As I’ve re-watched all of the X-Men movies over the past week, it’s been a little difficult to nail down a common theme, especially since two of them are spin-offs. Ignoring the Wolverine movies, the plots are similar: mutants-vs-humans mixed with mutants-vs-mutants with an emphasis on how to deal with persecution. Xavier always wants peace, but from Magneto’s perspective, he’s tried assimilation (X-Men), annihilation (X2), mobilization (X-Men: The Last Stand), and retribution (X-Men: First Class). But thus far we’ve only seen a nebulous notion of “Peace Is Good” from Professor X. X-Men: Days of Future Past brings substance to Xavier’s beliefs and brings a new characteristic to the series: salvation. Although this approach mostly removes the ensemble aspect I’ve enjoyed in these movies, the latest X-Men has the most admirable values thus far. And while the action, pacing, and visuals aren’t quite as sharp as a couple of the other movies, director Bryan Singer has still managed to reclaim the series’ past, present, and future.
In the year 2023, the world has been overrun by Sentinels, powerful robots that were originally created to track and eliminate mutants. Only a handful of mutants remain in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, and they decide their only solution is to go back in time to 1973 and stop the inciting event: a young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinating the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which had the unintended consequence of convincing humans that they needed the Sentinel program. In order to save the world, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) use her power to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time. Because of his mutant healing power, he’s the only one who can possibly survive the journey. His mission is to reunite a despondent young Xavier (James McAvoy) and incarcerated Magneto (Michael Fassbender) so they can stop Mystique before the Sentinels in the future kill the remaining X-Men.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is packed with a cavalcade of mutants, especially in the future, but these characters amount mostly to cameos and some cool action scenes. Even in the past, Magneto, Mystique, and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) all have greatly reduced roles. This is really Xavier’s story with an assist from Wolverine, and it shows how a deeply flawed individual can be not only a leader, but a guiding voice for world peace. That may sound a bit grandiose, but Days of Future Past hits upon an important quality that doesn’t get much attention in blockbusters: empathy.
Although the movie refers to it as “hope” (as in hoping to appeal to the better angels of our nature as opposed to Magneto, who believes we can only fight fire with fire), what Xavier is really trying to achieve is understanding the hurt and pain people feel, and rather than run from it, embrace it. When we see Xavier in 1973, he’s turned his back on the world. His only companion is Beast, who functions more as a caretaker than a student, confidant, or colleague. In First Class, Xavier easily read and controlled people’s minds, but he rarely felt their emotions. Days of Future Past has him discovering the difference between controlling and leading, and that difference comes from trying to understand others rather than, as Magneto would do, intimidate them.
Because Magneto remains firm in his beliefs, he’s not as interesting this time around. It’s not that he should have some grand arc; some people don’t change, and it’s believable that Magneto would remain inflexible even if it does pain him to turn against Xavier and Mystique. It’s a bit of a disappointment to get less Michael Fassbender, especially since he was so good in X-Men: First Class, and Days of Future Past isn’t quite sure what to do with the actor beyond using him mainly for set pieces.
Mystique fares a little better as the fate of the world ultimately lies with her, but that makes her more of a symbol, and also sets her away from other characters since she’s being torn between her desire to get revenge against Trask for experimenting on mutants, and the familial love she has for Xavier (the movie also makes clear that while Xavier loves her like a sister, Beast still has romantic feelings for her). Nevertheless, she has less of the spotlight than she did in First Class.
The movie is still filled with fun characters, but I never expected Quicksilver (Evan Peters) would steal the show. He’s an absolute blast as he’s not only funny, effervescent, and skillfully brought into the plot, but he also has the film’s best action scene. It’s reminiscent of what Singer was able to do with Nightcrawler in X2 as the editing has an exciting agility that terrifically showcases an individual mutant’s ability. Quicksilver is an important reminder that we should never judge a character by his crappy costume.
As for the rest of the action, it’s not quite on par with what I was expecting given what Singer was able to accomplish in X2 even though he has more mutants at his disposal. That’s not to diminish what’s in Days of Future Past; X2 is a high bar, but there’s a sizzle missing to the proceedings that I felt in X2 and First Class. Walking out of Days of Future Past, I wasn’t puzzling over what I thought was the best action scene in the movie. The action was never a letdown, but Singer has a little trouble outdoing the excellent work he did in 2003.
These minor disappointments always accompany the film’s strengths. Days of Future Past isn’t visually bland like X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but it also lacks the distinct palette and striking cinematography of X2 and First Class. The movie is by no means ugly or forgettable, but it seems like Singer is seeking a middle ground between his own style, what director Matthew Vaughn did in First Class, and the 1973 aesthetic (Singer has no problem managing the visually engrossing 2023 setting).
Another issue is that it’s clear there were some heavy cuts in terms of streamlining the story. I have to give great credit to editor John Ottman, who keeps it feeling like a cohesive story even if the pacing isn’t quite as tight as his work on X2. Part of the problem is keeping young Xavier as the focal point, but what makes the best X-Men movies work is how the ensembles bounce off each other. McAvoy does a terrific job of carrying the movie, and Jackman is reliable as always, but Days of Future Past has difficulty transitioning between Magneto, Mystique, and the mutants in the future.
But these feel like minor qualms because with Singer retaking control of the franchise, X-Men has an identity again. When John Ottman‘s score comes blasting in over the opening credits, I got a giddy thrill. Rather than watching another entry in a franchise, I was watching the continuation of a universe. To put it kindly, Singer is shaking off the cobwebs, but he doesn’t have too much trouble taking back what he began with X-Men, and doing so in an interesting way. It may be an old plot in more ways than one, but the perspective and humanity at its center gives Days of Future Past its own identity to the point where it’s willing to drastically reinvent the entire franchise. I imagine the ending will be controversial, and I have mixed feelings on it myself. But Singer, who has never shied away from editorializing in his X-Men movies, can be heard loud and clear when one character says they have “a second chance to define who we are.” In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the future has gone to hell, and salvation lies in the past.
That’s a fun way to define the future of a movie franchise, but within the bounds of this one movie, salvation takes on a more powerful note that lets us view an old character in a new light. More importantly, the film has an uplifting core that’s essential in a story filled with darkness and despair. It’s no longer enough to say you want peace, love, and understanding. The movie takes the time to figure out how to achieve these goals. Arriving at the answer involves a few fits and starts in a film that’s filled with good action, charming performances, and a genuine appreciation of the X-Men saga (or at least parts of it). Ultimately, by putting the emphasis on forgiveness rather than the fight, X-Men: Days of Future Past feels like a new mutation, and the series has evolved for the better.