Back in 2000, the first X-Men movie felt like a milestone: one of the first movies to capture comic-book storytelling on film. But now, 14 years later, X-Men: Days of Future Past actually feels like a good movie in terms of storytelling and stylistic innovation, not just a good comic-book movie. Minor spoilers ahead...
I didn't have high hopes for X-Men: Days of Future Past. It features every single X-Men who's ever appeared in any of the films, pretty much. Early reviews said the plot was overcomplicated. And most of all, like Amazing Spider-Man 2, this was supposed to be Fox's first salvo in a new campaign to create a "mega-franchise," featuring annual films and tons of spin-offs. I figured it would be another exercise in planting seeds for future movies.
But actually, Days of Future Past is a disciplined film. Every moving part is there for a reason. The plot is not overcomplicated at all, but straightforward and compelling (with a minimum of hand-waving here and there.) Nobody is shoe-horned in, and in fact the supporting characters are all there to move the plot forward. And most of all, this is a film with a strong focus on character, in which great actors get a chance to deploy their superpowers.
In X-Men: Days of Future Past, it's the dystopian future and mutants and non-mutants alike are being wiped out by merciless shape-shifting robots called Sentinels that adapt to any mutant power. Professor X figures out that they can use Kitty Pryde's powers to send Wolverine back in time 50 years to inhabit his own younger body, and he can try to change history by undoing one action that started this whole robot apocalypse in the first place. So Wolverine finds himself back in 1973, getting the band back together for the first time.
This movie passes THE test
There's really only one test of an action movie: During a big action sequence, are you thinking "Oh, neat," while trying to figure out which moment from the trailers is going to appear next? Or are you actually catching your breath, because you're fully caught up in the suspense and the emotional stakes, and you're sucked into the moment?
There's one key sequence about halfway through Days of Future Past, where I actually found myself on the edge of my seat. I wasn't sure where this was going, and I was fully invested in the characters and their jeopardy. That's the sign of a great action movie.
How do director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg accomplish this? First and foremost, by letting the characters breathe and emote — this film has one of the most high-powered casts, acting-wise, of any comic-book movie ever, and the best thing you can do is let them work. There's a distinct lack of rushing from plot point to plot point, unlike a lot of other summer action movies.
Also, Singer films the whole thing as a political thriller, with the emphasis on tense political maneuvering, that we know will lead to the apocalypse unless something changes. Singer's fully in his wheelhouse here, based on past films like The Usual Suspects. And the "1970s thriller" stuff actually works better here than in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, despite the latter also being an excellent film.
And the action is mostly superfun, with Singer going out of his way to showcase how fricken cool mutant powers are — except for a few key sequences where he changes gears and uses the action to underscore the intense emotional stakes. There's no noticeable shaky-cam or "look how much money we spent" pauses — when Blink creates holes in space, Kitty Pryde phases through stuff and Quicksilver (a standout character) moves at superspeed, the superpowers are used as stylistic enhancements, making everything more slick and entertaining.
In a way, the presence of Quicksilver in this movie is a saving grace, and not just because he's such a fun character here. Because everything moves in slow-mo around Quicksilver, that means Singer is unable to use slow-mo or any kind of tableau effects anywhere else in the film, or Quicksilver will lose his impact. Quicksilver actually makes the rest of the movie move faster.
Last summer, I praised Man of Steel for (among other things) great superpowered combat sequences. But Days of Future Past moves the ball forward a bit more.
It's all about Professor X and Magneto
Don't get me wrong — Hugh Jackman is great in this movie. As the time traveler who finds himself back in the 1970s, he's a great "fish out of water" viewpoint character. Jackman is immensely likeable as the big lunk, who has been entrusted with a complicated intervention, and he does carry huge chunks of the film.
But another reason why Days of Future Past works as well as it does is that the focus is clearly on Professor X and Magneto, and their relationship. The whole edifice rests on the shoulders of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (in the future) and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (even more crucially, in the past). And like I said, Singer is smart enough to give them space and let them act, instead of just blurting out plot points on the way to the next VFX showcase.
This is nothing new: the four previous X-Men team movies had a large focus on the Xavier/Magneto relationship, with First Class revolving around their early friendship. But their conflict has never been less ideological, and more about personalities, than it is in Days of Future Past. There are fewer scenes this time around where Xavier says we can all get along and Magneto talks about mutant supremacy. And a lot more scenes where they talk about their messy relationship, which is a lot messier since Magneto shot Xavier in First Class.
As the future Xavier explains to Wolverine, 1973 Xavier is in a bad place, not really the leader or visionary that we expect him to be. He's basically holed up in his mansion with Beast as his caretaker/wingman, and when Wolverine shows up to recruit him to save the world, Xavier tells Logan to sod off. There's a certain amount of Wolverine giving Xavier therapy (which is as funny as it sounds) but also a lot of Xavier finding himself.
And for once, Magneto is a lot more together than Xavier. Not only that, but the movie lets Magneto be right about some stuff, particularly about Xavier's self-destructive tendencies. Without giving too much away, we see all the usual themes about mutants and assimilation of the other through a very different lens, one that lets Magneto have a very valid point for once.
It's a battle for the soul of Raven
The other key player is Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who turns out to be crucial to the dystopian future Logan is coming from. There's a reason why both Xavier and Magneto need to unite to save Raven from herself, and both men's relationships with her wind up being crucial.
There's some very neat explorations of this mostly non-romantic triangle, in the film manages to point out just how paternalistic Xavier is towards the girl he grew up with, and how ruthless Magneto can be with the people closest to him. Neither of them ends up coming out of this very well — but Xavier's salvation, in particular, depends on realizing what a jerk he's been to Raven.
And Jennifer Lawrence, once again, shows that she can do a lot with a bit of juicy material, completely selling how wounded and betrayed Mystique feels, and how tired she is of being an emotional, as well as physical, chameleon for the men in her life.
Mystique has wound up carrying the banner of Magneto, fighting the enemies of mutantkind while Magneto was indisposed, and in some ways she takes on Magneto's traditional role as the mutant antagonist for the bulk of the film. Mystique is targeting Bolivar Trask (a brilliant but somewhat underused Peter Dinklage) who's experimenting on mutants and inventing the robots that will one day ruin everything.
All in all, this film delves into the usual X-Men themes, but because the characters are allowed to be more complex and their relationships somewhat ideological, the themes become richer and less black-and-white as well.
The last time Bryan Singer made a comic-book movie, he paid tribute to Richard Donner's winky film-making of the 1970s. This time around, he's much more influenced by classic thrillers, and much more focused on making a great modern action movie that happens to have superheroes (and a decent amount of humor) in it. Comparing this film to Singer's first X-outing, from 14 years ago, shows just how far comic-book movie storytelling has come.