I pity anybody who likes to be overly precise with their terminology on franchises. Sequels following after, prequels being made after but telling a story that come before… and then there’s a film like X-Men: Days of Future Past. Based roughly on the comic book storyline of the same name, it’s a movie with a bit of time travel, taking place both long after the original X-Men trilogy, and shortly after the X-Men: First Class prequel, merging both the casts and the storylines. Both Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy play Professor X, and both Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender play Magneto. And Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine in both eras.
The film marks Bryan Singer’s return to directing the franchise, and like X-Men and X2, it’s a solidly entertaining film.
Any plot involving time travel has the potential to be confusing, and to be a mess. Days of Future Past seemingly manages to sidestep this by embracing it — Singer drops the viewers right into it, with an attack on the mutant hideout in the future, quickly erased, and the plan and plot promptly explained. Sentinels, mutant-hunting robots, have nearly wiped out the mutant race — and the human race as well for having the potential to sire more mutants. Earth is a wasteland with only a few sanctuaries, and those dwindling all the time. But Kitty Pryde has developed an additional mutation, which allows her to send peoples’ minds back in time, which has kept them from being wiped out thus far. Professor X proposes a new plan, a last chance: send someone even farther back, all the way to the beginning of the Sentinel program, and stop it from happening. Because nobody else can survive the trip — in a departure from the comic — Wolverine is selected to have his mind sent back to the 1970s, to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering Bolivar Trask and cementing the approval of his Sentinel program.
As with all the films in the franchise that don’t have “Wolverine” in the title, this is an ensemble film, and as with all of them, it features several characters that are mostly cameos and a few that receive the focus. And as with most, it’s mostly still “the Wolverine show”, with young Professor X and Magneto otherwise carrying the bulk of the film. There are some amusing moments with Quicksilver (Evan Peters), but otherwise the X-Men of the past are pretty much absent, and the X-Men of the future have so little screen time apiece that if you aren’t a fan of the comics, you won’t be able to put a name to any of them. I will note an interesting bit of racial representation trivia, though: this is the first superhero film (that I’m aware of, anyway) that features a Native American superhuman, with Booboo Stewart playing Warpath. It is, as mentioned, pretty much just a cameo, and it’s Warpath, who is about as heavily stereotyped as Apache Chief from Superfriends (at least Forge could have been less of a stereotype), but it’s still interesting to note. (Well, at least for those of us who care about the lack of Native characters in cinema.)
Of the characters who do get a focus in the film, it’s interesting to note how little malice there is in the various characters. Mystique is out to commit murder, but she feels she has justification — and it’s hard to argue when one hears it. Magneto is, of course, Magneto — always convinced that war between humans and mutants is inevitable — but that still puts him on the side of the “good guys” for the bulk of the film. And while we are told Bolivar Trask has committed and will commit depraved and horrific acts, he’s a step removed from it at all points in the film. He’s the “bad guy” of the film, but there’s no maniacal cackling here, and even his speeches aren’t attempts at glorious rhetoric. In Peter Dinklage’s portrayal, he is simply a cold, calculating man telling the truth as he sees it; inhumane, but not reveling in it. Banal. It’s a performance that’s more frightening once the viewer stops watching the film and has time to realize just how believable it is.
And of course, there’s plenty of action to keep things interesting along the way. But aside from the future-apocalypse fights against the Sentinels, the action is low-key compared to previous films — probably because it’s not powered-vs-powered as often. Even so, it’s always interesting to watch, and at least in the past scenes it also tends to serve the character arcs as well.
Considering how easy it would have been for the film to be an utter mess, it’s quite an accomplishment on the whole. With Bryan Singer returning for X-Men: Apocalypse as well, there’s reason to hope that film — also from a risky comic storyline — will turn out to be equally good.