To one who found Bryan Singer’s original “X-Men” movies of 2000 and 2003 (“X2: X-Men United”) distinctly underwhelming, it’s a pleasure to report that he returns to the series at his best. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” continues the resurgence of the franchise that Matthew Vaughn began with “First Class” (2011). In fact, it’s good enough even to persuade a doubter like this one to go back and revise his assessment of Singer’s first two entries upward, particularly after what Brett Ratner did in “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) and Gavin Hood in “Wolverine” (2009).
“Days” is basically a sequel to both “The Last Stand” and “First Class,” a time-travel tale adapted from a 1981 comic book arc that’s been substantially reworked by Simon Kinberg—not merely to update it (the “future” in the comic was 2013!), but to shift the lead role to the movies’ breakout star Hugh Jackman. In a dystopian age when mutants, along with their human helpers, are being systematically killed or deposited in concentration camps by armies of huge flying robots called Sentinels, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensher, aka Magneto (Ian McKellen), who have at last buried the hatchet, concoct a desperate survival plan as a last resort. They use the power of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page)—who was actually the protagonist in the comic—to implant the mind of Jackman’s Logan, aka Wolverine, into his 1973 body. With knowledge of what a disaster the assassination in that year of Sentinel creator Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) by shape-shifter Raven/Mustique (Jennifer Lawrence)—the third element in a not-just-romantic triangle with Xavier and Magneto—will cause for mutants, Wolverine must persuade young antagonists Xavier (played now by James McAvoy) and Lensher (now Michael Fassbender) to join forces to stop her, and in the process perhaps prevent the creation of the Sentinel force—changing history, it’s hoped, for the better.
Both men prove difficult to convince—Xavier because, in order to regain use of his legs he’s taking a drug that eliminates his mental powers (and is still grieving the loss of Raven to the dark side), and Lensher because he’s imprisoned in a fortress-like cell deep under the Pentagon for a crime that won’t be revealed here. But happily Wolverine is able to recruit a young fellow named Peter (Evan Peters), who will later be a pal of his under the name of Quicksilver—happily endowed with super-speed—to aid in Magneto’s jailbreak—a sequence that’s perhaps the single best example of the picture’s capacity for blending superlative action, clever humor, deft camerawork and sharp editing (as well as Peters’ scene-stealing ability in this instance) into one seamless and delectable whole.
Leaving the proto-Quicksilver behind (something one might regret), Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, along with Xavier’s amanuensis Hank McCoy, aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult), are then off to the Paris Peace Conference of 1973, where Mystique’s assassination of Trask is scheduled to occur. Things do not go entirely according to plan, of course, and all the major characters will eventually find their way to Washington D.C., where they, the prototype Sentinels, the White House, Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho) and a flying football stadium will figure in a rousing finale.
What sets “Days of Future Past” apart from most comic-book films isn’t merely that it continues the serious message of the earlier installments in the “X-Men” series, a plea for understanding of those different from ourselves. (It’s a theme, in fact, that runs through not only the “X-Men” films, but much of Bryan Singer’s other films as well.) Or even that the characters are more human than cartoonish. Some other comic-based films have those virtues too, though most ion lesser measure. What rather distinguishes it is that like all of Singer’s films, it’s beautifully made in a classic sense. It avoids the herky-jerky, half-held camera style that’s becoming commonplace even in big-budget action films; Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel opt instead for elegant compositions and images one can actually see and savor. And despite a temporally convoluted plot that could easily go off the rails, Singer and editor John Ottman (who also contributed the excellent score) manage to keep the narrative smooth and coherent. That’s a talent Singer also exhibited in the underappreciated “Superman Returns” and “Jack the Giant Slayer,” both of which evinced a sheer storytelling craftsmanship that’s become increasingly rare in blockbuster Hollywood fare. Simply put, if you accept the admittedly far-fetched premise of this “X-Men,” it actually makes sense, even if you know nothing of the comic; that’s no accident, but the result of intelligent directorial control.
The performances are first-rate, too. McAvoy and Fassbender face off against one another splendidly, while Stewart and McKellen do a far mellower version of their dance in the future scenes. Happily McAvoy and Stewart, thanks to some temporal magic, share a scene together; a pity that Fassbender and McKellen don’t have a similar opportunity. (Maybe next time.) Jackman is more subdued than usual in this role, but he is the restraining force here, after all; and much the same could be said of Hoult, though when he turns into Beast restraint goes out the window. Like him, Lawrence spends a good deal of time in transformation mode, which doesn’t give the now-celebrated young actress as much chance to go for broke as she has in some other roles. But she’s certainly fully up to the part. So is Dinklage, who makes an odiously self-confident villain, and Camacho does an eerily impressive take on Nixon.
The hook-nosed president is only part of the period detail one appreciates in the film, with John Myhre’s production design and the other craft contributions all spot-on, down to the inevitable lava lamp and the evocative but not show-offy costumes of Louise Mingenbach. The usual army of special-effects techies are to be found in the credits, and they’ve all done their jobs well (even the 3D is intelligently employed), though one of the happy circumstances of Singer’s film is that their creations are never allowed to overwhelm the characters and the story.
Franchise fans will be happy to see cameos by some old friends in familiar roles, like Halle Berry as Storm, Anna Paquin as Rogue, Kelsey Grammer as the elder Beast, and even a couple of uncredited folks from earlier installments one might never have expected to see again. There are also plenty of new mutants in the future scenes, often biting the dust, but presumably we’ll be seeing more of them in later installments. None of them has the opportunity to make the sort of impression Peters does, but they might get their chances in due course.
And there definitely will be a next time. Singer has made what is not only the best film in the entire “X-Men” series, but one that rivals the best super-hero movies of the past. Inventive and slick in the best sense, it continues the franchise’s rejuvenation and whets the appetite for more.