If you were to talk to any comic book fan and asked them what were the two biggest X-Men stories ever, they would likely point to two specific ones: the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past. To be sure, there are others of equal quality – such was the output of writer Chris Claremont while he wrote “The Uncanny X-Men” – but these two stand a notch above the rest for a number of reasons. They were both pressure cookers of stories; building the tension until it exploded. The each had far reaching implications that changed the dynamics of the larger story. Their denouements shifted how comics readers perceived those funny, colorful pages because they provided no easy answers.
Alas, when Dark Phoenix was adapted for the screen, it was in the truncated, bastardized version known as X-Men: The Last Stand. Without turning this review into a review of that movie, let’s just say it completely missed the point of Dark Phoenix. While it had some success, The Last Stand remains the nadir of the X-movies. It took Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class to bring them back. And with the director of the first two X-Men movies, Bryan Singer, back in the fold, the hope was that when it came time to adapt Days of Future Past, it would be a better adaptation. The good news is that it is.
Days of Future Past begins in a dystopian future ran by ruthless killing machines called Sentinels. Their mission is simple: subjugate or exterminate any and all mutants. And they have been very, very good at it. Thanks to their advanced technology, it’s only a question of when, not if, they’ll defeat all the X-Men and their only hope has been Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and her ability to send the consciousness of another mutant days into the past to warn them of an impeding attack. But this is merely a stalling tactic. It won’t win them the war. So Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) come up with a desperate plan: send someone’s consciousness back decades into the past to help prevent the act that kickstarted the Sentinels and the war they are about to lose. Thanks to his mutant healing factor, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the only real choice to be sent back in time – to 1973.
The problem for Logan when his consciousness arrives in the 70s is that the Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) he needs to bring together are not the same men he knew in the future. One has been swallowed up by his guilt and self-loathing over his failures while the other wallows in rage while imprisoned. He’ll need both of them free and past their differences in order to stop the mutant that helps trigger the war: Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). For its her assassination of the Sentinels’ creator, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) that ensures their rise and the war that ends with all mutantkind dead or in chains.
The movie does a decent enough job of explaining the stakes for the X-Men and of showing just how screwed up the future is before setting most of the story and action in the past. It’s here that the crux of the story lies and and its heart is, surprisingly enough, the man who rarely gets to be at the heart of the action: Charles Xavier, Professor X himself. Because, due to the events after First Class, this Charles isn’t the man full of hopes and dreams for a brighter future. Instead, he’s angry, dejected, full of disappointment with the world at large, but mostly, with himself. His “School for Gifted Youngsters” is shut down. He drinks and self-medicates to keep his power down. And he languishes while his X-Men are scattered.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read a story where Charles Xavier is so integral to its core. Yes, X-Men bears his name and he’s the one who started it. But so often, both comics and adaptations have moved past him to feature the more popular of his pupils: Wolverine, Gambit, Jean Grey, Storm, Nightcrawler, etc. He’s always the fixed-point; the good conscience at the heart of the story that teaches tolerance and seeks to find a way for his kind and the world at large to coexist in peace. But that’s not him in this story. Well, it is and it isn’t.
By virtue of the time travel aspect, we get to see the key characters in this story as both the younger, foolish selves and the aged, wistful selves. McAvoy gets to play Charles as a man hurt while Stewart is the same man reborn with purpose. McKellen is a Magneto who yearns for a few of those wasted years back while Fassbender’s Erik is the same man finding out about his mistakes and making new ones instead. And it’s this interplay between the men who failed to prevent the dystopia and the ones with a second chance to get it right that is the foundation of Days of Future Past. They know the future has gone to hell, but they seek to fix it in their own specific ways: Charles with words, Erik with violence.
The rest of the cast falls somewhere between key cog and interesting cameo. Most of the X-Men in the future – Kitty Pryde, Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Blink (Bingbing Fan), Sunspot (Adam Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart) – are there to fight and die in protection of the mission. We get to see them in action against the updated Sentinels of the future. But we don’t spend a lot of time with them. They’re warriors holding the line. There are fewer mutants in the past, but they get to play a bigger role. Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) acts as both chaperone and guardian for the dejected Charles Xavier. Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) gets one of the best action sequences in the entire movie. Meanwhile Peter Dinklage’s role is key but not large. He embodies the fear of the mutants for what they can be and it’s his quest to convince the powers of the world to use his Sentinels that makes him the villain. It’s a more nuanced role than Tyrion Lannister, but, as you would expect, he does great with it.
