Fourteen years after Bryan Singer jump-started the modern comic-book movie era with X-Men, and after six films in that cinematic universe, the director returns to the series that defines him. Singer’s last outing in the directors chair, X2: X-Men United, is widely regarded as the best of the X-Men universe and his return has been widely anticipated. Matthew Vaughan’s 1960’s set outing, which was shepherded by Singer, was well-received and it is this film, X-Men: First Class, that serves as the springboard for Singer’s uniting of the universe, as he brings past and present together with X-Men Days of Future Past.
The film starts out in 2023 with the world a desolate place. An army of high-adaptable killer robots, called Sentinels, are systemically wiping out the mutant population, and any humans who attempt to protect the mutants. The last remaining X-Men manage to stay one-step ahead of these killing machines by utilising Kitty Pryde’s ability to project another mutant’s conciousness back in time to warn them of coming events. As one last roll of the dice, and in an effort to stop this war before it begins, Professor Charles Xavier hatches a plan to use Kitty’s ability to send somebody back in time to 1973, in order to stop the assassination that triggered the building of the Sentinels in the first place. Due to his unique healing ability Wolverine is the only one suitable for this mission which sees him transported back in time to wake in his younger body. To succeed he must unite Xavier and his fellow mutant Eric Lencher (aka Magneto), who after the events of X-Men: First Class are not exactly on the best of terms.
As has become customary with the films of the X-Men franchise the action centres on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. X-Men: Days of Future Past marks his seventh outing as the nigh-on-invulnerable, clawed killer with a conscience, fan favourite. Over those 14 years and 7 films playing Wolverine has become second-nature to Jackman and here again he slips back into the role with apparent ease. Wolverine’s mutant abilities means that he does not age as regular humans do and judging by Jackman’s physique for this, neither does he. Sending the character back in time means that we meet him before Alkali Lake, and without the adamantium skeleton and claws we’ve come to expect. That makes him a little more reserved in the action sequences, which coupled with teh fact that Wolverine is mean to stay came during his visit to the past least he be ripped back to the present, means that the audience is robbed of the full-on berserker experience. In his place as the tormented soul comes James McEvoy’s Xavier. 10 years removed from the events of X-Men: First Class the film finds the erstwhile professor shorn of his students and in a sorry state of self pity, with the serum that allows him to walk again diminishing his telepathic abilities. As the neutered and moribund professor, McEvoy is on fine form. The events of the film require him to man up and accept his role as a mentor for future generations, which McEvoy wilfully embraces, filling Xavier with a moral certitude and believability. However we have seen almost the same arc before in First Class so fine as his performance is there’s little new here. What is new, is a powerful central role for Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven Darkholme/Mystique. Reflecting the stars on rise the film separates her from the pack, allowing her to elevate the character to more than just ‘that naked blue chick’. It’s telling that as a film set in the 70’s there is such a strong element of female empowerment. It’s almost a if the film-makers meant it to be an analogy of the time! Almost every other actor and actress is under-served by the plot as with two entire casts to facilitate characters flit in and out as the plot requires. This is particularly true for the new cast members Omar Sy, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, and Booboo Stewart as Bishop, Blink, Sunspot, and Warpath respectively, who are dropped into the film without introduction, with audiences left to decipher their abilities for themselves. Comic-book fans will be aware of their abilities, and the visuals and particularly their names do just about enough to let newcomers in, but audiences may find it all a bit rushed. paradoxically the one new cast member whose appearance doesn’t feel rushed is Evan Peters as the faster than fast Pietro Maximoff/Quciksilver. His character is essential to one of the film’s best set-pieces and his introduction feels very natural. He is also the only one we appears to revel in his mutant abilities, offering comedy and levity to the film. The returning cast is similarly brief in their appearance, with Ellen Page, Shawn Ashton, Halle Berry, Daniel Cudmore, Lucas Till, and even Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart limited in their appearances. Time is afforded to Michael Fassbender’s incarnation of Magneto, with the actor losing the distracting Irish accent and upping the similarities to McKellen’s portrayal of the role. As always he is an engaging presence and his relationship with McEvoy cements the drama. Peter Dinklage is the only other newcomer to really impress with a villainous portrayal of head Sentinel builder Bolivar Trask. Bringing his Game of Thrones gravitas into play Dinklage oozes menace and duplicitous intent.
Having Singer back in the director’s chair brings a measure of familiarity to the film. Opening with a variation on the signature theme and a proper title sequence helps to remind audiences immediately of the things they loved from X-Men and X2. Singer’s comfort with the material and with the cast is evident throughout, and he has lost none of his visual flair or ability to frame action in the intervening years. The opening futuristic dystopia is suitability nightmarish, with the future Sentinels looking every inch the deadly threat they are supposed to be. The initial skirmish harks back to X2‘s opening White House attack, which is easily the best sequence in the franchise, an manages to ape that without falling into parody. The Quicksilver bullet-time middle sequence too could have easily become parody, but adding the comic touches allows it to become much more, and to challenge the White House attack for moment of the franchise. Audiences may even applaud it. On the writing front, as with the cast, Singer is working with familiar faces, with X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughan, and his co-writer on that Jane Goldman, providing story, while The Last Stand’s Simon Kinberg wrote the screenplay. Those three benefited greatly from Chris Claremont’s great source material, and were aided in the story development by The Uncanny X-Men author himself. Running 131 minutes the film only slows once towards the middle as exposition takes the place of pace. A few minor cuts here and there would have tightened proceeding up, but given the amount of characters and material Singer was working with this is a very minor complaint. Another regular collaborator John Ottman contributed the music for the film, which is serviceable without being memorable. The best part about the soundtrack is the 70’s era tunes which pepper that timeline, and serve as an audible reminder of the period setting. X-Men: Days of Future Past is the first of the X-Men films to be filmed in 3D. That does add depth to certain scenes, but really only serves to darken the already dark palette of the future timeline. Given the choice of formats 2D is probably the better way to see it. X-Men: Days of Future Past is also the most expensive X-Men film to date and with the scale of the action on show it is easy to see way. Plus paying all of those actors cannot have been cheap! The money was well spent as each of the action set-pieces impresses and none of the CGI feels fake. Add that to some incredible sound-design and you have a film that impresses on almost all technical levels.
X-Men Days of Future Past is a wildly ambitious film. It wants to be a sequel to X-Men: First Class. It succeeds as that. It wants to be a palette cleanser for those fans embittered after The Last Stand. It succeeds as that. It wants to straddle two cinematic universes and bring them together. It doesn’t quite succeed as that, but it does give it a damn good effort. The last ten minutes of this film justify it’s existence alone, and as a reset button for the franchise it is as impressive as J.J Abram’s Star Trek was in 2009. A flawed master-piece, but a master-piece all the same.