Fourteen years have gone by since Bryan Singer brought Marvel's most socially aware comic, X-men, to the big screen. In that time the franchise has had its meteoric ups, such as the brilliant X2: X-men United, and disastrous lows when Singer handed the reins over to Brett Ratner for X-men: The Last Stand. A terrible Wolverine solo film followed, but basically the X-men weren't reborn until X-men: First Class injected a little bit of Cold War-era espionage into what was a remarkable prequel. The genius of that film was how different it was from the comic book norm, in terms of style and scope, and the challenge of Singer's X-men: Days of Future Past is maintaining that while makings things even bigger.
Well, it's actually one of many challenges Singer faced. Chris Claremont's seminal comics story serves as the basis for the film which combines the super-sized casts of 'First Class' and the original trilogy. Normally a roster that size would get jumbled and unwieldy but Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, deftly split the narrative between time periods. In the not-so far flung future, Xavier (a returning Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) are fighting a losing battle in a war against the robotic Sentinels, mutant hunters who have wiped out practically all life on Earth. Fans will geek at the presence of popular X-men like Blink (Fan Bingbing), Bishop (Omar Sy) and Warpath (Boo Boo Stewart), along with a couple of other familiar faces like Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). The impressive opening battle, anchored by Blink's brilliantly executed teleportation powers, takes a dire turn for the X-men and they are forced to make a bold decision.
"So many battles waged over the years, and yet none of them like this, are we destined to destroy each other, or can we change who we are, and unite, is the future truly set?"
Xavier's question is at the heart of everything this film sets out to be. Can Xavier and his mutant colleagues change the course of history and save the world from this terrible fate? Their plan may seem convoluted on the surface, but Kinberg explains it with simplistic ease. Hugh Jackman, looking more ripped than ever, returns as the loner X-man, Wolverine. The ideological war between Xavier and Magneto may give the film its brains, but Wolverine is the heart and soul. He's chosen to send his consciousness back in time to the 1973, when he'll find the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) at odds after the events of the last movie. Only the two of them can stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from committing an act of violence that will trigger the dystopian future, but of course it proves to be easier than done.
The Charles Xavier Wolverine knows in the future is a far cry from the man he was before; a broken down shell addicted to a drug perfected by his lone remaining friend, Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). The drug lets Charles walk again, but it also has sapped away his telepathic powers. Those abilities are what gave Charles his ability to understand others, to feel their pain and use it as motivation, and without them he is lost. On the other end of the spectrum is Magneto, locked away in a specially-made cell cleverly tucked inside the Pentagon. After some fisticuffs, a little soul searching, and Wolverine's friendly urging "You and I are going to be great friends someday", Charles and Hank are convinced to join in on a prison break.
Singer, whose last two movies were the wretched Jack the Giant Slayer and mediocre Superman Returns, is clearly rejuvenated by his return to the X-men. And so we see him glorifying in the visual effects more than he ever has before. The best example comes with the introduction of Evan Peters as Quicksilver, the speedster mutant who will also be seen in Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. What was once perceived as a throwaway character written in as a slight to Whedon's use of him turns out to be the film's great showstopper, zipping past bullets with ease while everybody around him is perceived as standing still. It's as good a use of the character as one could have hoped for and puts a real burden on Whedon to find a way to top it. Frankly, I'm not so sure he can.
What's most impressive is how Singer keeps things personal while relishing in the spectacle. The love triangle between the angry Magneto, confused Mystique, and wounded Charles is very much in place and moves forward without a hitch. The plight of mutants has always been an allegory for minority rights and that has been taken even more to the forefront with these last two movies, along with a nifty anti-war statement thrown in for good measure. The X-men have some of the best villains in comics and Peter Dinklage is phenomenal as the Mengele-esque Bolivar Trask, the creator of the dangerous Sentinel program. While he doesn't say much, his impassive nature shows just how cruel he truly is as he sets out on a course of mutant capture and experimentation. Other important characters are introduced, written off, and teased in ways that deepen the franchise's past and future. Trust me in that you'll want to walk into it as cold as possible, but by the time the credits roll you'll be dying to see what comes next and to relive what came before.
With an eye towards revising the past, the '70s elements are wildly unpredictable yet authentic where it counts. The period aesthetic is perhaps even more refined than before, necessary as the time period becomes such an integral facet of the story. Everything from the Vietnam War to the JFK assassination are given a revisionist slant, with the only thing sticking out like a sore thumb is Singer's version of Richard Nixon who looks oddly like New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. Coincidence? Probably not. In that spirit of revision, X-men: Days of Future Past plays fast and loose with the franchise's continuity in a brilliant deck-clearing move that will have fans howling with joy. Between this and 'First Class', 20th Century Fox are providing the most thoughtful and exciting comic book movies we've seen since Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy. X-men: Days of Future Past deserves to be mentioned as one of the best superhero movies films ever made, and if you're a fan of Marvel's merry mutants, it may just be THE best.