Man, was I wrong about X-Men: Days of Future Past.
I generally feel like we shouldn’t go into a movie with preconceived ideas as to whether or not it’ll be any good. (Of course, we all carry some general first impressions before watching a film. Doesn’t that influence our viewing choices in the first place?) But I just did not have a good feeling about the latest X-Men flick, the fifth of the franchise (or seventh, if you count the two solo Wolverine movies).
The cast looked entirely too bloated, combining the rebooted crew from 2011′s X-Men: First Class (including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence) with the ensemble from the previous X-Men trilogy (Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen among them).
Additionally, the whole project seemed a cynical attempt to match the blockbuster team-up that The Avengers pulled off two summers ago. It appeared that the studio wasn’t quite sure a sequel with the First Class cast would drum up enough buzz, so the decision was made to get the whole band back together. Any actor who was in the previous X-films: Please report to the set for at least a cameo that gets the fans excited.
Then there’s director Bryan Singer, whose filmmaking star has dimmed in recent years. Singer also wasn’t originally supposed to direct this film, working on the project as a producer. But when First Class helmer Matthew Vaughn bowed out of the sequel, Singer decided to reunite with the Marvel mutants that brought him his greatest success.
Perhaps Singer will always get something of a pass for The Usual Suspects, and both of his X-Men films were strong. But Superman Returns was a misguided ode to Richard Donner’s original Superman: The Movie, a surprisingly somber film with nothing truly original to say and some disastrous storytelling decisions. (Superman knocks up Lois Lane, goes off into space for five years, then stalks her once he returns to Earth? Yeesh.) And Jack the Giant Slayer was just a joyless mess of terrible CGI effects that lacked a fairy-tale heart.
Maybe Singer should just stick to X-Men films. The allegory of mutant bigotry and persecution to the gay experience obviously speaks to him deeply and inspires his storytelling. He seems to genuinely love these characters. That warmth especially comes across at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past, which arguably papers over mistakes of the previous X-films and reinforces the underlying themes of friendship and family that have always made these superhumans compelling and relatable.
Singer has often shown heavy interest in sci-fi throughout his career, attaching himself to projects like a Star Trek series, Battlestar Galactica movie and Logan’s Run remake during the past decade but never getting past the development stage. The futuristic, post-apocalyptic setting in which half (well, maybe one-third) of Days of Future Past takes place allows him to indulge those sensibilities and the enthusiasm for that is apparent from the beginning of the film.
Singer (and writer Simon Kinberg) have to quickly establish the story’s premise and the world in which it takes place, and do so with an immediate energy not always seen in superhero films. Perhaps that’s a benefit of not being required to tell an origin story. While some of the mutants we see 50 years in the future haven’t been part of the X-Men film franchise, those characters are introduced through action rather than words. (And those actions conveyed through their superpowers should give fans of the comic book swift gratification.)
Yet just as quickly, the stakes of the film are established — and violently so. We may be used to seeing heroes struggle against powerful foes, but not like this. The killer robots (called Sentinels) that the future X-Men face are fearsome and unbeatable, dispatching their targets with ruthless efficiency. Heads are smashed and decapitated. People are impaled through the chest or incinerated. The effect is jolting, compelling you to sit up in your seat and pay closer attention right away. Our heroes truly are in danger.
For those who were worried that this would basically be a X-Men version of the Terminator mythos, however — and I was right there with you — Days of Future Past takes place mostly in the 1970s, picking up some years after the events of First Class. The main plot concerns sending Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to when the Sentinels were originally created. The objective is to prevent the assassination of the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which ignites the initiative to inflict mass genocide upon mutantkind.
But Trask isn’t just a tinkerer with an agenda to kill mutants. He’s also a Josef Mengele-like sadist who conducts cruel and lethal experiments upon captured mutants to better enable their extermination. Interesting — and refreshingly, really — there’s no attempt to explain Trask’s behavior and motivation. His parents or siblings weren’t killed by mutants, as far as we know. He simply wants to make sure homo sapiens aren’t overtaken as the dominant species and has built giant robots to achieve that goal.
Though Trask may be a repugnant tyrant clothed as a scientist, his death at the hands of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) prompts the U.S. government to fund the Sentinel initiative, something that eventually wipes out not just mutants, but most humans as well. That is, unless Wolverine can convince Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) to put aside their grudges and differences for a common goal.
Though the 1970s scenes don’t contain the flashy effects and dire stakes that exist in the future, it’s here where most of the story and vital character moments take place. In this regard, Days of Future Past truly is a sequel to First Class, building upon the elements established in the previous film and taking advantage of the opportunity to redefine these characters — and this franchise — for new audiences, while also giving some fantastic actors excellent material to work with.
It’s also during the scenes taking place in the past that the film’s most surprising character emerges. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver (or Peter Maximoff) was a somewhat controversial character among fans and movie bloggers as Days of Future Past was being made, largely because he’s also being used in the Avengers sequel (he was shown during the credits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in a strange instance of separate studios owning rights to the same property with certain stipulations. For instance, Quicksilver can’t be referred to as a mutant in the Avengers film.
The true geek outrage came when preview images were released, showing Peters not in a superhero-type outfit, but a goofy 1970s silver-jacketed Pink Floyd wardrobe. How was a character whose powers are based on speed supposed to move fast with all that gear on?
But none of that matters in the movie — at all — showing yet again that geeks and fanboys are far too reactionary, far too quick (no pun intended) to dislike what they don’t understand before seeing it on screen. Quicksilver brings a welcome dose of comic relief to the story, adding a fresh take to what could’ve been a typical prison break/heist sequence. Wolverine, Professor Xavier and Magneto don’t know what to make of the guy, yet can’t deny that his talents are extremely useful.
With so many superhero franchises populating theaters now and in the future, a sameness has begun to develop among all of these movies. What’s most impressive is that X-Men: Days of Future Past gives us stuff that we haven’t quite seen before. Not just with the Quicksilver scenes, not just with the grave consequences of the story, but also with the desire to renew characters we’ve seen before. The end result of the movie is a creative reset that allows future writers and directors to tell stories without the burden of following previous continuity.
I feared that Days of Future Past might end up as an unsatisfying middle chapter that doesn’t tell a complete story, like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I certainly didn’t expect to walk out of this movie excited about the X-Men again and eager to see future movies with them. The same goes for Singer. I want to see what more he can do with these characters. And maybe — just maybe — this has revitalized him as a filmmaker too, restoring the promise of his Usual Suspects days. What a pleasant surprise.