To legions of moviegoers in Fresno and all over the world, superhero films must seem like a dime a dozen these days. With the sheer number of comic book film that flood the market every year, it is easy to forget that a little more than a decade ago things were a lot different. For a long time a superhero's only place on the big screen was in matinee serials or in feature length versions of a television series such as Superman and the Mole Men starring George Reeves or Batman: The Movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward. In 1978, the first true comic book movie, Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, set the blueprint by which all of the best superhero films have followed since, that characterization comes first, and superpowers come second. In 1989, Tim Burton's Batman proved another ground breaker for the genre, showing the possibilities of darker, edgier superhero films as well as their true potential as marketing and merchandising machines. But even with these accomplishments, it was pretty much just these two characters, Superman and Batman, that dominated the market, and one didn't emerge until the other franchise finally tapered out.
So how did the superhero film genre, which started out with such reserved beginnings, eventually blossom into what it is today? Well, technically 1998's Blade was the first true success Marvel Comics had on the silver screen, but in this examiner's humble opinion, the real credit for the current wave of superhero films is thanks to the X-Men franchise.
The original X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer in 2000, was a smash hit that delighted fans and critics with its grounding of this otherwise fantastic material, strong characterizations and performances, and for staying true to the comics core themes about tolerance and co-existence in the face of prejudice and bigotry of any minority. The film, along with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man two years later, solidified Marvel Comic's reputation on the big screen and helped to make the superhero film genre the blockbuster powerhouse that it is today. Singer returned in 2003 to direct the sequel, X2: X-Men United, which built upon the groundwork laid by the first film and improved upon it in virtually every aspect; to this day, it still ranks high as one of the best superhero films ever made. Unfortunately, Singer would then choose to leave the series to direct his dream project, Superman Returns, so in 2006 the job of directing the third installment, X-Men: The Last Stand (or X3 as it is also called) fell to Brett Ratner, and while the film did become the highest-grossing entry in the series, it was nevertheless criticized for it's conflicting tone, deviations from the source material (particularly for it's adaptation of the famous "Dark Phoenix Saga"), overabundance of mutant characters, killing off important characters, and for a stronger emphasis of big special effects and action set pieces instead of the emphasis on character seen in the previous two films. Things only got worse in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a prequel telling the origin of the X-Men's most popular character, played spectacularly throughout the series by Hugh Jackman in the role that made him a star. This film was intended for a very specific purpose, under direction from Gavin Hood, but it fell under clunky writing, having far too many unnecessary mutants for what is only meant to be Wolverine's story, poor special effects, lapses in logic, and overall being seen as a jumbled mess; to this day it is often regarded as one of the worst superhero films ever made. Fortunately, things would improve from here withe the 2011 release of X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn (who almost directed the third film before he left due to the tight shooting schedule and for personal reasons). Telling the story of the origins of the superhero team, of mankind's fear and persecution of mutants, and of the making and breaking of the friendship between Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto, the film brought a much needed freshness and style to the series while making the inherit message of the books the strongest it has been since the second film. But while First Class benefited from all of that plus strong performances, particularly from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, it also suffered from some frustrating deviations from the source material as mandated by what at this point had become a very muddled continuity, simultaneous nonsensical inconsistencies with said continuity, and a few imperfect special effects shots that were a consequence of a very rushed shooting schedule. The Wolverine, released in 2013 under direction from James Mangold, made up for the failures of the 2009 film by telling a legitimate Wolverine-centric story that got into the inner strive and identity of the character as he traveled to Japan and found himself on a journey of conspiracy and personal self-discovery. This film was a great way the break away from the standard ensemble X-Men mold and offer a smaller, more personal story set in a very different environment than most American superhero films, although it did suffer from the restrictions of a PG-13 rating and resorts to the cliched special effects laden third act for these films.
Suffice to say, the X-Men film series, despite being one of the most successful superhero franchises ever, has had it's share of ups and downs over it's fourteen year run, and while the last two films have gone a long way to redeeming the series, it still has none quite achieved the same level of quality and authentication that Singer gave it with the first two films. But now, true believers, that may finally change as Singer has now returned to franchise he first created to take on the most ambitious X-Men film yet!
X-Men: Days of Future Past is loosely based on the famous 1981 two-issue comic arc of the same name written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne. The story dealt with a dark future where nearly all the world's mutants have either been hunted down or hoarded into internment camps by classic X-Men villains the Sentinels. With so many of the once uncanny X-Men dead or missing, their last, best hope of survival is to send one of their own back in time to change to change the past by stopping the assassination that begins this dark path toward mutant extinction. But, the challenge of adapting this story into the film franchise presented Bryan Singer both with an incredible opportunity and an huge challenge. The time travel element provided a chance to see both the cast of the original film trilogy and First Class in the same film, but does Singer succeed in balancing a superhero epic like this with such a huge ensemble cast from two eras and, literally, two time periods into a cohesive piece that fully redeems the franchise? Let's find out.
