With its mind-boggling premise and jaw-dropping cast, X-Men: Days Of Future Past blasts into cinemas bearing the weight of great expectations. Surely this mash-up of X-Men past and future has the potential to be the best superhero blockbuster our world will ever see? Well, yes and no.
To be strictly objective, Days Of Future Past can occasionally come off as a little too earnest, its enormous cast of characters getting somewhat lost in the grinding of its narrative gears. But, when it works (which is most of the time), Days Of Future Past comes pretty darn close to nerdvana – this is a smart, rich film that effectively mines its source material (both the movies and Chris Claremont’s classic 1981 storyline in the comic books) and its incredible cast for emotion, power and depth.
Flash forward to the bleakest of futures. X-Men we have known – led by perennial frenemies Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) – are being hunted mercilessly by a horde of intelligent, death-mongering robots known as Sentinels. With little hope for survival, the desperate X-Men decide to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to the 1970s. There, he must find the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) – several years estranged after the traumatic events of X-Men: First Class – and get them to change the future before it can happen.
Sounds simple enough? Not really. Days Of Future Past frequently threatens to fall foul of its complicated puzzle-box of a narrative, one that involves time travel, quantum physics and a swirling mess of characters, action and motivations. There’s Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinel programme, whose assassination in the past by Charles’ pseudo-sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) brings about the dystopia of the future. There are prison breaks, astral projections, and several grisly mutant deaths. Truthfully, this incredibly ambitious mix of character, plot and spectacle could very easily go horribly wrong.
What’s so impressive about director Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise is how well he weaves all the disparate threads of his narrative together. This is emphatically not the Singer who gave us mediocre misfires like Superman Returns and Jack The Giant Slayer. Rather, this is the work of the Singer who made his mark with films like X1, X2 and The Usual Suspects, which featured a masterful blend of wit and wisdom, character and story.
In Days Of Future Past, Singer skilfully plays on the schism that opened up between Erik and Charles at the end of First Class to add welcome depths of emotion to the high stakes already in play. The deep, difficult relationship between the two men has always been the fulcrum of the series, and Singer allows it to breathe and grow. With the help of McAvoy and Fassbender (not to mention Stewart and McKellen), some of the best actors in the business, the director makes it possible to believe that resentment can give way to forgiveness, and vice versa, often in the blink of an eye. McAvoy, in particular, gives a shudderingly good performance as a man called upon to help others when he’s lost his own way.
With such an enormous revolving cast of characters, Singer even manages to give many – though not all – of them their hearts and souls. (Alas, Storm/Ororo, we will never know ye!) Thrust into the unlikely role of mentor to the broken, heartsore Charles, Wolverine must find a different sort of strength and ingenuity within himself. Jackman plays the role beautifully, anchoring the two timelines with charm and gravitas. Though still something of an awkward fit for her part, Lawrence, too, plays Raven’s dilemma very well, as she wavers between Charles’ offer of hope and Erik’s often bloody single-mindedness.
But Days Of Future Past doesn’t just mire itself in the toss and tumble of its characters’ emotional journeys. Singer throws in a few crackerjack action sequences, opening the film with a heart-stopping massacre that very effectively underscores the dire threat posed by the Sentinels of the future. Crucially, Singer also finds the time and space within the darkest shadows of his story to have a little fun, judiciously tossing quips and sight gags into the mix – particularly in a tour de force prison break sequence, in which the preternaturally speedy Pietro Maximoff (Evan Peters), better known to comic aficionados as Quicksilver, literally runs away with the entire show.
Make no mistake about it, this is a behemoth of a film that won’t go down well with everybody. Newbies will almost certainly find themselves lost, bewildered, and perhaps even bored. Singer’s tale sprawls in so many directions that, if you’re not at least marginally invested in the characters, it could prove to be a trying experience.
But, for everyone else, ranging from casual fans to enthusiasts and obsessives, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have crafted something truly remarkable. Steeped in history and lore, both of the cinematic and comic-book variety, Days Of Future Past feels like a dark love letter to the spirit of that original band of mutants and the message of hope, tolerance and humanity that has always accompanied their attempts to find their place on Earth.
Most remarkably of all, Days Of Future Past practically radiates a bravery and freshness that you’d never expect from the seventh film in a blockbuster franchise. Instead of playing it safe and sound, Days Of Future Past mashes up past, present and future, sweeping up a lot of what has been taken for granted in the X-Men cinematic universe and, well, chucking it out of the proverbial window. The ending of this film truly opens up an intriguing plethora of narrative possibilities that stretch in any and all directions. On the strength of this outing, that’s something to be anticipated, rather than feared.
Summary: A stunning achievement – a blockbuster movie packed with at least as much heart as spectacle.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars