With X-Men (2000), Bryan Singer helped revitalize the comic book superhero movie after Batman and Robin (1997) turned off mainstream audiences and Hollywood studios alike from the genre. It proved that people would go see this kind of movie if it were well-made. While X-Men, based on the Marvel comic book of the same name about a team of mutated human beings born with their own unique super powers, had its flaws, it showed promise, which Singer capitalized on with its vastly superior sequel X2 (2003). After its impressive commercial and critical success, 20th Century Fox naturally wanted him to direct another one, but he decided to jump ship to the DC Universe and make the ill-fated Superman Returns (2006). The X-Men franchise continued on without him until the prequel First Class (2011) (which he helped produce) convinced him to direct another one (that, and I’m sure the financial flop of Jack the Giant Slayer). Loosely based on the 1981 Uncanny X-Men storyline of the same name by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Days of Future Past (2014) ambitiously features cast members from all four previous X-Men movies.
In an alternate future, the world has been ravaged by a destructive war between humans and mutants. Giant robots known as Sentinels have driven the mutants underground and to the brink of extinction, forcing them to band together, even Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), who have a wildly disparate worldviews. Singer effectively sets up this bleak futureworld with an exciting action sequence that sees a group of Sentinels kill off several mutants with brutal efficiency.
Professor X and Magneto devise a desperate plan to prevent their future by stopping the Sentinels from being created. To do this, they decide to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), designer of the Sentinels, which kickstarts the creation of said robots. It won’t be easy as Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) are at bitter odds with each other. Mystique, once an ally of the former, now sides with the latter. Wolverine must bring Professor X and Magneto together and convince them to stop Mystique from killing Trask.
Singer manages to successfully wrangle a large and diverse cast of characters without confusing the audience or overwhelming them. Hugh Jackman returns yet again as Wolverine and plays him as a slightly calmer guy who must maintain focus and keep his berserker rage in check in order to stay long enough in the past to complete his mission. James McAvoy is good as a self-pitying burn-out who has lost his direction life. Professor X takes drugs to keep his powers submerged and has to find something to care about again. Michael Fassbender does a nice job of incorporating elements of Ian McKellen’s Magneto yet still make the character his own. The scenes he has with McAvoy are infused with tension as the two men’s opposing worldviews clash. They must find some kind of common ground, some kind of reconciliation if only temporarily.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique as a ruthlessly driven mutant fighting a war that was started by Magneto, but one that she continues in his absence because she is tired of seeing her kind tortured and killed out of fear and intolerance. Peter Dinklage is quite good as Trask, a man who believes that mutants will make humanity extinct and has the conviction of someone who thinks he’s right. Like any formidable villain, he doesn’t see himself as such, believing he is completely justified in what he does. Singer’s presence clearly inspired everyone to bring their A-game and there is nary a bum note among the cast. He wisely knows exactly when to bring certain characters center stage for their chance to shine in a way that feels satisfying. A minor quibble is that with the exception of Jackman, most of the original cast are given glorified cameos with an emphasis on the First Class characters.
This is easily the most ambitious X-Men movie to date as it goes back and forth in time and spans several countries while juggling a sizable cast of characters. It is great to see Singer back at the helm as he brings a stylish pizazz that was missing from The Last Stand (2006) as evident with a slick, amusing sequence where Wolverine, Professor X, the Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) break Magneto out of the Pentagon all scored to Jim Croce’s 1973 hit “Time in a Bottle.” It’s a virtuoso sequence that showcases Evan Peters’ scene-stealing turn as a lightning fast mutant and gives the movie a much-needed dose of levity amidst the prevailing serious tone.
In many respects, Days of Future Past thankfully pretends that The Last Stand never happened (touching upon it only briefly) and feels like not only the logical conclusion of First Class, but also X2. Simon Kinberg’s screenplay does a nice job of showing how the mutants’ exploits affect history and in turn how it affects them. It also manages to successfully raise the stakes on an epic scale from any previous X-Men movie while keeping us invested by showing the personal dilemmas that several key characters face, from Professor X learning to control his powers to Mystique learning to be more tolerant of the human race. Singer expertly orchestrates the various story elements, guiding the movie to an impressively staged climax in both future and past timelines that provides the requisite show-stopping CGI workout, but one that feels deserved and never excessive (unlike, say Man of Steel). He has made what is easily the best X-Men movie since X2 and maybe even better than that one.