The film opens up in the dystopian future of 2023, where sentient robots called Sentinels are exterminating mutants and oppressing humans, since humans harbor the genes that lead to mutant offspring. A small band of mutant survivors has managed to evade the Sentinels thanks to the powers of Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page), who is addition to being able to pass through walls has also developed the ability to project a person's consciousness back in time, thus allowing that person to deliver warnings about pending Sentinel attacks before they happen. After the latest skirmish with the Sentinels, Kitty's group, consisting of Iceman (played by Shawn Ashmore), Blink (played by Fan Bingbing), Colossus (played by Daniel Cudmore), Bishop (played by Omar Sy), Sunspot (played by Adan Canto) and Warpath (played by Booboo Stewart) rendezvous with Magneto (played by Ian McKellen) and Professor Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart) in a monastery in China, along with veteran X-Men Storm (played by Halle Berry) and Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman). Desperate to save their race from extinction but realizing that there is little time left, they hatch a plan to send Wolverine's consciousness back in time to stop Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) before she murders Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the scientist who created the Sentinels. Trask's assassination will not stop further oppression of mutants but instead make him a martyr to the anti-mutant cause, while Mystique herself will be captured and her mutant powers reverse-engineered and used to create the formidable Sentinels of the future. The rest of the resistance will have to stand and defend Wolverine and Kitty until Wolverine completes his mission in the past and returns, otherwise the changes he made to the timeline will be lost.
Wolverine wakes up in 1973 in his younger body and travels to the X-Mansion, where he encounters the young Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast (played by Nicholas Hoult) and a disheveled young Xavier (played by James McAvoy), whose school has failed and most of his original X-Men are dead, leaving him a broken man. He has also lost his telepathic powers as consequence of taking a serum developed by Beast which allows him to walk again. After much effort, Wolverine eventually convinces Xavier and Beast to help him find Mystique, but first they need to free the young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) — who was accused of murdering John F. Kennedy — from a prison cell beneath the Pentagon. To do this they enlist the help of yet another unique ally, Peter Maximoff, a.k.a. Quicksilver (played by Evan Peters), a mutant who can move with incredible speed.
Meanwhile, Bolivar Trask lobbies to Congress for approval for his Sentinel program, as Mystique investigates Trask Industries and discovers he has been capturing and experimenting on mutants, including some of her old comrades. Knowing that the assassination of Trask occurs at the Paris Peace Accords, Xavier and Magneto travel with Beast and Wolverine in order to intercept Mystique, although the make their true feelings of betrayal and abandonment known. But can these two former friends who now could not be farther apart put aside their differences long enough to sop Mystique before she unintentionally dooms the future of mutant race as they know it?
This is hands down the most ambitious entry in the series to date, literally cutting back and forth between two different time periods and two different casts. However, the very plot heavy science fiction story is relatively easy to follow and make sense. The X-Men films have always have the simultaneous benefit and burden of having to balance screen time among a massive cast of mutant characters, as has always been one of the most appealing aspects of the comics, but while not every film has done as good a job at that and ultimately some characters always end up serving as mere cameos, this is nevertheless one the more effective examples of ensemble cast work in the franchise. The characters that most demand attention are the one who get it, and fairly satisfying, while the ones that have weaker development, while very unfortunate, still serve their purpose well and, I suppose, are for the benefit of the story...I am speaking mainly about the mutants of the future here.
While we are on the subject of the future, the film opens up very dynamically in this terribly bleak world as we see both mutants and humans hoarded into high-tech internment camps, followed by a mutant (or maybe human) teen discovery an X-Men logo carved into the ground, almost like a symbol of hope, before the teen is blasted off screen by a Sentinel. The film quickly leads into a major fight sequence right out of the gate where we see what remains of the X-Men using their powers as a collective unit to thwart off these seemingly invincible machines. This kind of co-operative use of powers is the kind of thing fans love to see in superhero team stories, and it makes for some very visual moments.
The fight sequences shown in these future scene do become quite violent, in a PG-13 way of course, but that is appropriate since this is all about projecting the hopelessness of the mutant's situation and why is is so desperate that the plan to alter the course of time be successful. Characters are getting ripped apart, incinerated, impaled, etc., so at no point is this situation even not a dire one. Yes, some might argue that the time travel element takes the tension out of these scenes as after so many brutal killings the whole thing gets undone and the characters returned to life because, technically, they go the warning from the future so none of it ever happened. My feelings on this is that this is a desperation move, that they are always having to ensure that they even have enough time to even deliver the warning to the past, otherwise it is all for not.
