X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014)
I was never a particular fan of the X-Men comic books growing up, and so when the first X-Men film came out, in 2000, I went to see it without any particular expectations, positive or negative. I enjoyed it – especially the Wolverine character played by Hugh Jackman – but started forgetting the plot details as soon as the credits rolled. It was fun, but nothing more. The two sequels that followed – X-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand – lacked the narrative coherence of the first film, but were not without their bright spots. That is more than can be said for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which, in spite of the presence of two great actors – Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber – was a mess through and through.
And then, in 2011, Marvel Entertainment released a prequel, or origin story: X-Men: First Class. In that film, we met the two main protagonists/antagonists of the X-Men universe – Professor X and Magneto – as young men, before they fully developed their opposing views on mutant-human relations. Starring James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) and Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre) as the evenly matched frenemies – played by Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek: The Next Generation“) and Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings) in the earlier films – X-Men: First Class did a bang-up job establishing the world of mutants, their powers, and their challenges. It also featured Kevin Bacon (“The Following“) having the time of his life as the villain, and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) as a blue shape-shifter. Now this was an X-Men film to make even me excited.
For those of you unfamiliar with the X-Men, they are mutants: humans with special powers whose difference makes them both awesome and frightening to the rest of humanity. Charles Xavier (Professor X) is a telepath who can not only read minds but control them, and he espouse the philosophy that mutants should work with normal humans in harmony and peace. Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) can control and manipulate all kinds of metal, and believes that mutants should aggressively push back – perhaps with violence – against humans’ attempts to contain/destroy them. Raven (the blue shape-shifter), also known as Mystique, flip-flops between the two ideologies, as do various other mutants. Some humans do, indeed, want to kill the mutants, while others believe in Professor X’s vision. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the X-Men as a metaphor for how humanity has handled difference throughout its history and, indeed, we learn in X-Men: First Class that Eric Lehnsherr is a lost child of the Nazi Holocaust (which explains why he is so suspicious of any attempts to contain the mutants). Still, that’s what science fiction does best: take us out of the exact circumstances of our own universe to help us better understand that universe from a different perspective.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is not as strong a movie as its predecessor. Bryan Singer, the director of X-Men and X-Men 2, is back at the helm. Perhaps he should have allowed Mathew Vaughn, the previous director, to return, as the first prequel had a narrative drive and energy that the new film doesn’t quite match. Still, it’s a fun ride. We start in the near future, and watch as the mutants we met in X-Men, X-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand are nearly destroyed by “sentinels,” which appear to be invincible non-metallic robots that can absorb the powers of the mutants, making them impossible to stop. Patrick Stewart (whom we saw die in X-Men: The Last Stand, but I guess a certain final plot kicker at the end that implied his resurrection was meant to be taken seriously) and Ian McKellen are on hand to remind of us of the timeline, as is Hugh Jackman (whose Wolverine never ages). Just as all appears lost, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page of Juno fame) – a mutant who can project people’s consciousness back in time – manages to send Wolverine back to 1973 – 11 years after the end of X-Men: First Class. That year, we learn, is the year when the prototypes of the murderous sentinels were first developed by their creator, Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage, of “Game of Thrones“), using DNA from Raven/Mystique. Actually, to be more accurate, in 1973, Raven killed Dr. Trask, but was then captured, and it is her DNA that eventually allowed the sentinels to become invincible. So Wolverine must find Professor X and Magneto – friends in the future but enemies in 1973 – and convince them to stop Raven (a woman they each love, in their own way) before she can set the future on its deadly course.
It’s a good set-up, but if your head hurts from reading it, then you’ll understand some of the problems with the film. It’s just a little too dense and too wild. It’s also plagued by conflicting tonal shifts: we get fine comedic moments, including a marvelously entertaining scene where Magneto is rescued from a high-security prison at the Pentagon, which then run smack up against self-serious dialogue about the fate of the world. Leavening the latter with the former is a fine idea, in theory, but here it just feels clumsy. As does the final set piece, in which Magneto destroys half of Washington, DC, in anger. In addition, the cutting back and forth between the past and the future doesn’t quite work as well on screen as it might have on paper, especially since – even if Wolverine fails to prevent the sentinels’ creation – that future is altered as soon as Wolverine returns to the path. This kind of issue is always a problem in time-travel films, but it’s exacerbated, here, by the editing.
Still, what we get is a number of fine performances – from McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Dinklage and many others – and some mostly very good action sequences. And even if the expositional passages about mutant-human cohabitation are not as deftly written as they were in X-Men: First Class, the main ideas – of peace and harmony vs. war and violence – still resonate. For a summer superhero film, it’s a lot of fun.