The four stars are Jackman, McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence. And each gets their moments to shine in this. Unlike past movies, Jackman’s Wolverine is forced to act patiently and kindly towards others – most notably McAvoy’s Charles. Fassbender has his normal fun being the proud and haughty Erik, fighting for mutantkind in the most direct and terrible way possible. The interplay between him and Lawrence is interesting as there’s a history between the two – both past and future – that colors their interactions. They’ve been lovers but now loathe one another. And it’s Lawrence who carries a lot of the agency and drive of the movie. It’s the search to stop her that powers most of it as she hunts down Bolivar Trask. She’s out there, fighting the war, in her own way.
Coming back to the X-Men after more than a decade would make one think that Bryan Singer may have a few stumbles, but nothing of the sort happens. He falls right back into the X-world he helped shaped 15 years ago. He’s helped by bringing with him a lot of the crew that helped him in those movies — editor/composer John Ottman, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, production designer Roger Mussenden, costume designer Louise Mingenbach and so on. They manage to fuse his own particular style with the lens and palate that Vaughn brought to First Class to denote the 60s-70s.
While not the most action-oriented of directors, Singer does manage to have a lot of action in this movie. Like I said, the future X-Men engage in some pretty tough fights with the Sentinels. It’s fun to see Iceman finally be the Iceman of the comics while Blink’s powers allow for a lot of Portal-like tactics. Meanwhile, in the past, Quicksilver gets the best action sequence in a 360-degree, slow-motion battle with military police that’s one of the best representations of mutant powers ever shown. The final climactic battle is less a battle and more a massive demonstration of mutant power while the big ideas are spoken by the leads.
Because, unlike most of the other comic books, X-Men is all about the big ideas. Working off the screenplay by Simon Kinberg (Sherlock Holmes) off the story Kinberg, Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass) and Matthew Vaughn crafted as a sequel for First Class, the movie continues to touch upon the themes of prejudice, tolerance, fear and danger that happen between peoples who mistrust one another. It’s the same concepts that Stan Lee & Jack Kirby set down way back in 1963 and that Chris Claremont so helped to flesh out in his 16-year run. The monkey wrench in the story this time isn’t the time-travel aspect, but rather the depression of Charles Xavier.
For many, Xavier is often analogous to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: the man who had a dream of a brighter future for both his people and society at large, peacefully coexisting and made stronger by the things that unite them. But what if Dr. King had abandoned his dream? What if the pain, the cost of all he had gone through proven beyond his abilities to stand? We should thankful for men of greater stuff than we have because I’m sure for many it would have proven to be too much to bear all Dr. King went through and still refuse to give in or surrender the cause.
Days of Future Past shows us a fictional example of what that might have been like and what the consequences might have been. Having abandoned his charges and his vision, Charles wallows in self-pity while his childhood friend, Mystique, seeks to murder the man who’ll benefit from the continued prejudice and fear of mutants. He tries to dig a deep hole in which to forget everything that has been taken from him by Erik, by life and by his mutant powers. Thanks to his absence, Charles is allowing the dark future where countless lie dead and countless more live in chains to be born. Now, obviously, he does not know that until Wolverine comes to his door, but it stands as a stark reminder that the future is built whether we take part in it or not.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a good movie. It’s the best movie in the franchise since X-2: X-Men United. Not only does it continue to build on the story from First Class, it brings the whole series into a new light where now you can conceivably have two film franchises going: one built following the X-Men of the 70s-80s (around McAvoy and Fassbender) and another built on the modern/future X-Men (following Stewart and McKellen) with other odd, solitary movies following characters like Wolverine, Gambit and the like. The post-credits scene does hint at the next major step in the franchise. And I can’t wait for it. This is, without a doubt, the best adaptation the X-Men stories have gotten so far in film.