In a post-“Avengers” comic book movie universe, bigger is not only better, but also necessary. Leave it to original “X-Men” and “X2” director Bryan Singer to get the whole gang together (old and new) in order to bring one of the biggest “X-Men” story lines to the big screen in attention-grabbing fashion. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” finally establishes an “X- Men” universe for 20th Century Fox in the same way “The Avengers” galvanized Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe.
Uniting the cast of “X-Men: First Class” with those of the original trilogy, “Days of Future Past” takes us into the not-too-distant future with mutant-kind on the brink of extinction at the hands of Sentinels, mutant-hunting machines that adapt to the mutants they are fighting. A band of mutants including Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) and others has harnessed the ability to travel through time by sending someone’s consciousness to a younger version of themselves. When they meet up with Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and others, they determine that using this ability to prevent the events that led to the creation of the Sentinels is their only hope, and only Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) could withstand traveling that far back in time.
In the ’70s at the close of the Vietnam War, Wolverine seeks out a troubled Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) living with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Together they must find Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who has plans to kill the creator of the Sentinels, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which is the very act that catalyzes the Sentinels’ creation. To do so, they must team up with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and stop her.
Lots of characters to keep track of, but anyone who has kept up with the franchise will have little trouble making sense of it all, plus it is very cool to see all these mutants in the same film. Whereas “X-Men: The Last Stand” overdosed on all these mutants, “Days of Future Past” handles it much better. Writer Simon Kinberg (who learned from the flaws of that film, which he co-wrote) divides the action into two categories: the desolate future when mutants fight for their lives, and the past, with that entire plot line focused on finding Mystique and rewriting history.
The characters involved in the past are far less numerous than the characters in the future scenes, which is the secret to success for “Days of Future Past.” Rather than let numbers of mutants muddle the quality of the ones that matter most, they are used in small bursts to add to the magnitude and excitement of the film. The core of the story involves young Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, Beast and Mystique. That’s it.
As such, the themes that made “First Class” such a success are here again. Xavier and Magneto’s ideologies collide in the face of this greater enemy, with Mystique caught in the middle. Xavier must wrestle with his demons and Wolverine must take on the role of team leader rather than marching to the beat of his own drum like usual.
Singer’s return to the director’s chair proves essential in so far as getting dozens of actors to play along and gluing what were many disparate “X-Men” movie components into one entry that really sets the course for the franchise going forward. The action is great, including both the gritty Sentinel fights and the more creative set pieces including a sequence in which a young Quicksilver (Evan Peters) speedily saves his fellow mutants from certain death while listening to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” but this is a movie that dazzles more in scope than in spectacle.
Given the sheer scale of this effort, “Days of Future Past” doesn’t look as good on a microscopic level. Unifying the entire “X-Men” franchise necessitates leaving behind plenty of inconsistencies with the other films, not to mention the time travel plot has its own holes (a fault of time travel films in general, to be fair). So the movie relies a lot on the mutant dazzle effect in addition to a plot that creates dire and immediate consequences for the “X-Men” universe we’ve come to know in the last 15 years.
Fox course-corrected the “X-Men” brand with “First Class,” but now they’ve bridged the gap between this new direction and the old movies (not to mention the Wolverine spin-offs). In 2011, we thought the franchise had essentially undergone a reboot; now, we see it all as one in the same, and the “X-Men” universe can expand even more with the right guidance (preferably Singer’s).
The fact that “Days of Future Past” works well as its own film while also serving a far greater role for the entire franchise is a feat that can’t be understated, especially from Fox, which has struggled with its consistency in comic book films. It won’t unanimously be labeled the best of the five “X-Men” movies, but it will unquestionably be brought up in that conversation for fans of the genre.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (story)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence