Another week, another superhero film, or so it has felt of late. Once upon a time, the whole genre felt fresh. Yes, we had Superman, Batman and each of their sequels, but those had been played out and other attempts at comic book conversions were either non-starting failures (the 90s Fantastic Four) or low-key (Blade). In the summer of 2000, Bryan Singer’s X-Men arrived, kicking our current all-things featuring superpowers mindset into gear with its array of mutants wielding lighting, telepathy and the like. X-Men wasn’t only entertaining due to its freshness, the film was also steeped in nuanced characters and an intriguing collection of themes that make it worthwhile all of these blockbusters later.
The latest installment in the series, which is either the fifth or seventh, depending on your thoughts on spin-offs, is called X-Men: Days of the Future Past. The wordy title is a loose adaptation of one the popular comic's most acclaimed tales, a Terminator-esque story where the future is overrun by robots – here called Sentinels – that were once programmed as self-defense against mutants. As occurs in such things, the Sentinels broaden their weaponized scope to humanity and chaos, as it does, reigns. A plan is put into place by the surviving X-Men, a collection of older versions of established characters and totally new ones. To stop this dystopian present, Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and the gang will send the conscience of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into his 1970s self to prevent an event occurring that spawns all of the terror.
Days of Future Past bridges the present-day set X-Men films with the 60s era characters seen in First Class. It’s an engaging fit that rarely missteps, rarely wows. The wide array of talent on screen does solid work, with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender amiably portraying young Professor X and Magneto for a second time. McAvoy is given the more plumb role. His optimistic dreamer of a united world has grown wary and nihilistic, sacrificing his mutant gifts for the ability to walk once more. Future-Wolverine’s head inside Old-Wolverine’s body vies to bring back the man who brought together lost souls. McAvoy does what he can with a role that, like many in the movie, is typically a series of monologues which blithely spurt out everything on one’s mind. He and Fassbender spit soliloquies, each a little tired if efficient enough.
Where the movie really excites is in its action set-pieces. A pair of battles in the future pulsate as the mutants throw ice, fire, teleportation and everything else they’ve got into a Sentinel standoff. Director Bryan Singer, returning for the first time since X2, hones an aura of desperation. The characters know all is nearly lost and trudge on anyway, concocting every trick in their book to win the day, including some thrilling uses of the character Blink’s teleportation powers, where she opens a rift between two areas as allies leap for safety or offensive advantage through their purple glow.
The highlight of the picture though is Quicksilver (Evan Peters), the speedster who briefly teams with Xavier and Wolverine simply for the danger of the mission. Quicksilver moves at an unreal speed, snatching anything he desires out of the air, pockets or elsewhere as the rest of humanity moves at a snail’s pace. Singer films Quicksilver’s big action moment with a playfulness rarely used in the genre; fun and clever.
Little else excels. For a film featuring Jennifer Lawrence in the role of a conflicted, mutant freedom fighter, unsure whether or not to find a peaceful path or one of complete bloodshed, her scenes fail to pop through no fault of her own. She is more pawn than person, and not solely from her compatriots' points of view. From start to finish we have a pretty decent movie, with many of its tricks now played out and no longer nailing the character work that kicked this all off back in that summer of 2000. This isn't through a clear lack of trying, but it's still there.
X-Men: Days of Future Past opens wide all across Seattle tomorrow.