The folks at 20th Century Fox would like you to know they're sorry. They know the last two full X-Men movies were pretty terrible, and so now they've made a full-length apology. X-Men: Days of Future Past is their attempt to undo all the damage done by X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class--in a sense quite literally. Not only did they lure back original director Bryan Singer, but they mashed together the timelines of the two movies he didn't make so Singer could wish them away to the cornfield. The new sequel is de-Ratnerized and mostly un-Vaughned.
And, damn, if it doesn't work. We're not back to X-Men 2 levels, but had X-Men: Days of Future Past been the third in the original trilogy all along, there would never have been a need for such a mea culpa. It's a solid piece of entertainment.
Based on a couple of Uncanny X-Men issues from the mid-1980s, X-Men: Days of Future Past takes a flash-forward concocted by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne to create a multi-timeline cinematic retconning. Twenty years into the future, the tide has turned against mutantkind. The Earth has been razed by giant robot Sentinels designed to cleanse the population of its more evolved members. Only, the program got out of control, targeting humans who were sympathetic to the cause or identified as possible mutant breeders, and now the last survivors hide in far-flung corners of the planet trying to avoid detection.
Amongst those survivors are former X-Men, many returning from previous movies, including Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and your average old-timey mutant leaders, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen). Seeing their options running out, the team schemes to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time, projecting his mental image into his younger self in hopes of stopping the inciting event that led to their current predicament. The destination is 1972, and the crucial action that needs to be avoided is the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones) by the shapeshifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Trask is the inventor of the Sentinels, and though he got no traction on the program before his murder, the public killing ends up proving his mutant phobia correct, thus posthumously kickstarting his deadly plan.
With me so far? It's weirdly not as complicated in practice as it is in theory. To get the job done, Wolverine recruits the younger, feuding Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender), as well as the über-smart Beast (Nicholas Hoult), to track Mystique down and draw the girl back into the fold. Easier said than done, of course, but that's how you build a plot.
The bulk of X-Men: Days of Future Past takes place in the past and is, for most of the film, a kind of variation on the "group of outlaw cops on the hunt for a killer" genre trope. There are a few action sequences, including the movie's most memorable interlude, a prison breakout with super speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters, American Horror Story). Yes, I know he looks dumb in the promo photos, but trust me. (And is it me, or is Peters ready for a Jack White biopic?) There are also feelings, lots of feelings, mostly skewing between healing and betrayal. Meanwhile, in the future, the ragtag crew continues to hang on, protecting Wolverine's body until he can get the job done.
Singer deftly jumps back and forth between the two worlds, lending most of the weight to the past, but keeping a nice balance so that the Terminator-esque future never feels like it's just been tacked on. In fact, the climax nicely blends the two, with two different battles that, depending on the outcome, risk similar consequences. Even better for those bemoaning the sameness of superhero movie third acts, though there are explosions and destruction, the big showdown isn't solely comprised of mayhem designed to have the computer animators work overtime destroying an entire city. It's action with purpose, full of heroic challenges, and integral to the resolution of the story.
There are certainly logic issues throughout X-Men: Days of Future Past, including the usual time travel contradictions and the occasional motivational hiccup, but the film otherwise holds together. Singer has a strong grasp of the essentials: X-Men: Days of Future Past stays light on its feet, allowing for moments of occasional levity, and giving his best actors room to do their work. Jackman remains the glue, but Lawrence also delivers, bringing pathos to the role of the conflicted villain and kicking lots of butt on the way to her intended target. Fassbender and McAvoy also appear more confident in their roles, free of the smirking quality that Matthew Vaughn insisted on in First Class (the same smirk he puts in all of his movies). The weird trick of superhero films is taking the material seriously without taking oneself too seriously.
Fans looking for lots of cameos from other characters from the comics will have plenty to cheer about. I won't rattle off everyone who shows up, but keep your eyes (and ears) open. You'll also want to sit through the closing credits, there is an impressive stinger waiting for you. What you won't want to do is sit through is the 3D version of Days of Future Past. The extra dimension (and resultant uptick in ticket price) adds nothing. Singer's bright and clear approach is not serviced well by the obscuring 3D process. What's the point of having a director who likes to edit his fight scenes so that the choreography is favored over camera tricks if you're just going to darken it up in the projection booth?
It also just feels wrong given the period detail and how Singer revels in '70s filmmaking. (Lordy, some of Jennifer Lawrence's outfits are just to die!) In fact, the throwback setting is a lot of what makes X-Men: Days of Future Past work. Like many American movies from that timeframe, this here is a fun flick about a group of guys getting things done. With a dark future and some shiny baubles mixed in. Which ain't so bad.
So, all is forgiven, Fox. For now. I can't imagine that Gambit movie with Channing Tatum is going to be good, so I'm guessing you'll be owing us another apology soon. Did you really learn nothing from X-Men Origins: Wolverine?
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.