SYNOPSIS: In a dark and dystopian future, mutantkind is close to extinction, with the super-species – and, indeed, any human that could develop the mutant gene – hunted down and exterminated by giant robots called Sentinels. Professor X, Magneto and the surviving X-Men come up with one last ditch plan: send Logan, the mutant known as Wolverine, back in time to the 70’s to convince their younger selves to stop inventor Bolivar Trask from inventing the Sentinels in the first place…
Fans of everybody’s favourite homo superiors had every reason to approach X-Men: Days Of Future Past (a clumsy title, so it’s DoFP, for the duration of this review) with considerable trepidation; the third instalment of the franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) was hammered together with uncaring, brute force by director Brett Ratner – drafted in after Bryan Singer bailed to get the Man Of Steel back in the air for Superman Returns – and subsequently left audiences with a dull ache in the pit of their stomachs.
Spin-offs X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013), beyond shining a spotlight on the impressive exercise regime for these movies of Hugh Jackman, contributed little including care or attention to things like franchise continuity, character development and the general intelligence of the audience. Only 2011’s X-Men: First Class gave us a flavour of the integrity and potential first evidenced in Bryan Singer’s first two chapters, while injecting some vivid Swingin’ Sixties colour into the mix. It’s satisfying to see that Singer has not lost any of his love and enthusiasm on his return to the X-Men Universe as he brings to the screen a film that not only ties together so many of the successful elements of his own earlier contributions with those of First Class (and even manages to extract the slivers of something useful from The Last Stand, too – which is quite the feat).
Singer populates the beginning of the film with actors from his ‘X-Men’/’X2’ roster – Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Ellen Paige, Shawn Ashmore, even a glimpse or two of Halle Berry and Anna Paquin – and then sandwiches them with the meat of First Class‘s lineup, now set in the 1970’s. Michael Fassbender‘s Magneto may not have changed too much in the intervening years since First Class, although the purpose of his character in DoFP is merely to spur along the battered and broken Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy, in what might actually be the performance of his career – not too shabby considering his impressive back catalogue. The pain and disappointment of Xavier losing his students, first to Magneto’s cause against Homo Sapiens and then to Homo Sapiens themselves as they draft human and mutantkind alike into a foreign war, is etched deep into McAvoy’s eyes. Using a serum developed by the one student that stuck around – Hank McCoy (Beast), played by Nicholas Hoult – giving him the ability to walk (and drink heavily) but robbing him of his mutant abilities, Xavier buries his pains and frustrations behind his addiction (and behind quite the foul temper, too – with all the eff’ing and jeff’ing that comes from McAvoy’s lips, certainly in the first half of this film, it’s going to be interesting to see how they manage to show this film on telly when it lands).
What motivates Xavier back into the world is the appearance of that Canadian mutant who once told him to ‘…fuck off’ in a bar, many years previous: Hugh Jackman, showing off the vein-y results of many hours in the gym at every opportunity. Once again, Wolverine doesn’t give it the full Berserker in this movie (the closest we’re going to get to that remains the Mansion Raid in X2) but, for once, in this very cerebral X-Men movie, it’s justified as the muscles being flexed throughout are mostly brain-based.
Once convinced of Wolverine’s tall tale of time travel, the not-so-merry band head off to first pull Magneto out of his plastic cage, buried deep beneath the Pentagon (a prison break, aided by the superspeed abilities of Evan Peter‘s Quicksilver – easily the standout scene in the film. And to think we worried about how this mutant was going to work in this film…), followed by a quick hop across the globe to stop wayward mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from plunging the world into recrimination and darkness by murdering Peter Dinklage‘s Trask. Xavier is driven to save Mystique from a self-destructive path that he feels he set her upon – she is the Chaos Theory butterfly which can spin the whole world into cataclysm. You can tell that Lawrence has won the Academy Award since her last outing, too; the film places her front and centre as the lynchpin, for the whole story, morally and emotionally. That gong was justifiably earned in Silver Linings Playbook and Lawrence doesn’t hold back on the acting chops, because it’s a ‘comic book movie’ – and, to be fair, nobody here does.
That achievement lies solidly at Bryan Singer’s door: he’s never shirked away from solid and earnest direction, despite the fantastical world he’s working in. Singer has always seen the X-Men Universe as a parable with which to teach the Straights about tolerance and compassion (although a speech halfway through the film about ‘poor judgements and second chances’ comes off a little distracting, taking Singer’s own real-life personal trials into account). He steers his cast well to deliver steadfast performances, even while super-robots collide around them. Ahh, the Sentinels: while they are suitably imposing and threatening, they highlight the only major hiccup about the film for me, if you think hard enough about it – we’re supposed to be back in 1973 when all this is going off and the time period in which we’re supposed to be seeing isn’t exactly properly represented. At least with the production design of First Class, we felt like we were back in the 1960’s and everyone was committed to the timeframe. Singer drops this particular ball on occasion: leather jackets and Starsky & Hutch sideburns just aren’t enough, I’m afraid.
Everyone holding cameras in a crowd, providing instant live television reportage, is convincing in 2014 – in 1973, that was a little harder to achieve, even with the professional equipment of the day. And the compact jet powered Sentinels, with their networked communications, artificial intelligence and HUD systems seem a little too 21st Century in an age when The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ was selling great guns on 8-track. Still, ‘big bada-boom’ and all that. Suspend disbelief for a couple of hours and you’ll be fine. The problem is, Singer has made a bold statement in the past that these incredible stories could exist in the ‘real world’ and it’s a shame that he’s just forgotten to cover a couple of the basics when leaving his production team to it.
These are minor niggles in a film that delivers a strong emotional core, wrapped in some huge action beats, delivered by prime actors on top of their respective games – the same report can be attributed by the other big superhero flick of the year so far, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie that also can almost be derailed by similar lapses in logic. That film, like this one, is saved by strong themes, powerful performances all round, a number of stand out scenes and the promise of universe-shaping consequences instead of an easy cop-out reset. In other words, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is bold, exciting and it dares to exercise the more important muscles, those above and below the neckline: it’s everything The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wasn’t. Boy, that flick was just a repetitive kick to the nads…
(As usual, gang, it’s good to remember the mantra of Marvel Studios fans everywhere: it ain’t over until the lights go up and they kick your arse out. Post credits coda, ahoy!)