REVIEW SYNOPSIS: With well-drawn characters, fine performances, and several exceptional set pieces (to say nothing of the return of director Bryan Singer), the newest installment in the X-Men franchise stands as the most enjoyable entry in years, even if it never breaks new ground.
SYNOPSIS: The X-Men send Wolverine back in time to prevent the events that result in sentient robots devastating the earth and hunting both humans and mutants.
PROS: A very good cast, with Jackman at his best as Wolverine and Peters stealing virtually every scene he is in; good character elements; often well-paced and with several outstanding set pieces.
CONS: Sequences that indulge in cinematic overkill; too much convoluted exposition at the movie’s beginning; Magneto, whose motivations never waver from the very first movie; sometimes crowded dramatis personae.
Before Spider-Man (amazing or not), the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, or the rest of the Avengers, movie audiences marveled at the adventures of the X-Men, who, in two efforts, completely rewrote the rules for the superhero movie. The practically had to; the released of Batman and Robin in 1997 so tarnished big-screen comic book characters that, a few cult favorites like Blade aside, nobody expected four-color heroes to save the world from larger-than-life villains again.
So when X-Men opened in 2000, comic book fans felt relief not only that the much-beloved characters appeared in a good movie, but that the movie itself raised the stakes for quality in the same way that Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman did upon their release. By the time director Bryan Singer dropped out of X-Men: The Last Stand to let Brett Ratner smear his already putrid irrelevance onto the film stock, audiences expected, and in other movies received, more from graphic novels brought to screen. As The Dark Knight and Iron Man charted new territory, the X-Men struggled to redraw their maps, even going so far as to offer a prequel with X-Men: First Class, a modestly entertaining effort with even more modest ambitions.
Fortunately, X-Men: Days of Future Past regains the sure footing of the first two efforts, apparently learning from previous entries’ missteps. It returns Singer to the director’s chair, allowing him to bring the distinctive vision he initially brought to the franchise to Simon Kinberg’s screenplay. It helps that Kinberg and co-story writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman dive into the comics’ classic stories for inspiration, using elements of storylines written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne to create a compelling, human drama. It never breaks new ground, as the first two did, but perhaps at this point it doesn’t need to. Why up the game when it aspires merely to be the best piece of pop art it possibly can be?
That doesn’t mean X-Men: Days of Future Past lacks flaws. In fact, perhaps its biggest opens the movie, in which a voiceover somewhat artlessly sets the scene. In 2023, sentient robots called Sentinels hunt both humans and mutants across blighted continents to exterminate them. In Moscow, a group of the X-Men battle Sentinels and face certain defeat…until they and the Sentinels vanish, and the wreckage from the battle suddenly is repaired. This is because Shadowcat (Ellen Page) sends Bishop’s (Omar Sy) mind back two days into the past to warn others of any impending attack. As another wave of Sentinels approach the remaining X-Men hiding in a monastery in China, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) suggests sending Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, the only actor who has appeared in every series entry) back to 1973, the date in which the mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, who spends most of the movie wearing little more than blue body paint—thank you, Mr. Singer) murders Sentinel creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Wolverine’s assignment: stop Trask’s murder, thus stopping his own martyrdom, which in turn would keep Mystique from being captured, which would result in her powers being reverse engineered to create the Sentinels. The setup requires too much attention, the opening too much work, especially as battles rage and chases commence.
Once Wolverine arrives in 1973 (completely nude—thank you, Mr. Singer, on behalf of female fans), he makes his way to the Xavier’s now-decrepit mansion, where he finds a young Xavier (James McAvoy), suppressing his mental powers with a drug that provides him lower mobility, with Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) acting as Xavier’s protector. They team up to recruit Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), whose supersonic speeds will assist the three in breaking Erik Lehnsherr, also known as Magneto (Michael Fassbinder), out of his plastic-encased prison cell deep underneath the Pentagon. Much of the action here seems akin to getting the band back together, though in a much younger guise, and with some impressive set pieces (as when Wolverine, awakened to find himself in bed with a woman, must fend off several mobsters, and Maximoff zips through a shootout sequence). It also gives Singer a moment to nod slyly at character (Maximoff lives in his mother’s basement surrounded by soft drink cases and electronics he has liberated from stores, because too few can catch him in the act) and history (Lehnsherr, with his magnetic powers, guided the path of the bullet that killed John F. Kennedy).
The movie suffers when it moves away from the core group. A scene involving Mystique liberating a group of mutants being held in a military base in Vietnam moves very well, with exceptional fight choreography, but feels forced into place, and serves as little more than a frantic introduction to the character for those unfamiliar with the franchise. Flawed, too, is Magneto’s presence; once again, he plays a pivotal role in the movie’s key conflict, which involves his hatred for those humans without mutant powers. It should make him the series’ most interesting character, but such single-mindedness renders his motivation rote. And Singer and Kinberg cannot help occasionally overstuffing the movie with spectacle. A scene in which Magneto uses his powers to lift a baseball stadium from its foundations to surround the White House smacks of both cinematic and symbolic overkill.
Characters abound, almost crowding a movie that needs time to breathe, yet the cast manages to find the human center. It helps that Singer has worked with several cast members before (Jackman; Halle Berry as Storm; Stewart and Ian McKellen as the elder Xavier and Magneto, respectively), but also asks his other talented thespian to frontload their skills. McAvoy and Fassbinder, naturally, deepen and broaden the characters they portrayed in X-Men: First Class, never devolving into caricature. Lawrence, whose carries the movie’s emotional weight, shows herself more than up to the challenge; driven yet vulnerable, she demonstrates her considerable range in what other actors might consider a lightweight part. Jackman proves he can still enjoy himself in a role he has tirelessly back to since 2000 his Wolverine continues to steal scenes, even with other, greater talent around him (though Peters, however brief his appearance as Maximoff/Quicksilver, nearly steals the entire movie).
The greatest gift X-Men: Days of Future Past offers I cannot reveal without spoilers. That’s a shame, because its ending reveals a genuine gem that thumbs its nose at the ill will that resulted in X-Men: The Last Stand. Some fans also may miss the days when this series challenged the conventions of the comic book movie. No matter. Singer and Kinberg deftly handle this recent chapter in the long-running series, and deliver the smoothest adventure the team has undertaken in a long time.