“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Revitalizes the Franchise with the Best Installment Yet

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Director Bryan Singer and 20th Century Fox have attempted to reconcile six film’s worth of X-Men material into one ambitious story that combines all the best elements — and all of the cast — from every X-Men film to date. The resulting ensemble, X-Men: Days of Future Past draws from the beloved Days of Future Past storyline in which scientist Bolivar Trask develops a program to combat the “mutant threat.” He designs the Sentinels, massive robots that track and eliminate mutants. Over the course of several decades, they grow in sophistication until they learn to adapt to any ability well enough to kill most the mutants, including almost all of the original X-Men save for Wolverine. (Like me, you might remember this plot from the ’90s cartoon series, and this episode can be your refresher).

Our story in X-Men: Days of Future Past begins in this dystopian future, some time after the events in The Wolverine. Central Park has become a concentration camp for mutants and sympathetic humans alike. The world is a dark place and the few free mutants left, despite being some of the most powerful, are constantly on the run. Familiar faces Colossus, Shadowcat, and Iceman from the original three movies are joined by newcomers Sunspot, Bishop, Blink, and Warpath. Kitty Pride’s secondary mutation allows her to send people’s consciousness back in time several days, and the team uses this to warn themselves of impending Sentinel attacks while they happen. Visually, it’s like watching them get decimated before they hit the reset button to try again. Though each time is a close call, they’ve been at this for quite some time.

Before long, they are joined by Professor X, Magneto, Storm, and Wolverine and they all hatch a plan to send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973, ten years after X-Men: First Class. In that time, Mystique assassinates Boliver Trask after discovering he was performing fatal experiments on mutants. Not only do her actions exacerbate anti-mutant sentiments, but she is captured and also experimented on. Using her DNA, human scientists are able to develop the all-powerful, adaptive Sentinels that are causing so much ruckus in the future. (Note: the film originally included a scene in which an older Xavier and Magneto team up to free an imprisoned Rogue. Presumably she too was being experimented on, allowing the Sentinels to gain power mimicry. This would make a lot more sense, as Mystique can only shape-shift and not mimic powers, whereas these Sentinels can sort of but not really do both.)

It’s up to Wolverine to bring together the brooding young Xavier with a darker than ever Magneto in order to stop the future from ever happening.

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Going into this movie, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the balance between the Past and Future. Without going into too much detail, I’ll say that while Logan’s consciousness is being sent back in time, the rest of the Future cast must protect the experiment at all costs. What is probably only a few hours for them equates to days and weeks in the past. Almost the entirety of Future scenes take place in one Chinese monastery whereas the Past hops between Xavier’s mansion and Washington, D.C. Every now and then we check in on Kitty as she shoots light into Logan’s head while Magneto and Xavier reminisce and the rest of the mutants stand watch. The tension builds in each timeline to simultaneous climaxes through some very decisive and brilliant editing. There’s clearly some sort of Inception-esque time dilation rules at play with Kitty’s power, no doubt caused directly by Ellen Page’s appearance in both films. But hey, there can only be so much logic employed when you’re dealing with genetic mutations that cause superpowers, right?

For a wildly convoluted plot that juggles multiple timelines and a myriad of characters, X-Men: Days of Future Past does a pretty spectacular job at keeping it all coherent. The first couple scenes depict a darkened world in dire straits with some heavy imagery reminiscent of the Holocaust. The opening battle sequence between the young mutant team on the run and the advanced Sentinels plunges us effortlessly into this world with a lot of great special effects. Then Kitty hits the reset button. In a flash, it’s all gone; an effective exposition of Kitty’s new power setting up the larger plot device. And because this whole short-term time erasure factor is in effect, we get to see all of these mutants duke it out with Sentinels several times throughout the movie. The Future — in which the Sentinels have apparently killed all colors and the Sun itself — is in stark contrast with the light and colorful 1973 Wolverine is sent to where people dress all groovy, all the time.

