Will lapses in logic doom X-Men: Days of Future Past? Or can its ample heart beat this reviewer’s brain?
“This might be the first of the X-Men movies whose climax doesn’t feel either rushed or messy…and if, for some weird reason we never got another film in this franchise out of Fox, it feels like the perfect celebration of the characters and vision of this world.”
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Release date: May 23, 2014 (USA)
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
Running time: 131 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
X-Men: Days of Future Past has more heart than brains and I’m okay with that. The prequel/continuity patch for the X-Men films isn’t a particularly good time travel story, but it’s a very good X-Men story, a rebuke to the maudlin pit that the first three films that the franchise had become and, more importantly, an thrilling vision of hope in a story that could have wallowed in hopelessness.
So here’s how Wolverine gets back from the grim future to to flared jeans in 1973: about ten years from now, the mutant-hunting Sentinel program is in full swing, and the last vestiges of Homo Superior is on the run. A small band of survivors led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) have figured out a way to leap back in time to avoid detection. The older Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen), want to use this as a last-ditch effort to go back in time to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating weapons manufacturer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), and sci-fi handwave about healing factors, Wolverine is the only one who can go, shooting his consciousness back 50 years.
Putting aside the question of why they wouldn’t send Wolverine back to, say, before Professor X was shot or Trask could even start building his company, we’ve now got an older, wiser Wolverine back in his 1970’s body. The last time we saw the character, in 2013’s trip through Tokyo noir, The Wolverine, the character was just getting his head right about the death of Jean. Here, actor Hugh Jackman gets to show us another facet of the character: one who’s still funny and dangerous, but also at peace with himself and his mission as an X-Man. It’s terrific stuff, and I continue to not mind at all that Fox and Singer have chosen to use Jackman/Wolverine to drive the franchise.
But rather unexpectedly, Days of Future Past isn’t another Wolverine movie – hell, the character isn’t so much driving the action as bringing together a drug-addled 1973 Charles Xavier (able to walk, can’t read minds) and Erik Lehnsherr (in a plastic prison beneath the Pentagon) in order to stop Mystique from making their future worse. Reunited, it becomes a battle for Mystique’s soul (and later, her life) as stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender return to the eminently watchable friendship from the first film (broken, though it may be).
These two men are doing terrific work, by the way: Fassbender, no longer struggling with his accent, lends Erik a kind of quiet fervor. He’s reverted to Nazi-hunter Erik, but this time it’s the human race he sees as his oppressors, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to save his people. Meanwhile, when we first see McAvoy’s Xavier, he’s trapped in his own self-pity, but the script by Simon Kinberg doesn’t waste much time getting him out into the world to save Mystique from herself.
Now in theory, this creates a triangle for the narrative to bounce around as we see the two men’s competing visions for the salvation of mutantkind run parallel to Mystique’s mission to do the same. Sadly, poor Jennifer Lawrence, while given a handful of standout action scenes, is largely relegated to reacting to Charles and Erik, on the run and unknowable. Hell, even her final decision isn’t really due to anything within her, but instead the result of yet another character speechifying at her from a distance. It frankly leaves Lawrence without a lot to do besides be tough and try out her Vietnamese.
In fact, the relationship between Xavier and the one-day Magneto crowds out any other chances for arcs or character development in the film – it’s only in passing that we learn that most of the mutants from First Class (save Havok) are dead, while poor Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) gets to provide the tech again and no real change. Likewise, Dinklage is simply okay as Trask who doesn’t feel like a person, offering only the single character trait of “wants to vivisect mutants.” It’s an unfortunate misuse of an actor who offers so much charm and personality only for the script to shove him into the “emotionally chilly villain” corner.
The successes of Days of Future Past more than outweigh the missteps (and lapses in logic) and if I complain that the glimpses of some lesser-known or unloved mutants (Bishop, Blink, Toad) are much too fleeting, the kinetic action and very tangible bond between leads McAvoy and Fassbender feel like an antidote to these worries in a movie that has a sprawling cast but never feels bloated or overlong.
This might be the first of the X-Men movies whose climax doesn’t feel either rushed or messy: the parallel action between the mutant crises in the past and future work well to show us the cost of failure for the surviving team in 202x, driving up the stakes in 1973. Who’ll live? Who will die? And that ending: it’s lovely, and if, for some weird reason we never got another film in this franchise out of Fox, it feels like the perfect celebration of the characters and vision of this world (one moment, in particular, caused one of my colleagues to gasp and I have to admit, I caught some feelings, too). It’s a fitting – and lovely – bookend to the franchise that was for a time there, lost.