I love the X-men. Weaned on the 90’s cartoon, as a kid I was just as enraptured by the seemingly limitless creativity of the world as I was captivated by the social commentary and discussions on bigotry at the show’s core. From there I went on to movies in the early 2000’s and eventually the comics, soaking up as much of the mutant world as I could. Naturally, I was heartbroken to watch the X-movies stagnate as they did, while other superhero flicks seemed to be getting better and better. Between the 60’s-set prequel X-Men: First Class and the fun (albeit grounded) solo adventure in last year’s The Wolverine, the franchise has been steadily gaining momentum and seems poised for a comeback.
Which brings us to X-Men: Days of Future Past, the critical make or break for the series. With Brian Singer (director of the first two films) back on board for a crazily ambitious, time-travel crossover, Fox is throwing everything they have at this one. You could be forgiven for scepticism (Lord knows we’ve been burned before), but any fears you had that it looked gimmicky, that it would be too confusing, or that maybe the X-Men movies have said everything they had to say, can be put to rest. I love this movie.
Now, the plot of this movie is complex enough, so, if you’re not already familiar with the concept of the X-Men, it’s basically that some people are born with superpowers, and that leads to fear and prejudice from all the God-loving normal people. Days of Future Past throws us headfirst into a post-apocalyptic future where the world has been ravaged by the Sentinels, adaptive robots that were created to hunt down mutants but who ended up putting all of humanity on the brink of extinction. A small group of mutants are surviving thanks to Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who is able to send a team member’s consciousness back in time to warn themselves they are about to be discovered and killed (rather brutally for a PG-13 rating) by a Sentinel patrol. From here, it’s realised that thanks to his regenerative abilities, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) should be able to have his mind travel further back in time without destroying it. Xavier (Patrick Stuart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send him back to the 70’s to reunite their younger selves (played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) and prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the Sentinel’s inventor, Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), and thus leading the world down the path to oblivion.
OK… admittedly, that all sounds pretty convoluted, but it’s actually extremely easy to follow. This is thanks mostly to a very simple mechanic linking the two time periods and preventing any changes from history taking effect until Wolverine returns. The looming future aside, DoFP is primarily a sequel to First Class, dealing largely with Xavier and Magneto’s falling out. The X-Men movies have always been more Sci-Fi than superhero, so it doesn’t feel too alien to throw in this new twist. There is a confidence and maturity to the film’s conceits, taking its world seriously and having faith in the audience to buy in. From the opening sequence, Singer uses the rules of his world creatively rather than for spectacle. The mutants use their power-sets tactically and cooperatively, which is not only a hell of a lot of fun to watch, but ensures the movie is taking advantage of being an X-men flick by giving you colourful and otherworldly action you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Special mentions have to go to Blink (Bingbing Fan), with her awesome use of portals, and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who steals the show in one incredibly fun slow-motion sequence.
Cool as the set-pieces are, this is a film that smartly hinges on its characters. When you strip away all the distractions, this is a battle between Xavier’s dream and Magneto’s revolutionary beliefs, with Mystique’s soul as the beachhead. DoFP has a huge cast and while some characters don’t quite give their actors a chance to shine (sorry Dinklage fans), there are generally great performances across the board. Lawrence, Fassbender, Stuart, Jackman…they’ve all made us love them in these roles before and they don’t disappoint here. But if there is one performance that warrants additional discussion it’s McAvoy for his wonderfully broken Xavier. Betrayed, crippled, and robbed of his adoptive sister, this Xavier is a shell of his former self. McAvoy gives us the Xavier we love, but keeps him fighting for air just below the surface of his overwhelming defeat and insecurity.
As impressive as it is to witness the film’s ambition and willingness to trust the audience, there were a couple of moments in which the exposition became a bit much. The dialogue is so human and authentic for the majority of the film, that it’s impossible not to be jarred by the sudden moments of explanation and handholding. Wolverine, in particular, feels a little bit too much like the writer’s mouthpiece rather than his own character, but maybe that’s just because he doesn’t have a real lot to do once he sets it all in motion. Also, and maybe this is a cheap shot in such a fantastic world, there were a few too many times that the technology was way too advanced for the 70’s time-period. Yes, you can probably forgive the robots and a few other things that are meant to be advanced, but the inconsistencies do seem to trickle down into the consumer grade for many props and designs.
Happily, those nit-picks are about it in the way of criticism. This franchise was such an important part to the comic book revolution in Hollywood, so it’s incredibly satisfying to see Brian Singer take his rightful place on the throne and give the X-Men their due in this golden age of superhero movies. Like Marvel Studio’s The Avengers, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a culmination of everything that’s come before – as well as an exciting new beginning. The nature of the timeline-altering story means the series is freed from its accumulated baggage and can really go wherever it wants from here. This is the X-Men movie we’ve all been waiting for. Let’s just hope Fox can find a way to keep McAvoy and the rest involved as the franchise moves back into the present.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10