What does it mean to be in the future of your race? We know plenty of stories about people with special abilities struggling with the responsibility of being heroes, but few of them, perhaps with the ironic exception of Planet of the Apes have ever dealt with the political and emotional fallout of humankind being supplanted by evolution itself the way X-Men has. Sure, Star Wars has Jedi and Harry Potter has witches & wizards in a lot of hidden corners, but those stories were never about divergent species trying to coexist. Everyone knows that X-Men is a civil rights allegory, but it is also a doomsday scenario, an experiment with chaos theory, and most importantly, a heartfelt & personally visceral journey of redemption for a select few set of characters, wherein which they must accept not only the X-mutation in their hearts, but the greater meaning of it as a cross to bear upon the world. That’s why at its best, the X-Men franchise is a dense and more intellectually hefty series than almost every other comic book franchise toting a mosaic of characters so impossibly extensive.
As a film series, the above description probably makes it clear why it’s understandably more difficult to coherently and eloquently tell this kind of story. More than a few of the X-Men films have gotten it wrong, with the standout exceptions are X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class, both of which are necessary films to truly understand everything happening here in X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is the first film to truly tackle the full scope of this universe in such a sprawling fashion.
[Granted, you probably need to have seen X3: The Last Stand too, but since I’d take an open breath in outer space before recommending that movie to anyone, I’m just going to tell you here and now that all you need to know (spoilers for X3) is that Charles (Professor X) Xavier died & came back to life, Scott (Cyclops) Summers died, Jean Grey died which devastated Logan (Wolverine), and Erik (Magneto) Lehnsherr lost his powers & eventually gained it back.]
If you’re unfamiliar with this series, the rest of this is going to sound like Klingon, so I’d suggest getting acquainted before continuing.
It’s 2023 and the world has gone full Skynet on everyone. Self-aware robots called Sentinels are hunting and wiping out humans and mutants alike. The survivors are a small group of mutants who have eluded the sentinels because of a time-traveling trick by Kitty Pryde, who projects a person’s present consciousness back a little ways in time to that person’s past body to warn them about sentinel attacks, ensuring that the course of events change so that they were never there to begin with, but it would only take effect once that person’s consciousness returned to the present.
The group determines that the catalyst event of the past that created this future was a day in 1973 when Raven (Mystique) Darkhölme assassinated a man named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who created the sentinels. Immediately thereafter, Mystique was captured and her powers of disguise were used to re-engineer the sentinels to make them what they were in the future. In addition, the U.S. government determined that Trask’s sentinels were essential to ensuring the survival of humanity against this new enemy among them. So Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) & Magneto (Ian McKellan) have Pryde send Wolverine back fifty years to his younger body (because he’s the only person who can survive a trip that long) with the mission of finding and rallying their old selves (James McAvoy & Michael Fassbender respectively) to stop her.
Let’s get this obvious issue out of the way. The premise alone is riddled with plot holes. No one ever explained how Kitty Pryde can send people back in time. In the comic, she went back herself because her ability to walk through walls also allowed her to pass through time, but audiences love Wolverine more, so that’s why he’s doing it. Mystique’s powers being used to make the sentinels adaptive with their own powers and resistance doesn’t make sense either, because she could only adopt the appearance and clothing of another person – not their mutative powers. It also doesn’t make sense that the future is only changed the moment the time traveler’s consciousness returns to the present, or that the person has only a limited amount of time in the distant past to fix it. It also doesn’t explain how the time traveler’s mind catches up to the present to observe the actual change, except seemingly at random – which wouldn’t make sense. On an account of logic, all of these would break the story.
Yet this story isn’t about logic; it’s about people. Days of Future Past is good movie that shows how far Bryan Singer has come as a director and how much he’s learned from Matthew Vaughn. This is by far his most ambitious attempt at telling a large story, and when it comes to keeping it grounded in human character conflict, Singer really pulls it off.
What we primarily see in Wolverine’s sojourn into the past is what the fallout was from First Class. Charles Xavier is a drug-addled mess whose powers had tortured him so much after losing everything that he gave them up so that he could walk, now with only Hank McCoy to look after him. By reputation and experience, we know full well what Xavier’s optimism and noble heart gave the world of X-Men, but in a time still before that, with the Vietnam War raging on, in which many of his students had been drafted and with his school closed, he had never been more bitter, cynical, angry, and lost. However, Xavier’s character arc isn’t just about getting over himself so he can help others. In some ways it’s just as much about getting him out of the house and off the drugs, but it’s also about fleshing out the depths of his pain from everything he’s lost, and how much he blames Magneto for it, when he should just as well be looking inward. Part of the resolution here is actually kind of brilliant; how cool it would be if you got to look at & converse with your future self, who knows exactly what you need to hear, and who takes the form of Patrick Stewart?
Magneto, meanwhile, is being kept in a prison. I’m not going to spoil the crime, because while it’s kind of stupid, it’s also hilarious. If there’s a character whose arc isn’t quite as nuanced, it’s his – more of the same Malcolm X rehash that he’s always been, though Fassbender makes the best of it. While I wish more could have been done, it’s at least good that the film is able to use him to pump up the final action stage and raise the stakes while his future self can achieve some measure of peace and reconciliation, even when also taking matters into his own hands at the same time.
Mystique went solo right after Magneto was locked up and has been fighting a one-mutant war against Trask, who also has a young William Stryker working for him. The film makes her arc the second most important, with her relationship with Magneto being much different this time, but also with her mind & will being the key to Xavier’s salvation. As Xavier allows his powers to slowly return to him, he does so in the hopes of getting his sister back. And while we know full well that he is capable of taking control of her mind he lies and insists that he can’t do it – the film’s subtle way of demonstrating how much he loves and respects her enough to try and sway her without violating her, as well as how much he has come to dare to hope that she isn’t lost forever. I just wish Jennifer Lawrence cared as much about stretching her character’s emotions the way Mystique herself stretches her body.
This is all ultimately why Days of Future Past works so well, even if it has some more pressing flaws beside the plot holes. While the big setpieces are a lot of fun, they drag on just a bit too long and have a moment or two where they appear a little aimless. After an explosive third act, Singer slows the narrative down just a little too much for the fourth act while accelerating time, but with only one truly compelling character moment (perhaps the best one in the film) that really seems to be driving it. Quicksilver isn’t much of a character here, and I wish they used him more instead of just for one scene that is sure to go down as one of the film’s highlights, in part thanks to a perfectly chosen accompanying song. Another problem is that Singer doesn’t fully utilize the era like he should. Vaughn went full James Bond and Mad Men for First Class, both in aesthetic and in the way he’d stage full sequences. Singer uses the disco and Sephora color/grit affect as mostly window dressing for the film in the beginning and then kind of forgets it all.
The function of this film as a film is multi-pronged – not just being a continuation of the series as a whole, but also being a retroactive apology for the awfulness of X3 & X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and as a seemingly final resolution for Jackman’s Wolverine that they can now retire. The important thing, though, is that they made a good and compelling movie out of it. This is the kind of high-minded ambition that all superhero films should strive for. Indeed, Days of Future Past is the best superhero film Bryan Singer has ever made and the second best X-Men film ever made. Go see it.
Stay through the credits.
The Good: Wolverine, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Peter Dinklage, the action, the scene with Quicksilver, both dynamics between Xavier & Magneto, the Sentinels, the big action setpieces, the Xavier & Xavier moment, and the Easter Egg.
The Bad: Big story loopholes, a couple of pacing issues in the second half, slightly overextended action bits, not enough Quicksilver, and not enough use of the 1970s.
The X: “He was one of us.”