If you remember from my review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I mentioned that I was never a huge fan of the original X-Men movies. What kept me watching was the hope of the films properly exhibiting the true realizations of the amazingly dynamic characters presented. So naturally, in preparation for X-Men: Days of Future Past, I commenced an intense re-watch before I headed to the theater last Friday (which was, in hindsight, not a great idea due to finals, but I am bound to my fate now) . What I found most interesting about the revisit is how my reactions to the films changed as I watched them again. The only way to judge each film on first watch was how they stacked up when compared to the larger continuity of comic-book-related movies. Now, though, looking back at them all is illuminating, especially since it feels like X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a new beginning for the series.
Continuity has always been a little iffy in this series, and if you try to somehow align the ending of The Wolverine with the start of this film, or you are worried about how Professor Xavier got from his location at the end of The Last Stand to where we find him in this film, you will probably go crazy. I admire the almost defiant attitude of this movie in its refusal to explain these things, because it shows the focus it has on telling its story.
As the film begins, we are in a dark future where mutants have been hunted to near-extinction, and where humans have seen their numbers decimated by the terrifying Sentinels brought to life by Trask Industries. We see how the last remaining members of the group once called the X-Men are struggling to survive and stay a few steps ahead of their pursuers. Kitty Pryde has become a key part of that struggle, using her ability to project someone else’s consciousness back in time to constantly send Bishop (played by Omar Sy) back in time to the time just before each attack occurred, so he can warn the rest of the X-Men to move to different locations and avoid prospective attacks. We’re shown how this works in a tight, succinct opening sequence, and it works both as an exciting action beat and a set-up for what drives the remainder of the movie.
The older versions of Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have an idea for how they might put an end to the cycle, but it requires Kitty Pryde to do something she’s never done before, and it pushes Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, who somehow looks better now than he did when he first played the character 14 years ago) to the breaking point, even in a best-case scenario. Sending someone’s consciousness back decades will push any mind past what it can sustain, but thanks to Wolverine’s healing factor, he should be able to recover and somehow bear the pain long enough to make a permanent change in the X-Men timeline, one that will permanently erase the Sentinels completely. In order for that to happen, though, Wolverine has to undo the timeline that already exists, which not only forces him to get both Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (the infallible Michael Fassbender) to work together, but also to find and stop Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) as she crosses the moral line that permanently pushes her into the shadows.
The script sounds complicated, but main scriptwriter Simon Kinberg makes it all feel simple. You understand what the X-Men will do and how they’ll do it, you understand what the stakes are, and you get a strong sense of their race against time — they won’t be able to just hit the reset button and start over again: If one person fails, the whole team will die, and there will be no way back for any of them. With all of that in motion, Wolverine makes the jump, and the film effectively becomes a sequel to X-Men: First Class for the majority of its running time.
I like that the majority of the film deals with its younger cast members. While I like the cast they put together for the series’ first three films, McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence have brought a huge new energy to the series, and focusing on their stories is, I think, the most compelling place for the films to go at this point. Sharp-eyed fans have been wondering for months how Professor X is walking again since we saw him catch a bullet in the base of his spine at the end of First Class. Rest assured, there is a reason, and while I don’t quite follow the logic, it’s obviously meant to work as a metaphor for addiction and the way it sidelines someone. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) has also found a way to suppress his rather Beastly nature (pardon the pun), but it still has his flaws. From the minute he finds them, Wolverine pokes away at the fragile peace Professor X and Hank have tried to make for themselves.
The one weak link, script-wise, is Bolivar Trask, played here by Peter Dinklage. It feels like Dinklage does as much as he can with the role, but there’s really no weight to him as an antagonist. At this point, the franchise has pretty much thrown one movie after another at us in which there’s somebody who wants to cure, exterminate, or subjugate mutants simply because they’re mutants, and this one is no different. Trask is a military contractor who has the big idea of developing a special technology, Sentinels, that can not only identify a mutant, but also target them exclusively, and scriptwriters should have gone deeper to give him some sort of personal investment as to why he created them. It doesn’t help that we’ve got a young version of Bill Stryker — who has inexplicably become the most important person in the entire X-Men universe — running around and learning his prejudice of mutants in this movie. I may be tired of Stryker at this point after having seen him show up over and over in X-Men films, but this time there is some attempt made to motivate him, as we see, for the first time, the seeds of what would eventually become the Weapon X program.
The new character who makes the strongest impression is Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters. He’s recruited by Wolverine and Professor X to help in a jailbreak. The way the scene is shot and staged is dynamic and interesting, showing a very funny use of his powers. This sequence serves as a challenge to not only Joss Whedon, who is also using Quicksilver as a character in next summer’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron, but also to whoever ultimately makes a movie about Flash. The Quicksilver scenes are so playful that one feels sad when he leaves the film. Peters does a nice job of playing him as a sort of gleeful weirdo, and I hope they bring him back for the next movie in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is ultimately about three people and the tensions between them that threaten Wolverine’s ability to save mutant-kind. McAvoy and Fassbender play their roles like they’re playing Shakespearean characters, and because of the way Jennifer Lawrence approaches her portrayal of Mystique, the entire franchise now plays differently in hindsight. These are people who have been hurt by one another, creating danger when they lash out. The best scenes in the movie are the moments where Professor X and Magneto struggle to find a way to relate to one another and to not let the hurt they’ve caused run their lives. Yes, I dig the action scenes in the film, but the gravity the actors give their material gives the series new life. The fear, the hurt, the doubt — these are what drive them, and they make the emotional material feel raw and real.
By the time the film wraps up, it’s obvious that this is the end of the first major act in the history of X-Men to be shown on film. Some major adjustments have been made to the timeline, and suddenly, at least one of our heroes isn’t burdened by the same angst that has driven him for so long now. Certainly, this doesn’t mean the X-Men live in a permanent state of acceptance, but they can work towards that, and the series can go pretty much anywhere now. With that said, do yourself a favor and avoid spoilers. While I think the last act of this film pretty undoes everything Wolverine learned in The Wolverine, I don’t mind. The series needed this change, and it’s exciting to see how far this franchise (and its genre on the whole) has changed in the 14 years that its movies have been in production. Even if its director, Bryan Singer, never makes an X-Men movie again, he can leave knowing that he delivered something that showed real growth, and something that makes me think this series has plenty of stories left to tell.
Grade: A (Release Date: May 23, 2014. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language)