The perils of time travel plotting and maintaining continuity and story logic within the framework of an already-fantastical superhero universe is not an enviable situation for any filmmaker. But credit the folks behind “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” for not only negotiating the tricky liabilities of rewriting history, but also creating a world (and story) where if the time-stream logic crumbles, it ultimately matters little.
In many circles, including these, the worried narrative of “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” was that the 25-ish mutant roles—some that take place in the future, some that take place in the past—would make for a disastrous mess of a movie. And while time travel reasoning isn’t the strong suit of the latest mutant saga, 20th Century Fox’s sixth mutant movie is still surprisingly one of their best installments. And sure, the bar is set relatively low. “X2” is really the only solid “X-Men” movie, but 'DOFP' manages to never buckle under the weight of its unbelievable foundations to make for the summer’s most satisfying blockbuster so far (don’t take that sentiment to heart too too much, we’re only a few films deep).
The premises and conceits of ‘Days of Future Past’ admittedly don’t hold much water. The narrative prologue states we’re in a dark dystopian future where Sentinels have decimated half the planet in order to slaughter most of mankind’s mutants (strangely enough, they’ve also seemed to destroyed half the planet too which seems rather unadvisable). This future seems bleak and the end appears to be nigh. Hunted down like animals and near extinction, when the remaining X-Men reconvene in China, they discover—rather conveniently and ridiculously—that Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can (somehow) send back mutant consciousness in time, therefore changing the present. Yes, this makes no sense, if you think about it for more than a second and no, Pryde’s abilities aren’t explained at all, but the already outlandish comic-booky, not-very-grounded world of ‘DOFP’ and the milieu presented help this all easier to swallow (and let’s face it, all comic book movies do this to a degree). In the end, time travel is more of a Macguffin means to an end, even if it is a central tool. It’s important and meaningless and easy to accept.
And so the course is set: To save their civilization and undo their current future, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) concocts an implausible scheme to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past to prevent a gone-rogue Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), thus setting the events in motion that create a world of superhuman Sentinels that eventually wipe out most of the planet’s mutants (got that?). With few options left and Sentinels stalking them as they speak, it’s a Hail Mary pass into the past to hopefully negate their current present (if that doesn’t make sense, it’s surprisingly straightforward in the movie).
And so the core story takes place in 1973, but the main mission of Wolverine finding a younger, now-despairing and disheartened Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and a younger, far more angrier version of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and convincing them to band together to stop Mystique’s plan is far more complicated than it seems. And it’s about as emotionally complex as these kinds of movies can be. It's a mission loaded with obstacles, many of them thankfully borne out of character. Having lost much hope, Professor X has a world of emotional baggage to overcome, as does the embittered Mystique and the volatile and dogmatic Magneto. And alliances are fleeting as the trio are all at cross-purposes. So watching these character arcs ping-pong off each other as their various interpersonal conflicts and dynamics shift over the course of two hours makes for some relatively engaging stuff.
And each of these character's conflicts make for arguably far more interesting versions of their later selves. The Patrick Stewart of the original “X-Men” triptych didn’t have a lot of internal conflict, and neither did Ian McKellen and Rebecca Romijn. These characters were largely good or evil archetypes and in the case of the older Mystique, fairly one-dimensional. The Stewart Charles Xavier was arguably even dull and certainly compared to the richer McAvoy version.
Meanwhile, as the at-war-with-themselves heroes try and “fix” the past—fashioned from their own selfish and incompatible agendas—the “future” X-Men mostly sit and prepare to fight the Sentinels that they (and the audience) know will eventually find them. This makes for a largely inert and boring “future” section of the movie—and one tête-à-tête between past and future doesn’t make a lot of sense—but the crosscutting crescendo of the climax of the past and the simultaneous big finish of the future is appropriately operatic and well orchestrated, swelling to an apex that’s enormous, compelling and exciting.
Far superior to “X-Men: First Class,” ‘Days of Future Past’ is not without its problems. Again, if you are a stickler for “time travel logic” (in and of itself an oxymoron to begin with), ‘Days Of Future Past’ will dissolve fast, but time travel is really just a narrative device to explore some interesting ideas about our past selves, those not beyond redemption and how our personal narratives and destinies are not irresoluble. It’s arguably simple stuff, but effective nonetheless.
It’s also amazing how some of these well-known actors came back to do nothing in the future sections but sit around and act as story pawns. That said, the movie's pace means it never sits too long in the future and keeps its eyes on the main narrative engine (in the past). But for a movie with 25 major characters (give or take), the key ones you really need to know and follow are Wolverine, Mystique, the Professor Xs, the young Magneto and Bolivar Trask. Everyone else, at the end of the day, is really filler. The Ice Men (Shawn Ashmore) and Storms (Halle Berry) of this world are essentially security guards. And even Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is really no more than Professor X’s (highly able) chauffeur and personal aide.
But highlights abound, one of them being the previously mocked speedster mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Fanboys that collectively laughed derisively about the look of the character are eating crow. Quicksilver is easily the super-powered highlight of the movie and his section is laced with humor, cleverness and the perfect amount of comic relief (the filmmakers wisely only employ him briefly which will surely have audiences begging for more).
Director Bryan Singer knows this world well and he and his editor John Ottman do an admirable job of shaping what must have been a thorny and complex mess to edit. Vilified by many for writing the unfortunate "X-Men 3: The Last Stand,” Simon Kinberg largely redeems himself even in the face of some silly and illogical decision and plot gaps (to be fair, time travel writing is a hopeless endeavor to make sense and part of Kinberg’s task was repairing the damage of the chronology of the rushed-into production ‘Last Stand’).
Spanning across several continents, and obviously decades, ‘Days Of Future Past’ feels vast and epic in scope. But as large as the movie is, it never loses sight of character and themes (at least the ones that matter). A section in Vietnam works on a plot level, but also alludes to the nature of outsiders who are the perfect fodder for war. Singer’s omnipresent theme of mutants as the persecuted and maltreated is once again employed and grim inferences to the Holocaust in the dystopian section are about as chilling as can be. Some of its humanist themes—hope, letting good souls find their way, stumbling and getting back up— are sometimes either overstated or a little guileless, but in this piece of popcorn they justify the means to draw courage in the face of extremely dire circumstances. And Singer knows how to build tentpole melodrama and to scale it away from being too overwrought.
Of course a lot of “X-Men: Let's Forget Brett Ratner’s Version Doesn’t Exist” sometimes feels just like an excuse to undo some franchise continuity misjudgements and yes, it’s a little disposable. Some retconning near the end of the movie is a little silly and convenient, but probably to be expected, and fanboys who hope to see entertaining cameos from the past will be in for a treat. But for what it is, within the frame of its ambition and story, it works satisfyingly so. “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” isn’t very deep nor is it very consequential, but as a piece of summer blockbuster entertainment, it’s far better than its sticky time travel foundations have any right to be. And as a movie at least marginally interested in character, emotion and familiar human conflict (which possess a lot of strong stakes and drama with forward momentum), I’ll take it any day over a monster movie without character or a teenage superhero film that’s far too preoccupied with the antagonists to come. [B]