But in speaking of the time travel element, that is, admittedly, the biggest suspension of disbelief or perhaps confusion fans may have this time. For those who don't know, Kitty Pryde was the time traveler in the original comic book arc, but here it was changed to Wolverine because it is said that his healing factor makes it so only his mind can physically survive traveling back 50 years into the past; of course, we all know that the real reason is to make sure that Wolverine, the franchise star, still stays in the spotlight, but it is still convincing enough of an excuse. Now, Kitty Pryde in the comics has the power to "phase" through walls and other solid matter, but the idea that she can somehow "phase" a person's mind through time is an invention made up for the film, so hardcore fans will just have to accept that; besides, it still allows for Kitty to play a key role in the story even if she is not the one going through time. There is also something of a ripple effect approach to time travel, that as someone's mind is projected back, the present still plays out naturally and none of the changes take effect until after the time traveler returns to his present day body. Whether you buy this logic or not is up to you because, let's be honest, any theories on how time travel works are just that, theories, so as long as you can convince an audience that it makes sense, then that's all that matters.
Once we get into the past, then we get into the unique period approach to the material similar to First Class as we see this alternate history of how mutants had a direct impact on real world events, the Cuban Missile Crisis last time, the Paris Peace Accords here. The alternate history created for this film is really quite fascinating; for those who would like to learn more about it to prepare yourself for this film, I highly recommend visiting the film's three viral marketing websites: trask-industries.com, thebentbullet.com, and 25moments.com. Sure it can be a stretch that something as advanced as the Sentinels or Trask's mutant detection devices were made with 1970s technology, but their is a in-universe explanation about space age polymers that diffuses cynical complaints like that.
The action sequences here are also very well done. The scuffle at the Paris Peace Accords and in the Saigon military base are terrific, with Mystique showing off her usual formidable martial arts talents in each. The final battle in Washington D.C., intercut with the attack from the future Sentinels, is spectacular and does an excellent job of connecting these two dire situations that are technically 50 years apart, while never letting you forget that what happens in one era will directly effect what happens to the other. All of these scenes benefit from what are some of the best visuals effects seen in the franchise so far. But the single best action set piece in the entire film is the Pentagon prison break sequence and the reason for this all boils down to one word: Quicksilver.
Yes, Evan Peters as Quicksilver, a character that received a lot of flak since his costume was first revealed on the cover of Empire, not to mention an unimpressive Carl's Jr. commercial, is possibly the most impressive character on display here. Singer reported shot all of Quicksilver's scenes in 3,600 frames per second, resulting in an awesome slow-motion sequence that is both visually dynamic and quite hilarious. Long story short, everything that White House sequence did for Nightcrawler in X2, this Pentagon scene does for Quicksilver here. And to all of the comic fans, yes, the elephant in the room of having Quicksilver breaking Magneto out of jail is not simply overlooked...though why Singer would bring him into the story and leave out Scarlet Witch is still odd to me.
In IGN's review, one of their few major complaints is that the story does get a bit repetitive when characters have to keep recapping the whole "in the bleak future" scenario, a decision clearly made so general audiences remain clear on why everyone’s doing what they’re doing, as well as the make sure the narrative keeps every character up-to-speed. They also think it's impressive that the First Class era characters take Wolverine's "I'm from the future" story so easily. I'll agree with that to a point, we do hear that recap rather often, but I don't think it's as repetitive or as frequent as IGN thinks it is, and Wolverine clearly does struggle convincing Xavier about his mission at first, but the protagonist of a time travel story can only spend so much time convincing his allies that he is telling the truth before it just bogs down the whole story; for instance, how dull would Back to the Future have been if it had taken Marty fifteen minutes of screen time just to convince Doc Brown that he really was from 1985 and not insane?
IGN also complained that Bolivar Trask, despite being played by a talented actor, never become a very intriguing villain despite the stakes that ride of his survival. I will agree that Trask is not as identifiable or deep as Magneto, or as cold and hate-fueled as William Stryker, or even as slimy as Sebastian Shaw, but he is still totally human, a man who is building these enormous machines to wipe out an entire race of people, which for intensive purposes should make him seem like a monster. But the fascinating thing about Trask is that what we learn about him is that he really doesn't hate mutants at all, quite the opposite, he admires them; but he also sees those amazing powers that the mutants possess as a potential danger to humanity and, most fascinating of all, he, as Confused Matthew puts it, sees the potential war between humans and mutant as way for all of humanity, with all of our own prejudices and differing beliefs, to unite together for a common cause, thus leading us into some new, golden age. What Trask is overlooking, as virtually all human villains in the X-Men universe do and really anyone who has such a deep rooted prejudice and hatred of anyone else, is that even in spite of their powers and abilities, that mutants are still humans too. Plus, I can't help it, there is something about knowing that these gigantic robot Sentinels were invented by a man only 4'5" tall that is just plain awesome!
