor Nixon impersonator.
X-Men: Days of Future Past has its troubles, trying to squeeze so much in inevitably results in the side-lining of certain players, while others are a little overdone and illogical at times. There are enough gaps in its set-up for a whole other movie, and as in First Class some of its in-jokes fall flat. However it’s also one of the series’ best, an always entertaining super-powered adventure and a clear return to form for Singer (his last film was the dreadful Jack the Giant Slayer). He winds the film in a very satisfying manner, that seems to be both acknowledging and trying to make up for (or wipe away) the series’ past mistakes, and it’s not like he’s just stomping all over the work of others either, this has the same screenwriter as The Last Stand in Simon Kinberg. This retcon-happy, continuity-liberal approach stays true to the superhero comics these films and their ilk draw from.
Days of Future Past leaves us at an intriguing place in the X-Men universe(s), one that affects practically everything that’s gone before, and that’s likely to leave audiences keen to know where it’ll go from here, and we won’t have too long to wait, the next instalment’s already been announced for 2016.