Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past marks a new and specific era for the comic book movie, and one we should maybe get used to: it’s an acknowledgement both of the things audiences loved about the franchise and the things they hated, and an effort to right those wrongs. It’s also trying to be a fitting send-off to actors who have been playing these roles since 2000’s X-Men, and it’s also trying to be a, y’know, movie, with story and character beats and an ending that makes sense and feels complete. It’s also trying to set up a new X-Men film franchise, in the same style as Marvel’s in-house series, with post-credits teaser and all.
With so many masters to serve, it is especially impressive that Days of Future Past is a success; a film this gooey and complex, with such business-minded scope, should not feel like a real movie at all. But this is something comic books do all the time—chop and change storyline, go back (sometimes in time) to fix problems fans didn’t like, set up future franchises and crossovers and what have you. Singer, who pretty much set the tone for the modern comic book movie with X-Men 14 years ago, understands this better than most, and it shows.
Days of Future Past is set in a “future,” about ten years from now if my math is right, where mutants and the humans who support them are methodically hunted, rounded up, and killed by Sentinels, giant shape-shifting robots. A lot of our old friends are there—Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, and a bunch of surviving X-Men (Iceman, Shadowcat, Storm) mixed in with some new faces who exist mostly to display impressive power-sets. They devise a plan to send the ageless Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to right a wrong they think set the Sentinel program in motion.
This gives us a chance to mix Jackman in with the new cast of X-Men: James McAvoy as Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as the Beast. These lot were introduced in 2011’s First Class, a mostly rollicking ‘60s jaunt that explored the foundation of the team. It also gives the series a unique chance to pass the torch from its old cast to the highly talented new bunch, although just as they did the first time around, Fox has maybe cast too well, with Lawrence particularly a superstar in such ascent that it’s hard to see her sticking around for sequel after sequel.
The bifurcated storyline affords Singer a lot of room to make the film bearable. The dark future is where most of the epic CGI action can go—beloved comic characters like Bishop, Blink, and Colossus don’t get many speaking lines but at least get plenty of opportunities to display their impressive powers. It also offers us plenty of Stewart and McKellen just sitting around and chatting about mistakes they’ve made, which those two can make compelling in their sleep.
In the past, there’s much more time for the familiar X-Men character beats and a surprising amount of fun. From the bleak first twenty minutes, set entirely at night and featuring countless visions of death and despair, one wouldn’t think Singer would find time for hijinks. But the ‘70s includes a fantastic, jaunty break-in to the Pentagon spearheaded by Evan Peters’ super-fast Quicksilver. Outfitted in a crappy grey wig and goggles, Peters looked chintzy in the promotional material but is used perfectly in the film for a bunch of great set-pieces that rival Singer’s opening to X2 (in which the teleporting Nightcrawler tried to assassinate the President).
Jackman wears the Wolverine role like an old glove (though he’s considerably more 'roided and veiny-looking than he was 14 years ago) and stomps around scenes tossing off his usual I-don’t-give-a-shit bon mots. Fassbender remains perfect casting for Magneto, a compelling ideologue who is too often crippled by his own resoluteness. McAvoy is the real star of the show—while he was perhaps too much of a goody-two-shoes in First Class, the ‘70s Xavier is embittered enough that McAvoy gets to show more of a range in his battle of wills with Magneto. The concept of the X-Men should always be one of idealism, of lesser parts forming a greater whole, and McAvoy gets the struggle of that concept across—past the inherent didactic cheesiness.
Visually, the ‘70s material is a little flat (outside of some nice costuming), which is a bit of a bummer for anyone hoping for an American Hustle-with-mutants. The future is nicely atmospheric but feels stagey at times, largely revolving around one (very nice) set. Singer’s first two X-Men films had an agreeably muddy look, while Days of Future Past feels more bogged down by First Class’ annoyingly flat staging, but perhaps that can be rectified in the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, should Singer be legally clear to make it (the very public and damaging lawsuits filed against him remain an ongoing matter).
But Days of Future Past, amazingly, sticks its landing. Things are largely cleared up and there’s plenty of opportunity to say goodbye to the cast you love in a meaningful way, washing out the bad taste X-Men: The Last Stand left in everybody’s mouths. The torch-passing is extremely heavy-handed at times, but it’ll work for fans and probably be cheerfully ignored by everyone else. Singer has gotten enough in else here to guarantee that.