This is as good a point as any to point out that Days of Future Past takes place a full decade after First Class. Not only has Xavier’s school been closed down, but everyone we knew from First Class is either separated or…dead. Though the specifics are never explained in the movie, Azazel, Banshee, Angel, and even Emma Frost are all very much so not alive. Magneto is imprisoned hundreds of feet underneath the Pentagon for supposedly killing JFK. Meanwhile, Xavier is wallowing in a state of drugged out self-pity that never really coheres into something comprehensible. It’s unclear whether he’s feeling most guilty about: failing all of the mutants he was supposed to protect, losing Raven to Magneto, losing the use of his legs, or coming to terms with Magneto’s betrayal. Regardless, he’s enlisted Hank (Beast) as his caretaker and the two of them hang out all day doping up on a derivative of the First Class serum that alters DNA just enough to make Xavier able to walk at the expense of his powers. Go figure.

Whereas First Class gave us a story in which Magneto was easily the most interesting thing going on, Days of Future Past instead shifts the focus to Xavier. Specifically we’re shown how the angsty young geneticist becomes the Dumbledore-esque wise man that Sir Patrick Stewart captures so well in the original films. Bridging that wide gap is no easy feat, but director Bryan Singer handles it well.

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You might remember the scene that started it all for this franchise back in 2000, in which a young Erik Lehnsherr discovers his telekinetic control over metals and magnetic fields. Next to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Magneto has arguably been the next most important and compelling character in the series, oscillating between the friend and foe extremes, even piquing interest in a spin-off origin story just for that character. Instead, 20th Century Fox opted to incorporate a lot of those elements directly into X-Men: First Class. While First Class showed us the beginnings of the X-Men and the birth of the on-again, off-again bromance of Professor Xavier and Magneto, it was very much so focused on Magneto’s descent into villainy and Raven’s growing cynicisms. James McAvoy’s Xavier took a comparably dull back seat to his more frustrated and therefore more complex companions. Because we all know that in storytelling: [frustration –> complex characters = more interesting], which explains why Superman and Captain America are usually so dang boring next to Batman and Iron Man.

It’s meant to strike us as a heavy stroke of irony that although First Class opens with Charles Xavier achieving his doctorate degree (with a thesis that is cleverly included at one point in Days of Future Past) and therefore technically becoming a professor, he is a far cry from being The Professor X. The omniscient and godlike version of the X-Men’s leader seems a role reserved exclusively for Sir Patrick Stewart, a man born to fill those shoes — and chair.

The hair. The walking at the expense of his powers. The wavering uncertainty. These are all ways that they dramatize the fact that James McCavoy’s Xavier is so far from being that Xavier of the Future he needs to be. At the beginning of Days of Future Past, he couldn’t possibly be further from that ideal. Another interesting element tossed into the mix of Days of Future Past is Xavier’s addiction to the heroine-like drug that dampens his powers and allows him to walk, thereby destroying his two most significant defining characteristics. It’s important to note that true X-Men fans idolize Xavier in the same way that Lord of the Rings fans regard Gandalf or Harry Potter fans think of Dumbledore; he is the archetypal wise man whose knowledge and power transcends time and space. But this Xavier is basically a scared, little 12-year-old Sookie Stackhouse afraid of the voices in her head. When Wolverine goes to meet him, he’s throwing a huge pity party and dopes himself up just to get a little bit of peace and quiet. Only when he resolves to put down the needle does he come into his own.

What begins as Xavier’s attempt at rescuing Raven develops into his character’s journey into finding that true Xavier within. Only when Logan truly believes in him does he begin to believe in himself. Though the film struggles in its middle sections with a few sequences that feel awkward and forced, it rebounds nicely by centering its focus on Xavier’s character rather than letting itself get bogged down in the dynamics or vernacular of time travel. You know, with its wibbly wobbly paradoxes and all that “fixed point in time” and “time is a flat circle” nonsense. There’s a nice inclusion of that typical “Time as a River” metaphor, though. A pebble tossed in my cause a few ripples, but the river will always correct its course. Changing one thing won’t necessarily fix the future outright. Things aren’t so black and white for the X-Men, or for us regular human beings. Substantial change doesn’t come from simple actions, but from symbolic gestures that take on a greater meaning.

