The X-Men franchise has always confronted big themes: tolerance, shame, homosexuality, even genocide. At its greatest hours, the series has relied on ideas of deontological ethics and ideologies of self-worth winning over flashy spectacle – although the vast display of superpowers were always welcome icing on the cake. Even the much derided Last Stand shoulders a message of coming together to defeat a greater enemy – about differences paling under the looming shadow of fascism – but that’s hardly something new to a series that juggles laser sight in with race extermination. Days of Future Past takes its place in the crossroads between bold ideas and blockbuster pageantry and though maybe it’s not the most outright fun X-Men film to date (that honor goes to First Class), it might be the most important.
Days of Future Past starts with a bang. A dazzling cold open sees a new pack of mutants coming to head with the iconic sentinels – giant mutant-killing robots hunting down the last of the surviving supers – and sets the table for the stunning special effects goodies in store. With the sentinels knocking on their door and no international borders or mutant powers strong enough to stop them, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his tattered band of X-Men devise a plan to right the events of the past. Harnessing her ability to travel through stuff, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) sends a battle-weary Wolverine back in time to the 1970s iterations of the characters that we met in First Class.
Charged with stopping the assassination of Boliver Trask, the man responsible for the sentinel project and who’s death was the catalyst for its expansion, Wolverine must get the band back together to change the events of the future and prevent the sentinels from ever getting the green light.
If X-Men was about coming out of the closet, X2 about unity, X3 about fear mongering, and First Class about brotherhood, X:Men Days of Future Past is all about course correction. Can we change the path we’ve been set on? Are people fundamentally good or evil, or does the gray area in between win out every time?
With much more of a centerpiece role than before, the story is essentially a battle for Raven/Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) soul. Not saddled with her ho-hum lines from Matthew Vaughn‘s First Class script and seemingly more dedicated to this all blue role, Lawrence provides depth to a character that’s always been cloaked in mystery, showing off her penchant for ambiguity under the gun. In a movie filled with intriguingly unstable character conviction, hers is the most shaky.
Considering that the characters in the story rarely conform to absolutes, there’s something undefined about who the villain actually is. Surely some might think Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) is the one to single out – and Tywin Lannister won’t forget you did – but he’s really just a scared little man doing the best he sees fit to protect his race against an invading species. If you hold a mirror to Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Trask is but a counterpart, his human alter-ego using full measures to fight the emending species war between homo-sapiens and homo-superior.
If there’s really one enemy in the film, it’s fear. Fear leads us to fight, to kill, to close down borders and look uneasily on our differences. It’s fear that governs the deeds of the villains here, that pollutes their senses and poisons their potential.
As has always been, Professor X champions compassion and acceptance, believing good deeds can cause immutable ripples through time, while Magneto sees the world in two colors: black and white; mutant and human; us versus them. In the midst of the film, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen share a touching moment that really puts the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender timeline in perspective. “I wish we had spent less time on different sides,” McKellan’s weathered Magneto admits. Stewart just dips his head and you know he feels the same way. In the end, they’re just two outcasts who don’t want to live in fear.
Social commentary is a mainstay of the X-Men franchise and, when done right, is what makes the series more than just a popcorn cruncher. All the issues of the past installments are present and expanded upon in thoughtful brushstrokes now with Singer behind the helm again. Holocaust allusions ripple through the narrative as much as ever before, now joined to themes of drug abuse, free will and destiny. With so many ideas and timelines floating around, the narrative could have easily gotten fuzzy, or worse yet, pretentious but Singer manages to keep the high-minded ideas in check with brilliant displays of blockbuster showmanship.
A scene introducing Quicksilver (Evan Peters), aside from alluding to the fact that he’s probably Magneto’s offspring, provides one of the most innovative set pieces since bullet time and still manages to be stuffed with laughs. It was Singer’s ability to mix comedy in with superheroes and social issues that put X-Men on the map in the first place – and for all intents and purposes, proved that a superhero movie could be excellent – so it’s no surprise that he’s done it here again. 14 years later though, he’s even better at his craft.
For the many Last Stand haters out there, Singer’s own course correction will be much appreciated. With the events of Days of Future Past, he’s scrubbed away the mistakes of Brett Ratner – like rot from an otherwise living patient – and left only the portions that mattered most: Wolverine’s emotional anchor of pain and regret. He’s an evolving character, one we’ve now seen in seven films, and unlike anything else in movie franchise history.
Now present in not one, but two timelines, the question remains: how many more does Hugh Jackman have in him? Although he’s a tremendous dramatic actor (just look to Prisoners for proof of that), so long as the future installments are as great as this, I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing him ride this train until retirement. Especially alongside a cast this bed-wettingly good.