Filmic continuity is always a bit tricky over a long enough timeline of films. Eventually, different people start making choices based on what’s good for the picture at hand and not necessarily what’s good for the overall series of films. The James Bond movies, for example, combated this, pre-Craig anyway, by broadly ignoring a lot of what had come before unless it was directly important to the plot. With a series that spans decades, it’s easy to do. However, one of the more “Now how does that work?” film franchises of the modern era, Fox’s X-Men series, is the opposite, where questions about continuity and impact have remained prevalent throughout. This is why director Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, the seventh X film since 2000, was such a lofty idea: he sought to make cohesion where there was none. Oh, and he had to make an entertaining movie that did justice to the dozens of characters he was bringing in, as well as tell a cohesive story on its own merit. Wowzers. And, largely, he did.
Based on the comic arc from 1981 by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin, X-Men: Days of Future Past brought together most of the cast of all of the X-Men movies to date to tell a time-traveling narrative about diverting a horrible future by changing the past. While time travel movies can often be fishy because of causal loops and questions of multiple versions, this film sets itself up perfectly making the entire story about changing events and having only consciousnesses travel in time and not physical selves. Before we even get into the plot, it’s important to note that the time travel elements in this work within its own structure beautifully. Unlike something like Looper which makes no sense even to itself.
In the not-too-distant future, the world has been completely overrun by nigh-invincible giant robots called Sentinels. Mutants have all but been wiped out, and any human who is in some way sympathetic to the mutant plight have met a similar fate. Only a small band of mutants struggle for survival in the dark and barren wasteland the Earth has become. These include Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), and new mutants we haven’t yet met like Bishop (Omar Sy), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Sunspot (Adam Canto), and Blink (Bingbing Fan). They have been systematically testing the Sentinels for weaknesses and have been coming up zeroes, only still surviving by having Kitty send Bishop a few days back in time to warn them about their impending death in time for them not to do it.
They eventually make their way to China where they are met by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Storm (Halle Berry). The Professor thinks he’s found the key to their problems: in 1973, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murdered the man responsible for the creation of the Sentinel program, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), and because of his death, the government went forward with the program, advancing it to where it is now only 50 years later. The Professor thinks if they can prevent this murder, the whole tide of mutant devastation will end.
The trouble is, of course, that Kitty can only send people back a few weeks without risking mental and bodily harm. Even Xavier himself wouldn’t probably be able to last long going back 50 years. It’s decided, both for practicality and for star-of-the-franchise-ality, that Wolverine is the only one strong enough to make the trip. Plus, since he’s Wolverine, he’ll look exactly the same.
This opening section had to do a lot of set-up for the plot. It’s a bit clunky and it moves a little quick. However, in a movie like this, it’s probably best to just speed through the Basil Exposition and get to what everybody wants to see. The other problem here is trying to get the audience up to speed with what happened/is important from all of the previous installments, focusing mostly on the four X-Men movies and not really the two solo Wolverine films. This felt like a bit of a hand-hold for casual fans and filmgoers, (let’s remember, the last non-past X-Men film was 8 years ago) but it was necessarily and didn’t last too long. Sometimes an infodump just is the best way to do it, and I’ll say this right now: this was the worst part of the movie and it’s not even that bad.
Wolverine then awakens (luckily in NYC) and needs to find Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who is at his now-rundown school drinking himself silly and suppressing his powers with Hank McCoy’s (Nicholas Hoult) lets-not-be-blue-all-the-time serum. When the Vietnam War happened and mutants started getting drafted and killed, Charles’ mind couldn’t take the pain of hearing their suffering and has all but given up. Wolverine has to convince not only Charles, but Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who’s being held in a maximum security, metal-free facility for assassinating someone very important. A prison break is in order before they travel to Paris to attempt to stop Mystique, who is alone and angry, from damning the future through an act of revenge. But, with Magneto involved, nothing’s as simple as it should be.
So, like I said, whole lot of stuff going on. There are character threads that need to be picked up and dealt with all while heading forward on what is essentially a mission film. There’s a lot of ways this could all fall apart and it really, really doesn’t. The screenwriter for this film is Simon Kinberg, who is co-credited with the story along with original helmer Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman. There is so much that needs to be done here, both for the sake of the film itself and for the sake of the X-franchise itself and it’s actually quite impressive that it all hangs together so well. I’d like to point out that Kinberg co-wrote 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which is universally derided for messing up the continuity of the films.
Okay, I’ve harped on the film’s plot enough; what of the rest? It’s nothing short of spectacular. The actions scenes are fun and kinetic and don’t rely too heavily on CGI if they can help it, which I always appreciate. One specific action set piece that deserves a pointing-out is the Magneto prison break sequence. In order to infiltrate the Pentagon (yes, the Pentagon), Xavier, Logan, and McCoy recruit a young mutant Logan will eventually meet named Peter Maximoff. Yeah, him: the guy they call Quicksilver. He’s unbelievably fast and enjoys getting away with stuff. They send him to break Magneto out and we get a lot of comedy involving him being somewhere he wasn’t a second ago. However, once they’ve sprung Magneto, they’re met by many armed guards in a tiny kitchen. This is where Quicksilver truly shines. The world goes into hyper slow-motion as we see just how fast he is and how much fun he has playing with the world around him. It’s the standout section of the film for sure. Applause may have broken out when it was over.
Singer’s direction is impeccable and he balances the dozens of characters amazingly well. McAvoy and Fassbender again prove they’re a brilliant onscreen rivalry and we buy them and the history they have whole-hog. It’s also lovely to see Stewart and McKellen playing those characters again, especially if you know anything about their best-buddiship IRL. People might have an issue with Wolverine again being the central character, but they shouldn’t; he’s the most popular and recognizable X-Men and the only person to be in every single film in the franchise (even if just a cameo in First Class). He may be the protagonist, but he’s not the focal point of the film. Yes, we deal with his character a lot, but ultimately the film is about furthering the rift between Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique that was set up in First Class and seeing where that goes or could go if the path to the future changes.
X-Men: Days of Future Past could have gone a number of different ways, given how some of the other films in the franchise had fared. The sting of The Last Stand, not to mention X-Men Origins: Wolverine is still painful to a lot of fans and as good as last year’s The Wolverine was, it didn’t fully put people at ease. This film, I think, will. It’s a thoroughly impressive piece of work and works on all narrative levels. Singer and Kinberg have been able to, as they said, “right some of the wrongs” from the previous films to create what is probably the best film in the franchise, perhaps even more than the high-water mark X2. Go see it. More than once. As one X-Men fan to another, you’ll be the opposite of disappointed.