This is a big summer for comic book movies – though it seems more and more like every summer is a big summer for the genre. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (fine) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (not-so-fine) have already seen release, while Marvel Studios’ great experiment Guardians of the Galaxy is forthcoming. But tucked into Memorial Day weekend is a new entry in a franchise that a lot of people may have forgotten about. X-Men: Days of Future Past is not only the latest installment in the adventures of the merry mutants, it is also the return of director Bryan Singer to series. Singer, screenwriter Simon Kinberg, and everyone else involved produce a movie that is everything a summer blockbuster should be.
Loosely based on an 80’s storyline by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Days of Future Past follows concurrent stories in the future and the past (go figure). In about the year 2023, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) are among the few remaining mutants struggling to survive in an apocalyptic setting where their kind have been hunted to near-extermination by deadly Sentinel robots. In an attempt to prevent all of this death and destruction, Professor X and Magneto send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to bring together their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) and to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) – the event which leads to everything they are fighting against.
That convoluted summary is pretty representative of the story that it describes (wow, how redundant is that repetitive statement?). The movie is complicated, but Kinberg’s script explains everything incredibly well, without slipping into a straight-ahead exposition dump, save one early moment. The script overall is shockingly strong (it has been a while for this franchise). The weight is shared pretty equally by Wolverine, Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique – no one character is expected to do too much of the work. The story is surprising, without being unbelievable (obviously that is a relative assessment in this particular case). And it is funny, though the humor never undermines the serious parts of the story. That’s almost like batting 1.000 for a movie that is really only expected to distract viewers for about two hours.
I don’t mean to imply that the script is perfect. The time travel and other mechanics of the film don’t really make much sense, but the film commits to them. Kind of. Time travel occurs thanks to the abilities of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), but in previous installments her powers were limited to phasing through solid objects. There is never any explanation of where this consciousness-projection ability came from. Seems lazy. Then there’s the classic X-Men movie problem of introducing characters that are defined solely by their powers and nothing else. X-Men like Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore, reprising the role), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), and Sunspot (Adan Canto) all appear in the film with maybe a combined five lines throughout the runtime. Even Halle Berry’s Storm only gets a single line of dialogue. I’m not exactly objective when it comes to judging the treatment of some of these characters that I love, but even a biased individual like myself can take a critical look at the lack of character development.
That doesn’t distract too much, however. Mutants like these get included in the films because they have cool powers, and Singer uses them perfectly to that end. The action on the whole is great in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The first fight scene after the opening credits is a perfect example, effectively showcasing the abilities of everyone involved. It is fast-paced and creative, traits Singer displays throughout the feature.
Unfortunately the effects aren’t always up to the same standard. Is it just me, or is CGI getting worse? Both the Captain America and Spider-Man sequels featured some rough visual effects, and Days of Future Past is not exempt either. The 70’s-era Sentinels look like they are from an entirely different piece of media.
Luckily the flesh-and-blood actors are around to pick up the slack. Fassbender and Lawrence were cast in 2011’s X-Men: First Class just before they blew up, presumably signing multi-picture contracts. I don’t know if either actor regrets their decision to get involved in the series, but certainly the X-Men brand has benefited from the inclusion of each. They both bring a level of prestige to the proceedings, even when the dialogue is a little lackluster (which it is at times). But the real MVP this time is McAvoy. McAvoy’s Xavier was overshadowed in First Class by Fassbender’s raw emotion, but McAvoy gets a couple great opportunities to try that emotion of for size in Days of Future Past, and he kills it.
The rest of the cast does fine-to-good work. Wolverine will always be Jackman’a greatest role, and I dread the day he finally decides to call it quits. Dinklage is a little hammy as the ostensible villain of the piece, but it fits the aesthetic. Evan Peters features as Quicksilver, a mutant with speed powers who is responsible for the movie’s most entertaining sequence. Peters is signed on for future films, and I greatly anticipate his reappearance. Stewart and McKellen reprise the roles they originated (possibly for the last time) in a few short scenes, but they bring the same heat they have been bringing for the last 14 years.
Wow. 14 years. The current trends in comic book movies were popularized with 2008’s Iron Man, but none of that would have happened without Singer’s X-Men in 2000. I still remember seeing it. I had gotten in trouble earlier in the day at a pool party, and the punishment was to be that we would not be seeing X-Men that night like we had planned. This was devastating. As a 10-year-old geek I had been anticipating this for months. Usually when my parents made a decision like that, it was final, but for some reason they changed their mind that day. We went to the movies that night and what I saw was mind-blowing. After a similarly good sequel, the series began to fall off the rails; even First Class and last year’s The Wolverine are just “alright.” But Days of Future Past is on a different level. It is the best X-Men movie thusfar, but more importantly it allowed me to experience a little bit of that same child-like wonder that I felt on that hot July night in 2000. All of the petty nit-picking falls away in the face of that kind of reaction. See this movie, you guys.