It’s been over a decade since Bryan Singer directed an X-Men film, which is about as long as it’s been since Spider-Man revolutionized the comic book summer blockbuster. Since then, Marvel films have grown in scope and ambition, while the X-Men franchise languished with Brett Ratner’s mediocre sequel and a couple ill-advised Wolverine films. X-Men: Days of Future Past is more than just a return to form: with an economical screenplay and character-driven action, it’s easily the best X-Men film to date. The plot withers under close scrutiny, as do all time travel films, but picking it apart is half the fun.
Our planet does not look so good in 2023. Cities have been reduced to rubble, and there are only a handful of mutants left. They’re being hunted by Sentinels, which are giant deadly robots that are capable of adapting to mutant powers. Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) gets the jump on the Sentinels because she is able to send someone’s consciousness into the past, who then warns the others. This power gives Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) an idea: they decide to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) all the way back to 1973 so he can stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), the scientist who develops the Sentinel program (they believe Trask’s death is the catalyst for the dystopian future).
The prologue moves swiftly, combining efficient expository dialogue with a clever mutant-based battle. The X-Men films have always been a showcase for how different powers can work in tandem, and it’s fascinating to see how they function as a team (Colossus, my favorite mutant since I was a kid, is sadly underused here). The action slows down in 1973, and Simon Kinberg’s screenplay shifts toward a character study. Wolverine finds the young Professor X (James McAvoy), but now he’s an alcoholic who’s addicted to a drug that deprives him of his power. Lonely and miserable, he balks when Wolverine suggests they spring the young Magento (Michael Fassbender) from his prison cell at the Pentagon (he was found guilty of killing President Kennedy). Magneto and the Professor have always been at an impasse about humanity, and that disagreement is what defines the heart of the film.
At their worst, the X-Men films feel like an excuse to shoehorn campy special effects into familiar landmarks. That is never the problem with Days of Future Past, which keeps even the most spectacular moments grounded in character. The best example involves the Pentagon prison break: Wolverine and the Professor get help from Quiksilver (Evan Peters), who can do anything at superhuman speed. Peters plays him as an ADD-rattled teen, one who’s bored by the world since it moves so slowly. Singer uses Quiksilver sparingly, yet he has one amazing scene that combines suspense with slapstick. There are few moments where the screenplay seems to conform a set-piece toward the mutant; to Singer’s credit, it always feels the other way around.
Still, the best part Days of Future Past is how history shapes the ideology of the characters. Everyone, even Dr. Trask, has their reasons for what they do, and the brilliant reversal is to make Wolverine the voice of reason. Professor X’s optimism and Magneto’s distrust reach an apex at the assassination attempt of Trask, and the focal point somehow combines genuine surprise with a sense of inevitability. And as with X-Men: First Class (TMT Review), it turns out that history is a more palpable backdrop than present day. The movie is chock full of post-Vietnam anxiety — Mystique seduces a high-ranking VC military man — as well as Nixonian paranoia (Trask sways the President in a way that would make Kissinger envious).
The use of mutants as a metaphor for civil rights has always given the X-Men franchise an edge over other Marvel properties, yet Singer strips away all the context until, once again, we have a clash of wills between mutants who feel the burden of humanity on their shoulders. The climax is a foregone conclusion, so the filmmakers and actors deserve credit for adding genuine emotion to a conflict that would otherwise seem rote. While the middle chunk of the film hardly cuts away from 1973, Singer combines the 1970s climax with a Sentinel invasion in the future, and the careful editing heightens the suspense.
With a runtime of two hours and fifteen minutes, X-Men: Days of Future Past moves at a brisk pace. The plot moves so fast, in fact, that there is no time to think about the plot holes. Only after leaving the theater did I think about how time somehow moves faster in the future, or that Professor X died at the end of the third film. As with all comic books, there are continuity problems from one issue (film) to another (unlike DC Multiverse, Marvel has no solution to explain this problem away). Some early reviews say the film is perfect for longtime fans (nerds), as it’s full of references to the comics. If anything, Days of Future Past is a perfect entry point for non-fans, even skeptics. Someone who has never seen an X-Men film may be a little confused, yet the nuanced disagreement between human, three-dimensional characters marks an evolution of the comic book film.