When Bryan Singer kicked off the X-Men franchise in 2000, comic book movies hadn’t yet taken over Hollywood. Yet Singer paved the way for a powerful future for superheroes, although his inability to cap the original X-Men trilogy doomed the mutants to a grimmer future for a time. Ironically enough, Singer is now back in charge for the start of a third X-Men trilogy, and adapting one of the comic’s most iconic stories at that – so the Days of Future Past somehow even out after all.
In the year 2023, machines called Sentinels have laid waste to much of mutant kind, and most everything else around it. With only a select few mutants left — led by Professor X, Magneto and Wolverine — the only hope is to use time travel to go back to 1973, and stop the event that sparks the Sentinel program into existence. However, just getting Wolverine to 1973 is the easy part, as he then has to recruit a broken, younger Charles Xavier, reunite him with friend turned nemesis Erik/Magneto, and then track down a young Mystique before her mission of vengeance sets the horrific future in stone.
The last time the X-Men movies adapted a beloved storyline from the comics, Singer had to leave Brett Ratner in charge of recreating the Dark Phoenix saga – one of many failures that made up The Last Stand. It took five years, one failed Wolverine origin movie and a trip to 1962 before First Class rejuvenated the franchise, paving the way for Days of Future Past to reunite the greatest hits of the series.
Merely bringing Singer back doesn’t guarantee greatness, even if The Last Stand and Wolverine set such a low bar. Singer himself hasn’t been the same since leaving the mutants, as Superman Returns, Valkyrie and Jack the Giant Slayer proved – to say nothing of his recent legal battles. Yet while he left the series at the wrong time, he had the good sense to come back just when the ship finally righted itself.
Days of Future Past is a leap forward for Singer visually, at the least, with a bleak future, killer Sentinels and big sequences in 3D that go well beyond X-Men and X2. But by necessity, the movie can’t be the kind of lively, breath of fresh air that First Class was. The one sequence that has such invention and truly jump starts Days of Future Past is Magneto’s prison break underneath the Pentagon, thanks to the super speedy Quicksilver. While later set pieces at the Paris Peace Accords, the White House and the brutal future have a lot to savor, Quicksilver’s romp really sets the bar high.
In addition to the biggest action in X-Men movie history, Singer has the more monumental task of tying six films in various time periods together – or just ignoring them, a la much of The Last Stand. While Marvel Studios and their Avengers have stressed continuity above all else in their series, the X-Men have had too many ups and downs to be that lucky. Fortunately, Singer forces in enough flashbacks when needed for less up to date viewers to follow along, while veterans will spend hours afterwards trying to figure out if it all truly comes together, especially after the ending. Perhaps fittingly for this series, some of it does more than others.
As a mere stand alone adaptation of Days of Future Past, sending Wolverine back in time instead of Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde, and expanding Mystique’s role to account for Jennifer Lawrence’s superstardom, guarantees that it is a bit less than faithful. But to paraphrase Wolverine, accuracy to the comics has never been the X-Men movies’ strongest suit. Nevertheless, if The Last Stand was the wrong way to reenact an iconic X-Men storyline, Days of Future Past shows how to do it right, or at least more respectably.
With so much to juggle in 1973 and 2023, Singer lets a few elements fall by the wayside. With less time for young Charles and Erik to be frenemies together – and less screen time for James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender together – Days of Future Past is at a disadvantage to First Class right there. There’s also something inexcusable about letting Peter Dinklage, as the Sentinel creator who the X-Men nonetheless have to save, go to waste for the most part. And there are fewer big moments for Wolverine and Hugh Jackman than usual, although there’s been about five movies worth of them already.
Even that has a silver lining, as Wolverine mainly does for young Professor X what the old one did for him in the early Singer days – rebuild him and point him to a better future. That slow but sure process allows McAvoy to become the emotional heart of the film, in a way Patrick Stewart was rarely allowed to do before. While the professor was often overshadowed by Magneto in the past – by both the Fassbender and Ian McKellen versions – McAvoy and Stewart put him front and center this time around.
Fassbender still gets his moments to shine, even if not enough of them are with McAvoy or Lawrence, as the showdowns he does get with them prove. As for Lawrence, the X-Men are essentially her third franchise, in between The Hunger Games and her David O. Russell movies. Only by comparison, there’s less for Lawrence to show off here, other than elaborate fighting moves and naked looking blue paint – although that paint does the seemingly impossible in making her face seem less expressive than usual. Beyond the old and new major headliners, however, series newcomer Evan Peters – on loan from the American Horror Story troupe – gets the biggest showcase as Quicksilver.
In an age of superhero prequels and reboots, Days of Future Past is a sequel, prequel and eventual reboot all rolled in one, much like the past, present and future of the X-Men are rolled into one. It is certainly unwieldy, and there’s probably little way that those who’ve seen all six movies can make sense out of every single retcon. In truth, the end comes across halfway as an attempt to start the series anew, and halfway as Singer’s own vengeance against The Last Stand – ironically, with Last Stand writer Simon Kinberg correcting his own past mistakes here.
There’s never any danger of Singer sinking into Last Stand or Wolverine depths here — although with the past and present goodies and the source material dropped into his lap, he would had to have screwed up pretty bad for that. Of course, Ratner and Kinberg had everything ideal dropped into their laps in Last Stand and still messed it up, so sure things don’t always pan out. Fortunately for Singer, he is not Ratner, although that was already obvious before.
First Class was the greater surprise success after the mistakes of the past, while Days of Future Past has a much biggest bulls eye and more responsibility on its back, which gives it a different set of standards. At times, it merely does enough not to stumble over itself, which is a feat considering everything it lugs around – but for something this big, more sustained greatness is expected.
Yet when that greatness does show up in Days of Future Past, the X-Men show just how durable they really are, no matter what leader they have in whatever time period. Of course, as this installment and as the whole of X-Men movie history proves, the unpredictable future is always subject to change for good or ill.