Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a movie like X-Men: Days of Future Past ever getting made. Early genre efforts in the post Spider-Man millennial boom, including the successful X-Men 2, were just beginning to scratch the surface of what the comic-based superhero movie could do. It wasn’t until 2012’s wildly successful Avengers movie that filmmakers really began to show how much could be accomplished within the confines of a summer superhero blockbuster. That movie piggybacked off of multiple origin stories in an attempt to tie together what Marvel Comics likes to call its “cinematic universe.”
What director Bryan Singer is doing with the X-Men franchise is even more ambitious. After six previous installments, including two Wolverine spin-offs, the franchise has reached a similar zenith of universe-building. Singer, who helped kick off the superhero craze with 2000’s original X-Men, has teamed up with screenwriter Simong Kinberg to make, for better or worse, the most “comic book” movie ever made. It’s also far and away the finest X-Men film to date.
Days of Future Past, based off of a highly praised and successful run in the comics, brings together the original X-Men cast with the younger generation of First Class. In the year 2023, mutants are on the run from unstoppable killing machines called Sentinels, and the few remaining mutants, including familiar faces such as Magneto and Professor Xavier, make a last-ditch effort to send Wolverine (whose self-healing abilities allow him to make the trip successfully) back in time to 1973 to ensure that the Sentinels are never created in the first place. This involves reuniting the young (and feuding) Xavier and Magneto to help stop the rogue, shape-shifting mutant Mystique from assassinating a mutant-hating research scientist and thus setting off a vicious and bloody mutant/human war.
In story structure, Days of Future Past is indeed the most “comic book” movie ever made. When time travel is used as a plot device, it opens up a world of possibilities, and Singer has taken such possibilities to their ultimate extreme. In the comic world, characters may die and be reborn multiple times, and lengthy, alternate histories can be wiped away with one sci-fi twist.
This is the world the X-Men movie universe now resides in. Don’t expect an easy sit—this is ambitious, heady stuff, two hours filled with talk of teleporting consciousness and time ripples. It’s the most challenging entry in the genre since The Dark Knight Rises—it is, in more ways than one, the thinking man’s Avengers.
Thankfully, the movie also works as straight-up blockbuster summer entertainment. With all of the plot threads being juggled, it’s amazing how well-paced, engaging and, most importantly, relatable the story and characters are. A large part of that is as much do to the small details as it is to the impressive action set pieces. All the humorous in-jokes, asides and references will have longtime series fans rolling. The period details are also spot-on; the costumes, the music, even the retro, non-digital Times Square standing in stark contrast to the neon nightmare in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The production design rivals the best we’ve seen in the genre.
The acting is as brilliant as ever. Hugh Jackman turns in yet another pitch-perfect performance as Wolverine, who once again acts as the outsider to this strange world. He’s both funny and fierce; we thankfully get plenty of humorous Wolverine moments, something largely missing from the characters’ spin-off movies. James McAvoy has also really come into his own as the young Xavier, displaying a more ambiguous, dark devil’s advocate to Patrick Stewart’s bland do-gooder. Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence, two of the finest working actors, add depth to their characters’ actions and motivations (and get some bad-ass action scenes to boot).
Your enjoyment of the movie will largely depend on what kind of X-Men movie you’re expecting. As a sequel to First Class, it’s brilliant and harrowing. As a sequel to the original X-Men trilogy, it’s really a non-event. We get brief moments with returning characters like Storm, Iceman and Kitty Pride, but the film devotes the vast majority of its running time to the events of 1973, with the events of 2023 acting as a framing device. In other words, if you’re expecting any answers or character development from the original cast outside of Wolverine, prepare to leave empty-handed. After all, if Wolvie is successful, these future versions of the characters may very well no longer exist.
This leads to a series of unanswered questions that may alienate longtime series fans. How, exactly, is Xavier alive in 2023? How did Magneto get his powers back after getting the cure in X-Men 3? These and other major questions are not even addressed, possibly because Singer wants to distance himself from that third film, which he did not direct, and many saw as a big disappointment. He can certainly make those kinds of decisions, but all the previous X-Men films still exist, and refusing to even acknowledge some of their major events will frustrate some viewers.
This dichotomy between old and new also extends to the film’s new characters. Those introduced in the future timeline, such as Bishop (who can absorb energy) and Blink (who has some awesome action scenes involving her ability to create portals) are hardly even introduced beyond some visually impressive displays of their powers. New characters introduced circa 1973 fare much better. Even Peters gives a brilliant turn as Quicksilver, the mutant version of The Flash. The less I say about his character, the better, but he gets the best comedic lines, and he even manages to play a scene involving a very intense prison break for laughs, in what is sure to go down as the single greatest scene in the entire X-Men saga. Peter Dinklage continues his hot streak as antagonist Bolivar Trask, and he does wonders with an underwritten role.
But, what makes Days of Future Past so damn good—if you can look past some admittedly steep plot holes—is just how fresh and bold much of it feels. The cheesy one-liners of Singer’s earlier X-Men films have been replaced with unrelenting emotional intensity. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but in embracing a truly “comic book” story structure, it opens itself up to interpretations, alternate theories and even criticism that most by-the-numbers superhero movies would never subject themselves to. It willfully flaunts the continuity of its previously established universe, it contains no consistent villain or even hero and it occupies a world of moral greys, even as many of its characters speak in blacks and whites. The ending feels a bit too happy and convenient, but I hear from comic fans that it’s true to the original story, and opens up the universe in some intriguing directions.
More than that, it’s just plain fun; reaching Avengers level heights with its crowd-pleasing spectacle. But there remains much to ponder beneath the big-budget glitz. The film’s revelations (or lack thereof) will either leave you enthralled or frustrated. But they will not leave you bored.