Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique
James McAvoy as Young Professor X
Michael Fassbender as Young Magneto
Nicholas Hoult as Beast
Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask
Evan Peters as Quicksilver
Josh Helman as William Stryker
Patrick Stewart as Professor X
Ian McKellen as Magneto
Ellen Page as Shadowcat
Shawn Ashmore as Iceman
Omar Sy as Bishop
Booboo Stewart as Warpath
Fan Bingbing as Blink
Daniel Cudmore as Colossus
Adan Canto as Sunspot
Halle Berry as Storm
Directed by Bryan Singer
After 14 years of regular helpings of superheroic daring-do, it’s easy to forget there was a time in which such films were deemed impossible to bring the big screen (unless they had the word ‘Bat’ in the title) due to the density of backstory and cost of visualizing. Anyone who tried, did so at great risk, which meant as few resources as possible were given to director Bryan Singer when he took on the first “X-Men” movie back in 1999, to make certain any potential loss was as small as possible. Instead, he proved that if the material was approached seriously and faithfully it would work without giving up an ounce of entertainment value.
It’s been a bumpy road for the X-Men since then. After hitting its high point with “X2,” Singer left the series to make “Superman Returns” and the franchise passed through several hands, seeing much of its potential squandered, leaving fans and admirers wondering what might have been. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is what might have been, and it reminds us why the franchise was so good to begin with and that no one before or since has yet been able to come to grips with these mutants the way Singer has.
Adapting one of the comics’ most beloved storylines, “Past” sees the oft-warned about war between humans and mutants come and gone and the losing side was everyone, as the planet has become overrun with mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels who have decided the only way to get rid of the mutants is to get rid of the humans from which they spring. Looking into this final abyss, old foes Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) have banded together to send ageless warrior Logan (Jackman) into the past to try and change the pivotal moment when there was still a chance the war could be averted.
The culmination of all things X-Men since the franchise started, “Past” both draws a line under what has come before and points it in a new direction, which makes for a busy film but one which is also relentlessly entertaining.
Despite spending a decade away from the X-director’s chair, Singer slips back into it like a well-worn pair of shoes and shows off why his versions always worked so well in the first place, as they focus first and foremost on the characters. Yes, there’s a McGuffin and a fair bit of exposition, but ultimately the plot revolves around why the characters do what they do, particularly for Professor X who gets the most development he’s ever had here as a burnt-out, semi-drug addict full of bitterness and scathing sarcasm at the complete failure of his dream. It’s impossible not to get the feeling this is what McAvoy (playing the young version of the character) always wanted to do with him.
The only person who seems to be having more fun is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, who steals every scene he’s in–and anything not nailed down–as the hyper, maniacal, ADD speedster the X-Men need to break Magneto out of his basement prison. Professor X’s powers are on the blink and they need Magneto’s help to find deadly assassin Mystique (Lawrence) who turns out to be the catalyst the evil future revolves around.
In order to do this, screenwriter Simon Kinberg has developed a central McGuffin around Mystique which makes less sense than any McGuffin the series has ever before attempted, including the magnetically-powered mutation ray from the first film. But the film zips along so quickly, and Lawrence dives into the character so thoroughly, these kinds of issues tend to get quietly filed away under J for “just go with it.”
As with previous X-Men films, “Past” tends to focus a lot of its time and attention on the characters played by the most popular actors of the time, so while Jackman’s Wolverine remains front and center, Halle Berry’s Storm has been reduced back to supporting role to make room for Jennifer Lawrence, who was still a budding ingénue when “First Class” came out. (This seems strange when placed in context with the other films in the series; something which “Past” practically begs you to do as it dips its toe in every form of continuity porn known to man, from cameos to callbacks, though it never wallows in it.)
This tends to be true across the board, in fact, with most of the best character development saved for the returning players from “First Class” (except for Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, who stands around a lot), leaving even Jackman to just do what he does–he is the best there is at it, after all–even if he doesn’t do anything new.
By comparison, Mystique has deepened into a strong and complex anti-hero, a believer in Magneto’s view of active resistance while also regretting what she’s become and the loss of her relationship to foster brother Xavier. Magneto finally gets to show just how dangerous a villain he is all by himself and Fassbender remains perfect in bringing that out of him – almost as perfect as McKellen in displaying an old man’s regret at his young foolishness.
All this heavy focus on the past does mean the slew of new mutants introduced in the future are little more than visual effects fodder for the film’s biggest action scenes, reducing the weight of the future segments which are supposed to be driving the plot. But Singer approaches his action sequences with the same focus as his characters, especially the ones who let him play with time and space like Peters’ speedster or Fan Bingbing’s Blink, who can open rifts in space leading to anywhere. Working with longtime collaborators like cinematographer Newton Thomas Seagel and editor/composer John Ottman, Singer has produced the slickest action sequences of his career, ones which add to the tapestry of “Past” rather than overrunning it.
“Past” has its foibles to be sure, in particular the twisty plot never seems sure who the villain is — the Sentinels are too faceless to fit the bill themselves — and it flips back and forth between Magneto and Peter Dinklage’s suavely sinister Bolivar Trask, the Sentinel’s creator. It relies a lot on what has come before and tries to solve most of its problems by running over them as fast as possible with a big smile on its face.
But there’s something to be said for that approach, when done well. By far the best X-Men film since “X2” and perhaps even the best of the series, “Days of Future Past” rights nearly all wrongs and pays off the faith of those who remained with the franchise through all its ups and downs. And then some.