“You took the things that meant the most to me…”
“Maybe you should have fought harder for them.”
The clunky, under-heated climax of a trilogy that had breathed new life into its dormant genre and helped pave the way for the pummeling waves of superhero movies we’re enduring currently, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, while a financial success, was a creative miscalculation on several fronts. It’s not even a bad movie per se, but it’s also not nearly the film it could’ve been. The project appeared fast-tracked for mediocrity once director Bryan Singer – who pushed the first two X-Men installments to increasing heights at a time when the requirements for a superior modern superhero movie were still being codified – exited in favor of shepherding Warner Brothers’ next to most recent Superman reboot, and was replaced by Brett Ratner, a high concept hired gun (Rush Hour, Red Dragon) known for neither spectacle nor character work. X-3, as I’ll call it for the sake of brevity, had an intriguing script, which one suspects remained more or less intact despite the change in stewardship, but still seemed to lack depth, cohesion and visual punch in comparison to its predecessors. In loosely adapting the much beloved “Dark Phoenix Saga” from X-Men comics*, X-3 assumed far more thematic and character debt than it could credibly pay off. Moreover, by styling itself unnecessarily as the final act in a trilogy**, it heaped the increased pressure of expectations and implied consequences onto its narrow shoulders until, predictably, it eventually succumbed and was crushed.
*Admittedly, Singer himself started the “Dark Phoenix” ball rolling with the emotional ending to his own superlative “X-2: X-Men United”, so 20th Century Fox and Ratner had little choice but to follow that storyline in part three. One almost can’t help but imagine “X-3” in Singer’s hands. It might have been magnificent instead of merely halfway decent. The foundation was strong. The set pieces would’ve popped, the (numerous) deaths would’ve surely meant more. Perhaps it would have attained the importance it prescribed for itself instead of falling flat. No further offense (really) intended to Ratner, who is a proven caretaker and moneymaker, but is definitely no auteur. It’s the difference between a steady hand and one holding a conductor’s baton.
**I know I’m cherry-picking, but when’s the last time a movie hyped as the “Final Chapter” of a popular film franchise actually kept its promise? Was it “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, which followed Freddy’s Krueger’s pitiful official death with a postmodern reimagining, a character crossover, and a reboot? Surely not “Friday the 13th”, which followed its own “Final Chapter” with six direct sequels, a character crossover, a reboot, and a soon to be reboot sequel? It’s a carnival trick, and invariably a bad idea. Each new James Bond film boldly advertises 007’s return as a feature of the closing credits, proving that, in a not-particularly serialized story, what heat there is to be gained from finality is almost always cheap heat, and fleeting.
The wisdom of forcing the original cinematic X-Men, at the height of their popularity, into something so grim and constricting as a “Last Stand” has been borne out in the intervening eight years, which have seen the franchise admirably at least attempt to maintain the trilogy’s structural integrity (i.e. no official reboots) while also rolling out two origin stories, a standalone Wolverine adventure, and, now, Days of Future Past, a cross-generational time travel opus which uses Wolverine as the through-line linking two groups of crusading X-Men, one in 1973 – culled from the cast of the solid 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class – and one in 2023 – made up of cast remnants from the original trilogy. At first blush, DoFP almost appears to be a direct response to the problems of X-3, if not a systematic purging of its sins, and, overall, it works brilliantly. This is the easily the best X-Men-adjacent movie since X-2, and even though that film remains the series’ high water mark, it’s not for a lack of trying here. Perhaps most importantly, Singer returns to the helm after years in his self-imposed wilderness, and his presence is palpable, both in spectacular sequences like the climactic parallel battles waged across the span of years by the X-Men against their terrifying and relentless hunters, The Sentinels, and in quieter, tense moments where the characters, long known to audiences but meeting and working with each other here for the first time (or at least under protest), lay aside their differences for the moment and tentatively attempt to form a team.
The situation is appropriately dire. It’s the year 2023, and for half a century mutant-kind has been hunted mercilessly by a line of hybrid exterminators called Sentinels. Professor X and Magneto (Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, the stately lynchpins of the original trilogy), old friends turned rivals turned blood enemies and now back again by the existential threat the Sentinels pose, lead a rag tag handful of surviving X-Men (this, more than X-3, has the feel of a true “Last Stand”) in an 11th hour attempt to rewrite history. The Sentinels can identify mutant genes and thus pick mutants out of the crowds of people they so often effortlessly blend into, and have been enhanced with mutant DNA, enabling them to be instantly adaptable to the endless varieties of counterattack of which X-Men are capable. The source of that DNA is original X-Man Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, from First Class), the blue-skinned shape-shifting badass rogue who now styles herself as Mystique. In 1973, Mystique, cutting a bloody swath in the aftermath of First Class, succeeded in assassinating Sentinel inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) but was immediately captured. Studies of her DNA enabled a quantum leap in Sentinel design and lethal capacity. The 2023 X-Men survivors determine that stopping Trask’s murder will preempt and erase the rise of the Sentinels, and send the consciousness of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, the only actor to appear in every X-Men film) back in time to his 1973 body to facilitate it. Because Mystique is such a wild card, and because Wolverine has no idea how to find or reason with her, he must enlist the young versions of both Professor X and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, both from First Class) in his cause, breaking the latter out of an impressively customized prison. Interpersonal tensions run high in the past as, in the future, the Sentinels advance on a wintry sort of Alamo and the clock ticks inexorably toward our heroes’ doom.
