by Paul Deines
Finally. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a comic book movie I’ve unequivocally loved, but damn if X-Men: Days of Future Past didn’t finally scratch that itch.
I remember a time when super-hero properties weren’t considered marketable film prospects. In the early 1990s, when I was reading DC in the wake of Superman’s death, we had a couple of dubious franchises. The Christopher Reeve Superman films had devolved mighty quickly after number two, and Burton was about to pass the Batmobile keys to Joel Schumacher. Yes, there were worthwhile animated series of both Batman and X-Men, but the prospect of a comic book movie from Hollywood that respected the spirit of its source material was a pipe dream.
Leap forward twenty years, and not only has X-Men made the transition to screen: it’s done curlicues to reboot in a second iteration. The franchise shed its initial director, The Usual Suspects’ Bryan Singer, after the second entry and moved on to a series of hacks and journeymen. Now, with Days of Future Past, Singer has returned.
Based on a beloved comic storyline, Days of Future Past begins in a dystopic future (in the original comic, 2013) in which humanity his enslaved mutants and their supporters and unstoppable robots called Sentinels hunt dissident X-Men. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the 1970s (1980 in the comic) with the assistance of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page, and this character was the protagonist of the original comic) to prevent the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating an anti-mutant defense contractor (Peter Dinklage, unsettlingly calm) and setting off a course of calamitous events.
(So ends my attempt to point out differences between the comic and the film)
In 15 years, the X-Men movies have assembled a murderer’s row of actors, and this entry pulls them all into service in a relatively tight Simon Kinberg script full of intrigue and adventure. At the center is Jackman, whose Wolverine is a magnificent confluences of actor and role. His shadow will loom over successive Logans like Connery over Bond. McKellen and Stewart are as monolithic as you could get with the series’ dual patriarchs, but Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, as their younger selves, seem set to supplant the elders. And with all due respect to Rebecca Romijn, Jennifer Lawrence has imbued Mystique with unexpected pathos: the character has become the battered heart of the series.
As I said it in my Captain America 2 review, these comic book movies play best in a period setting. After all the shiny touchscreen and Kevlar-goon homogeny of the Dark Knight, Avengers and Spiderman franchises, it’s wonderful to see analogue dials and boxy cars. And historical perspective. In First Class, we were treated to a Munich-style Jewish revenge plot with Magneto hunting down old Nazis in South America. Days of Future Past drops us into the Paris Peace Accords and even brings in Richard Nixon as a character. I have my fingers crossed that the next entry will involve Iran-Contra.
I had also forgotten how good an action director Singer is. He opened X2 with a smooth-but-breakneck Oval Office fight between Nightcrawler and a bunch of Secret Service agents. His standout sequence this time around is a time-slow ballet with Quick-Silver (played wonderfully by Evan Peters, who manages to get the smart-ass superkid act right) gamboling about a kitchen diverting bullets and disarming military men. It’s a decidedly joyful moment that makes you lament the self-seriousness of so many recent costumed hero flicks.
If there’s a flaw to Days of Future Past, it is that it must hew to the dynamic of all X-Men narratives: Professor X and Magneto team up to thwart a common threat, and then we wait for Magneto to break the truce. Every time McKellen or Fassbender gets that determined glint during a firefight, you know Magneto’s about to betray someone. But this film, with its parallel narratives, can comment on this dynamic as it happens, which it does rather elegantly.
And X-Men: Days of Future Past is elegant. It respects the viewer enough to present a straight story, but it never tries to be half a Terence Malick picture. I left the theater a little bit doe-eyed, because this was the X-Men movie we were dreaming about in the early nineties.