It’s been fourteen years since the X-Men franchise first graced our cinema screens.
That’s roughly the length of time it took Star Trek to go from The Motion Picture to Generations, the film when we finally bade farewell to William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the first USS Enterprise and committed fully to their successors under Jean Luc Picard.
Now it’s time to let go of an equally beloved Patrick Stewart character, the elder Professor Charles Xavier, and welcome on board the next (or rather, younger) generation.
It’s fitting that Bryan Singer should return to the film series he created for such a pivotal moment in its history. He may have inherited the new main cast – James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, et al – from X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn, but X-Men: Days of Future Past gives him the opportunity to carry on these character’s journeys from the people they were circa 1973 to the figures we know and love from the original series. Or does it? After all, to quote another famous time-hopping series “The future is not set…”
X-Men: Days of Future Past opens amidst a stark, ruined cityscape – grey and perpetually overcast, as all good dystopian cityscapes are. Both man and mutant-kind have been rounded up into internment camps and systematically exterminated by the shifting metal Sentinels.
The only resistance comes in the form of a handful of X-Men – including Ellen Page’s Kitty and Shawn Ashmore’s Bobby – and some new faces, like Fan Bing Bing’s portal-generating Blink and Omar Sy’s energy-absorbing Bishop; and, of course, Xavier and Wolverine.
Holed up in a Tibetan temple following a brutal massacre, the group decide to make one last-ditch effort to save the world. Using Kitty’s newfound power, they can send a single consciousness back in time to stop the chain of events that led to this nightmarish existence.
The only one whose mind is capable of making the forty year trip is the series’ de facto protagonist, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). The exposition over, Kitty gets to work and Wolverine finds himself blasted back to the era of waterbeds and lava lamps. Still, all is not so groovy in the age of disco.
While Days of Future Past’s publicity has focused a lot on the overlapping timelines, the future is very much second fiddle to Wolverine’s efforts in the past. While in the past Wolverine struggles to convince the younger Professor X to help Mystique from assassinating anti-mutant scientist Bolivar Trask, those in the future simply hold down the fort. If Wolverine dies there, or Kitty’s powers fail, all is lost.
The focus is very much on the younger team, and, as such, a number of returning characters, notably Ian McKellen’s older Magneto and Halle Berry’s Storm, are almost completely overlooked.
Still, despite the film’s headlong plunge into the action, Days of Future Cast is committed to the character arcs established in X-Men: First Class. McAvoy’s Xavier has been reduced to a bitter, self-pitying junkie with only Nicholas Hoult’s nerdy, animalistic Hank left to care for him. Meanwhile, Fassbender’s Magneto is still on a dark path, willing to do anything, sacrifice anyone, for the sake of mutant supremacy, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique has struck out on her own to take down the man responsible for anatomizing her former comrades.
Even such an expansive cast, not everyone from First Class has returned – the interim death toll includes Angel, Banshee, Azazel, and Emma Frost – and the man responsible for this is Peter Dinklage’s Trask.
A fixture on Game of Thrones, Dinklage isn’t given much to work with here; a case of an actor carrying a role. With the Vietnam War still raging on, there’s a suggestion the dispassionate Trask sees the mutant race as a threat to unite mankind, but, even at 131 minutes, the film never sits still long enough to dwell much on his motivations.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is hugely entertaining but erratic, flitting from one set piece to the next in a manner similar to its breakout character, Evan Peter’s ADD speedster Quicksilver. Widely regarded as one of the best parts of the film, a mischievous slow-motion sequence set to Jim Croce’s plaintive “If I Could Save Time in a Bottle” is the one element in the film that feels truly unique.
At many points, Days of Future Past apes its predecessors, as if to say, “You thought that bit with the Golden Gate Bridge in X-Men: Last Stand was impressive? Watch this!”
The film does still manage a few instances of movie magic. Delving into Wolverine’s mind, McAvoy’s Xavier finds himself communing with his older self: the first shot of the surprisingly similar-looking pair face-to-face with is mythic. Even so, X-Men: Days of Future Past feels, in many ways, like a transitional piece, a passing of the torch that can’t help but feel a little contrived.
While it makes sense in terms of shelf life – even Hugh Jackman is getting a bit grey around the temples – it’s telling that the past makes the future stuff feel somewhat irrelevant.
With Marvel continuing to produce two films a year and DC gearing up to introduce the Justice League, the X-Men franchise is beginning to feel its age. Ultimately, the newest film’s greatest success is in giving a sense of closure to what’s come before: even with their limited screen-time, it manages a real sendoff for the original cast.
Were we never to see them again on-screen, X-Men: Days of Future Past would serve as a fitting elegy. For now, though, the superhero industry marches on; in fact, a whole new apocalypse is already headed our way.