Xavier’s role in the world of mutants is one of peacekeeper and beacon of hope. Although humanity will always fear mutant-kind’s power, and mutants like Magneto seek to abuse that power, Xavier shows us that there is another way. He teaches us that violence is not the answer, that the most important thing for humans and mutants alike is to use your gifts to become a productive member of society. The point of Wolverine’s mission could never be just, “Don’t kill Bolivar Trask!” It has to be, “How can we show humanity that peace between humans and mutants is a possibility?”

How can we all be the best people we can be?

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The complete mutant cast of Days of Future Past from left to right. Here we go: Colossus, Blink, Sunspot, Quicksilver, Rogue, young Xavier, Iceman, older Magneto, Wolverine, young Magneto, Raven/Mystique, old Xavier, Best, Storm, Kitty Pryde, Warpath, Bishop.

One particularly foolish thing you could do as the viewer is try to wrap all of the X-Men movies into one cohesive and coherent whole. Because it is impossible. Not only does the original trilogy struggle with consistency as a standalone package, but every single subsequent movie tosses more problems in the mix for the sake of monetary success at the expense of effective storytelling. This is typical of a big movie studio like Fox. While it hurt us perhaps the hardest in X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that kind of freedom is one of Days of Future Past‘s strengths; Bryan Singer quite literally just does whatever the heck he wants in order to give us an experience that is exciting and cool, continuity issues, loyalty to source material, and anachronisms be damned. And ultimately, this movie sort of retcons the entire thing anyway, so don’t even fret about it.

Perhaps the best example of all this is the use of another mutant to break Magneto out of his imprisonment. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) — a character also being used by Marvel in The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron — is traditionally known as Magneto’s son and has the power of super-speed. In the simplest terms, he’s basically Marvel’s answer to The Flash that also happens to be a mutant who, like Wolverine, also dabbles in membership with the Avengers. Although Days of Future Past employs a throw-away joke implying that Fassbender’s Magneto could very well be this Quicksilver’s father, we’re meant to just sort of laugh it off. Especially when his “costume” is purply steampunk leather complete with big headphones and a walkman. Source material? Psh. Anachronisms? Whateva. Continuity? What’s that?

In the most visually interesting sequence of the film, an adamantium-less Wolverine finds himself held at gunpoint alongside Quicksilver, Magneto, and a powerless but walking Charles Xavier. No big deal for Wolvie, but the rest of them can’t take a bullet and shrug it off. It’s up to Quicksilver to dash around the room in time-distorted slo-mo to divert the bullets and knock out all the guards. It’s wildly fun and caps off Evan Peters’ scene-stealing performance as the manic mutant with the world’s shortest attention span. Ultimately, Quicksilver’s role is relegated to a logistical necessity. The filmmakers wanted Magneto buried underground so they could include a cool prison break sequence and they got it. Quicksilver is simply tossed aside as the story rolls into its second act.

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Quicksilver. Weird costume.

One of my initial concerns with this movie was that they were forcing a plot based around the star-power of the cast. Wolverine and Mystique were the most prominent characters in much of the promotional material because Hugh Jackman and Jennifer Lawrence are easily the film’s biggest stars. Previous stories based on Days of Future Past sent either Kitty Pride or Bishop back in time to stop different assassinations, not Wolverine. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new plot actually worked remarkably well, particularly in its Wolverine-Xavier dynamic. We never see the implied years of bonding between the two characters before Wolverine is sent back, but between that and Logan’s character growth in The Wolverine, the character has grown past being the tortured Weapon X and matured into a weathered warrior with gravitas. Sure, he gets the obligatory bullet-ridden badass fight scene, but he does so with wisdom damnit!

There’s a somewhat recent cartoon series by Marvel Animation called Wolverine and the X-Men in which Xavier isn’t around to guide the X-Men. In his place, a wiser iteration of Wolverine is left to bring the X-Men together to prevent a dystopian future from occurring. A lot of the same dynamics are in play in X-Men: Days of Future Past, especially when Xavier says to Logan: “You must do for me what I once did for you.”

Wolverine is the vehicle that drives this movie forward, and while Quicksilver’s appearance is a delightful little distraction along the way, wonderful actors like Michael Fassbender and Peter Dinklage are put on the backburner with their characters while James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier takes center stage for almost the whole running time. Can the limited 1973 team of X-Men truly avert the Future that is waiting for them? That is for you to find out:

 

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