X-Men: Days of Future Past pulls off the impossible. Truth be told, it pulls off several “impossibles.” By seamlessly adapting comic writer Chris Claremont’s cherished, 1980 story arc of the same name into a big-budget, movie-star-driven extravaganza, director Bryan Singer finally delivers on a long-standing promise to X-Men supporters to both honor this cherished, time-hopping narrative and bring the detested, awe-inspiring, mutant-hunting Sentinel robots to the big screen. It’s an X-Men story that’s nearly 14 years in the making. It’s the X-Men movie dedicated fans never thought they’d see. And now that it’s here, it’s the greatest X-Men movie we’ve seen to date, and a new standard-bearer for the massive potential of comic-book franchises far and wide.
Miles and miles of narrative foundation had to be laid out over the years before X-Men: Days of Future Past could even entertain the notion of existing, and that’s one component of the “impossibles” I was referring to earlier. For those who might not know, Singer’s mutant saga relies on time travel to tell a shockingly intimate story that bridges the original cast of the initial X-Men movies – many of whom haven’t been seen on screen in these roles since Brett Ratner’s 2006 sequel X-Men: The Last Stand -- to the younger counterparts introduced in Matthew Vaughn’s series reconfigure, X-Men: First Class. The lynchpin of this streamlined time twister is the series’ biggest star: Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, who is sent back in time by his long-time mentor and friend, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), to possibly prevent a cataclysmic future.
X-Men: Days of Future Past isn’t a direct translation of Claremont’s revered, two-issue story arc. Details have been altered to make this more of an interpretation, one that borrows significant components from the comics but grows, organically, from the cinematic legacy created by the four previous X-Men movies and, yes, the standalone Wolverine films. While we were so busy heaping praise on Marvel President Kevin Feige and his crew for mapping out a massive Marvel Cinematic Universe, Fox was quietly shifting mutant pieces around a superhero chess board and realizing they had enough moves under their belt to pull off Days of Future Past. It’s remarkable how Days snaps seemingly disconnected pieces of the larger X-Men puzzle into place, justifying decisions made in previous movies and restoring temporary order to the series. Days of Future Past miraculously tidies up the once-disjointed history of the X-Men movies, simultaneously setting the series on an open road to countless future stories. (Look for a brief tease for X-Men: Apocalypse, due in theaters in 2016, in the end credits of this particular film.)
The masterstroke was the hiring of Bryan Singer to return to the film franchise he helped launch back in 2000 with the first X-Men movie. Though we don’t get to spend a lot of time in the bombed-out, post-apocalyptic future world Xavier, Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen) and the older X-Men are trying to restore, Singer opens Days of Future Past with thrilling mutant-on-Sentinel action sequences that remind us what a firm grasp he has on the power and motion of the Marvel mutant heroes. It’s a rush to see Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) grab Bishop (Omar Sy) so they can run through objects as they prepare to fight an army of lethal Sentinels. Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Storm (Halle Berry) and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) get to show off their skills. Newcomer Blink (Bingbing Fan) is a surprisingly exciting additon for the way she teleports X-Men around the battlefield. The future-set scenes give Days of Future Past a grim bookend, but they allow Singer and his cast to hit the ground running at a full sprint.
The movie rarely slows down, which is exhilarating for X-Men enthusiasts, but might be too much for casual fans seeking the next eye-popping thrills of the summer blockbuster season. With Wolverine as a guide, Days of Future Past rallies through a number of dizzying plot turns that are executed with hairpin precision, including: a prison break from a Pentagon cell; a violent confrontation at a Parisian peace summit; the creation of the Sentinels at the hands of human antagonist Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage); an offbeat explanation of the Kennedy assassination, followed by an attempt on the life of President Nixon (Mark Camacho), which won’t make it into any noted history books.
Parts of Days of Future Past can be reductively dismissed as one-note. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is treated as a significant threat to this on-screen universe, but her motivations are muddy, at best. The series also has yet to conjure a credibly complicated human villain, and Trask – despite some sinister flair by Dinklage – doesn’t reverse the trend. The human race, in general, has always been the main obstacle in the X-Men movies, and the blind fear we’re supposed to feel when confronted by those who are different continues to be the underlying theme that connects all of the action in Singer’s latest epic. The presence of outlying characters like young Bill Stryker (Josh Helman) feel like unnecessary reaches to previous chapters in the X-Men saga, and add little here.
That being said, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender dominate Days of Future Past with immense portrayals of extremely complicated individuals. The men continue to probe the psychological tortures that come with playing younger versions of Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto. McAvoy’s Charles, in particular, stands at a crossroads between wanting to help his fellow mutants but feeling unable to betray the ones he once considered allies. The fact that the future of the X-Men series appears to be in the hands of these towering performers gives me tremendous hope, because they play through the inherently campy tones of the X-Men universe to find real pain and hurt in the missions of these mutant heroes.
The third leg of the Days of Future Past triangle is occupied by the largest star in Singer’s universe: Hugh Jackman. And there’s a totally different dynamic to Jackman when Wolverine is able to steal scenes as part of a larger mutant ensemble. That playful magic, which has been missing in the Wolverine solo films, is back in full force for Days. Jackman’s take on Wolverine – his seventh portrayal of the character – is forceful, funny, casual, arrogant and effortlessly cool. It’s a breathless reminder of all of the reasons we love Wolverine as a character, and it’s the best use of Wolvie in a movie… possibly ever (though I still love his tremendous debut in Singer’s wonderful 2000 X-Men film).
There’s plenty more to talk about in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but the rest of it should be experienced and enjoyed in the theater. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, for example, is a fantastic addition to the ever-growing mutant stable and a terrific use of Singer’s mutant-friendly imagination. And the film’s coda nostalgically places a well-earned bow on the outcast-driven series. X-Men: Days of Future Past pays fitting tribute to the history of this impressive franchise. It plants more narrative seeds that could be cultivated by either Singer or other vested directors with an interest in Marvel’s mutants. And as it stands, it is the best, most complete and most entertaining X-Men movie we’ve ever seen.