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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

x-men-days-of-future-past-set-pic1DIRECTOR: Bryan Singer

CAST: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore

REVIEW:

Like some of the best comic book superhero movies (Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Captain America: The Winter Soldierand its own predecessor X-Men: First Class), X-Men: Days of Future Past, taking its name and some plot elements from a well-known X-Men comic storyline, mixes things up and takes the genre in unconventional directions.  The result is perhaps the strongest installment the X-Men film series has churned out yet, equaling or surpassing First Class.  Taking back his seat in the director’s chair from the likes of Gavin Hood and Matthew Vaughn, Bryan Singer has kept the fresh life First Class breathed into the floundering series going and taken it even further.  Days of Future Past, as its quirky title suggests, does something very different with the familiar characters, but as with its aforementioned cinematic cousins, different’s not a bad thing, especially when more generic comic book films are churning out left and right these days.

The premise owes an obvious nod to the Terminator series.  In a post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged future, killer robots known as Sentinels, which were created to hunt mutants but eventually turned on humans as well, have driven the X-Men to the brink of extinction.  In a last desperate bid for survival, the remnants of mutantkind, including Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), have devised a plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to 1973 to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the Sentinels’ creator, military scientist Boliver Trask (Game of Thrones fan favorite Peter Dinklage), an act which will only cement Trask’s legacy, not derail it.  But Wolverine may be faced with an even bigger challenge: convincing the young Xavier (James McAvoy) of the future, and getting he and the young version of his friend-turned-enemy Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to work together to stop Mystique.  Stopping Mystique to Charles means persuading her not to commit cold-blooded murder, while to Magneto it means eliminating her before she gets to Trask.  Along the way, Wolverine hooks up with an “old” friend, Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and a new face, Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters).  Time threatens to run out in the future, as the Sentinels close in on the mutants’ last hideout, while in the past, the ragtag team of uneasy allies scrambles to catch the elusive Mystique and Magneto may have his own agenda.

Traveling back in time to change the past and avoid an apocalyptic future is nothing new; it’s been used in everything from the Terminator series to various films and episodes of Star Trek, but Days of Future Past keeps its complicated plot from getting too convoluted.  After all, audiences flock to comic book superhero movies for entertaining escapism, and Days of Future Past serves up some memorable moments, especially Magneto lifting RFK stadium, and the most scene-stealing bit, a playful sequence involving lightning-fast mutant Quicksilver.  At the same time, Singer takes things in a darker direction than the series has gone thus far.  Not even the ill-conceived The Last Standwhich killed off seemingly half the cast, had a tone that felt this grim and apocalyptic.  There are battles and fights, but most of them feel desperate and futile, and “victory” isn’t as simple as eliminating a bad guy.  In fact, one could make the case that there’s not really even a clear-cut “bad guy”, per se.  Trask, Magneto, and Mystique all more or less serve as antagonists, but all have reasons for their behavior.  Mystique is seeking vengeance for fallen comrades.  Trask and Magneto, while on opposite sides, are both acting less out of evil and more out of a misguided conviction of what is necessary to defend their kind.  There’s no mustache-twirling obvious villain to be found, and that makes things a little more complex and nuanced than we sometimes expect to find in comic book movies.  The inclusion of the Sentinels slips in a message about the dark paths that can come from sacrificing freedom in the name of security, but the movie weaves it in with more subtlety than a similar theme in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and we’re spared any half-expected on-the-nose preachy monologues belaboring the obvious point.  The movie gets a little daring with its PG-13 rating on a couple occasions; Hugh Jackman no doubt gives his female fans a thrill with a buttshot, and we get the dropping of one F-bomb (the maximum allowed under a PG-13 rating).

The cast combines the biggest faces from both the original series and the First Class prequel, with both young and old Xavier and Magneto onhand (though the young versions get much more screentime).  Hugh Jackman, who has now played Wolverine in every X-Men film (including a cameo in First Class) and two solo films, reliably serves up more of what we expect, including cigar-chomping, one-liners, beating the crap out of henchmen, and continuing to boast an admirably buffed-up physique fourteen years after he first played the part.  The years that have passed since Jackman’s first outing as Wolverine, and the roles he has played in between X-Men installments (including an Oscar-nominated performance as Jean Valjean in a big-screen musical adaptation of Les Miserablesfar removed from Wolverine) have done nothing to diminish his ability to slip back into the part like he never stopped.  Also, while past installments have at times threatened to make the X-Men films all about Wolverine to the neglect of other characters, Days of Future Past feels more like an ensemble.  Wolverine is still a leading character, but there are times when Magneto, Mystique, and Quicksilver are all more scene-stealing.  James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender meanwhile, portraying the young Xavier and Magneto for only the second time, get to play the characters as they’ve evolved a decade after the events of First Class.  Xavier is a long-haired, depressed drunk who stumbles around his abandoned mansion with only Hank to look after him, physically and spiritually broken by the destruction of his friendships with Erik and Mystique, and convinced he no longer has it in him to lead the X-Men.  In some ways, pulling Xavier out of his funk is Wolverine’s biggest challenge.  There are moments when young Xavier’s whiny moping gets a little tiresome, but that’s probably not really McAvoy’s fault.  Michael Fassbender, who stole the whole show in First Class, isn’t allowed to take center stage quite as often here, but he still gets his share of badass moments as Magneto varies, depending on the moment, between an uneasy ally, an anti-hero, and about as close as we have to a villain.  As before, Fassbender has a commanding presence that McAvoy doesn’t; in fact, one scene allows him to quite literally blast McAvoy off the screen. Jennifer Lawrence’s nimble, shapeshifting Mystique and Nicholas Hoult’s Beast also get their moments in the spotlight, while Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen bring their dignified, authoritative presences to what are little more than glorified cameos.  We also have walk-on appearances from the likes of Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), Halle Berry (Storm), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), Lucas Till (Havok), and Daniel Cudmore (Colossus), and cameos from Kelsey Grammer (the older Beast), Anna Paquin (Rogue), and even Famke Janssen’s Jean and James Marsden’s Cyclops.  The likes of January Jones’ Emma Frost, Jason Flemyng’s Azazel, Zoe Kravitz’s Angel, and Caleb Landry Jones’ Banshee do not return (not that most are likely to miss them), but their absences are explained.  Days of Future Past goes a long way toward bringing everything full circle.  Familiarity with every previous installment, especially but not limited to First Class, is necessary to fully understanding everything here.  

Now that Days of Future Past has brought everything full circle–and righted some wrongs from The Last Stand along the way–where does the franchise go from here?  I’m not sure, but in the wake of the ill-judged and disappointingly-received The Last Stand, the epic heights climbed by First Class and Days of Future Past are encouraging that there’s still life left in the series and fresh and different places to take these characters.  In any case, Days of Future Past deserves to be seen to serve as a demonstration of why, in the current climate of comic book superhero movie saturation, different can be an asset and set the few superior entries above the pack.

* * *1/2

 

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