Everybody got that? I have no real history with the X-Men comic outside of a kinship with its premise (using the terrified, reactionary response to the worldwide rise of a race of super-powered “mutants” as a prism through which to study man’s inhumanity to man, consider the plight of the “other” in all its various forms, and maybe even foster some empathy), but even someone with my tangential knowledge was aware of “Days of Future Past” (not unlike “Dark Phoenix” before it) as the sort of transcendent comic cornerstone long-time fans were both itching to be told on the big screen and praying would survive its telling intact/unscathed. There was a definite “don’t screw this up” air to Days of Future Past, and Singer, as might have been imagined going in, at least has the guts to seize the initiative, and make the film his own. To my admittedly undertrained eyes, he pulls off a very difficult job with aplomb, though more seasoned fans/readers will likely have comment cards ready to submit. The story on screen is at least as complicated as I have described it***, and, while at no point was I less than thoroughly entertained, there were still moments where I began to lose my feel for why the 1973 team’s specific goals were quite so all-important. I recognize there’s a greater moral question being asked, but stopping Mystique as she is in the act of killing Bolivar Trask will keep her from being captured and guinea pigged exactly how? Will Trask, who Dinklage plays as a disciplined opportunist, somehow undergo a change of heart and scrap his fleet of already created, potentially lucrative mutant-killers just because one mutant happened to spare his life? And Magneto’s unyielding personal ideals and reputation for the murderous imposition of same are well-established facts, even in 1973. Why exactly is he half as crucial to the plan as he is obviously is to the film’s plot?
***SPOILER for X-3: How the hell, incidentally, did Professor X even show up in 2023 in the first place? Didn’t Phoenix/Jean Grey reduce him to a cloud of Fruity Pebbles when he and Magneto tried to reason with her? What did I miss, or are the movies just an inherently magical place?
Ah, but these are quibbles. Days of Future Past demands great suspension of disbelief, sure, but repays its audience with an absorbing dual conflict played across eras, solid performances across the board, above average spectacle and a dollop of thought-provoking sci-fi, despite the occasional reflexive guffaw. Singer varies his brushstrokes throughout to great effect, best exemplified by a delightful scene in which a mutant who can travel at the speed of light disarms and dispatches six security guards in the split-second between when their guns are fired at our heroes and their bullets land. The film’s final third ratchets the tension of our separate but linked teams, fighting for the survival of themselves and their race, to an almost unbearable degree, and you see, especially in the character of Magneto, indications of what might’ve been with X-3 in what is so grand and harrowing in DoFP. If Hugh Jackman follows through on the recent hints that his time as the focal point of the X-Men series is nearing its end, Michael Fassbender is imminently qualified to assume his spotlight, not as a tortured but otherwise traditional action hero but as a towering villain, fascinating because his ruthless logic is so imminently understandable. Watching Fassbender unleash the full weight of his powers on a shell-shocked Washington, DC is absolutely spell-binding, and every bit for the implacable menace of Fassbender’s face, gestures and general air as for the special effects, which shreds metal scaffolding into makeshift projectiles, propels parked cars as easily as air hockey pucks, and demolishes then uproots a football stadium with telekinetic mastery that would make a jedi blush. Though they all do fine work, Fassbender’s Magneto is not the stodgy totem of Stewart’s aged Professor, nor the depleted vessel of McKellen’s elder Magneto. He is the film’s beating heart, however heartless, riveting and utterly terrifying. He is here because he simply must be.
Part of the fascination of the X-Men conceit has always been that it not only pitted Professor X’s troupe of gifted youngsters against Magneto’s so-called “Brotherhood of Mutants” in a struggle at least as philosophical as it was physical – should mutants embrace and protect humanity or coldly seek to preserve their race at any cost? – but that mankind was so often a third adversary on the battlefield, lashing out fearfully and destructively in desperate attempts to contain forces it couldn’t accept or comprehend. Because Wolverine is essentially indestructible, his solo adventures have been more or less what you’d expect, with little opportunity to explore the trickier themes that spin out from the larger team as they struggle against each other, The Brotherhood, and all mankind. X-Men: First Class was an assured step back into that larger arena where ideas and action can comingle and fuel one another, and it provided audiences with a capable Mystique, an uncertain young Charles Xavier and a truly magnetic (pardon the pun) young Erik Lehnsherr. X-Men: Days of Future Past was marketed as an event, with all of its most famous faces at the forefront. Though it seems initially like nothing more than an elaborate excuse to get the band back together (Hey, there’s Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde! And Halle Berry as Storm!), DoFP cannily uses First Class as its foundation and builds its own momentum onto that of its predecessor, making the original cast’s involvement seem more like an entertaining, not exactly seamless, but still altogether fitting passing of the torch. Days of Future Past is a stirring curtain call for the cast it never booted or rebooted, and it rewards Fassbender, Lawrence and McAvoy for nailing a fairly killer audition by upping their stakes and payoffs exponentially on opening night. It works splendidly. This movie is worthy of the original trilogy’s best, and also feels like the charting of an exciting new path forward.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014) 3.5/4 stars