Given that the X-Men franchise is now 14 years old, the fans of the film series have certain expectations by now of what they’re going to see. These include, but are not limited to; Hugh Jackman snarling, a slightly more than platonic love between Magneto and Professor X and parallels between the plight of the mutants and the real world plight of the civil rights/sexual equality movements. Days of Future Past (featuring the return of original director Bryan Singer) delivers on all these fronts in a major way (Wolverine is featured throughout, both incarnations of the opposing mutant leaders appear, the 70s occur) as well as boldly charting a new path that separates it from its predecessors, basing its story on a run from the comics involving time travel and mutant near-extinction. Newcomers may feel unwelcome, but the long-term fans should feel rewarded.
The main thrust of the story comes in the form of Wolverine (Jackman) being sent back in time by the original Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen respectively) to unite their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) in order to prevent the success of Bolivar Trask’s (Peter Dinklage, not nearly as fun here as he is in Westeros) Sentinel Program, a project involving the building of near invincible mutant hunting robots which will eventually lead to global catastrophe. In fact, one of the most impressive feats of the film is that Simon Kinberg’s script never descends into cluttered nonsense, which is always a risk for a film that flits between timelines. However, in my ideal world, this would have been set entirely in the 70s with the First Class cast, as the cuts to the future never interested me anywhere near as much as the McAvoy/Fassbender era. This is not just due to the differing plotlines (assassination conspiracy beats out heroic last stand in the interest stakes every time) but also the performances. Whilst it is fitting for the situation they find themselves in, everyone in the 2023 team is perpetually dour, which is never particularly engaging for an audience, especially when it means wasting the immense talents of Stewart and McKellen. Also, aside from Professor X and Magneto, the film never presents you with any reason to care about the mutants in the future, often given 2 or 3 lines at most and being easily and ignominiously dispatched by Sentinels.
That ’70s Crew definitely gets the better deal, with McAvoy and Fassbender selling the hell out of all the scenes they’re given, and although Jennifer Lawrence has less fun here than in First Class, she still manages to imbue Mystique with a definite personality. It is a shame, then, that this personality (along with others) is constantly being changed up without any warning. Whilst the story does remain very coherent throughout in pure plot terms, the character work is sorely lacking. The story is too often moved forward by the protagonists making decisions that are idiotic, entirely out of character, or both. Not only that, but Fassbender’s Magneto is constantly changing allegiances and motives for reasons that are never adequately explained. In fact, in the hands of a less capable actor, these drastic personality shifts could have made this iconic villain into someone forgettable.
However, I have to acknowledge that powerful performances and relatable character work are not the main reasons that films like Days of Future Past exist. They are designed to be fun, with memorable action set-pieces, and in these areas the movie really succeeds. The chemistry between all the leads is great, giving exposition and conversation scenes a dynamism lacking in most blockbusters (although still not on a par with that other big hero team, the Avengers) and the action sequences deliver in spades, with both timelines receiving worthy climactic battles. The absolute highlight of the film comes with a prison break assisted by speedy mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Whilst there were fears – due to his awkward costume and weird marketing – that he would fall flat, the handling of his incredible speed by Singer makes for a joyous sequence, especially when we see the world as his super-fast senses perceive it.
All of these are reasons to recommend seeing Days of Future Past in cinemas, as it’s never boring and certain scenes are almost guaranteed to leave you grinning, but the sub-par character work and the mutants’ increasingly poor/inexplicable decisions really annoyed me, especially given their crucial roles in the plot. Whilst this is not a problem that really detriments a film like, say, Godzilla, it is a major issue in a comic-book film, which partly sell themselves on their already beloved casts. Then again, the film is adept at making you forget these concerns with top effects work and awesome displays of mutant power. Go in seeking great set-pieces and enjoyable super-banter and you’ll be left thoroughly satisfied.