While we are on the subject of Sentinels, I would like to briefly say that I was more or less satisfied with their adaptation here. As one of the the most frequent iconic foes in the X-Men comics and in all other media, the things most frequently associated with human X-Men villains than anything else, both myself and other fans have waited patiently to see them on the big screen; frankly, the thought that it took them 14 years and seven movies to finally do it is almost hilarious...and no, that severed Sentinel head in the Danger Room in X3 doesn't count. The 1970s Sentinels look pretty good with their revamped design, even if they are not quite as tall as I am used to seeing them, and that giant fan in their stomach doesn't bother me so much anymore. The future Sentinels are very formidable however, with their ability to copy and properly counter any opponent (for instance, turning into fire when facing a mutant with ice powers), although their design is a little bit generic and they do kind of remind me of the Destroyer from Thor, not a big deal at all though.
The last major thing I'll say about the time travel element is that I like the questions it raises. Can the future be changed, or is it set in stone? Can a person's destiny be changed, or are all of us just what we are now? How can any of us really know what effect changing history would really have? Who's to say that meddling with past events won't result in a future even worse than what you started with? What kind of paradoxes will come out of all of this? These are the kinds of things we are left wondering about with this film.
Referencing IGN again, they compared Days of Future Past to some of the best Star Trek movies in how it gives each of its core crew of characters something important to do, cleverly managing to make it's biggest stars – particularly Jennifer Lawrence, who had not yet done Hunger Games or won an Oscar when she had signed on to play Mystique in three X-Men films – integral to the plot. Xavier also has a profound arc taking him from self-pity, a shell of the man we met in First Class, to the hopeful leader embodied by Patrick Stewart. All of this is moving, and while the overall story is grim it isn't lacking in humorous levity either, especially coming from Logan’s time travel situation situation...Plus, Quicksilver is just hilarious.
One of Bryan Singer's goals in crafting this film was to clear up a lot of the muddled continuity of the series, and I think they did an okay job of that, but still not everything is left resolved. The most glaring of these continuity errors left behind by First Class was seeing Xavier paralyzed and in his signature wheelchair in 1962, when we already saw a digitally de-aged Patrick Stewart walking around in both the opening scene of X-Men: The Last Stand and for a cameo in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, both of which clearly take place well after the events of First Class. the explanation the film comes up with for this is that Beast had developed a serum that Xavier takes to restore his spine, at the cost of loosing his powers. This explanation is a bit hoaky, but as a comic book fan I can buy it; it also explains the brief TV cameo of a non-furry Beast in X2. However, if Xavier cannot use his powers i this state, then how is he clearly doing so in those very scenes from those other movies? Another big issue is seeing Patrick Stewart's Xavier alive in the dystopian future when we all saw him blown to atoms in the third film. Yes, there was a post-credit stinger at the end of that film showing he survived, but he did so by transferring his mind into another person's body. On the DVD commentary for X3, the writers reveal that the intended identity of that other person's body was that of Xavier's brain dead twin brother, which would certainly explain a lot (except for why he still needs a wheelchair), but it is a shame that the post-credits scene in The Wolverine essentially promised an explanation would be given in this film and that this twin brother idea, which I have no way of knowing if it is still valid anymore, and sadly never addressed it. In speaking of The Wolverine, at the end of that film Logan lost the adamantium on his claw rendering them merely bone, but it the future scenes of this film they are back to being adamantium, again with no explanation. The there is an elephant in the room about how in the movie's timeline before any time travel happened the Sentinels were introduced and put into active use since 1973, yet at no point during the events of the original film trilogy do these things ever show up. Where were they during that huge battle on Alcatraz Island? There some smaller things too, like how in the original film Xavier says that Magneto helped Charles build Cerebro, while in First Class Beast built the first Cerebro prototype all by himself, and in this film that inconsistency is never addressed as Beast apparently built the first version of the modern Cerebro as well. Oh, and just a humorous one, Xavier makes a callback to Wolverine's infamous cameo line from First Class, but he technically gets the line wrong here; not a huge issue obviously, but a humorous oversight that could have easily been fixed. Oh well.
And oh well indeed, because despite all of the problems I mentioned, the film still goes a long way to cleaning up this continuity with the film's ending. I'm not going to give anything away, but let's just say that after following this franchise for so many years, being a fan of the comics even longer than that, throughout it's high and low points, seeing the resolution of this story was a deeply satisfying, nostalgic, even somewhat emotional experience for me that restored something the X-Men movies have been is serious need of, and what is ultimately the main prevailing theme of this story: hope.
And while I'm addressing the end, yes, there is a post credits scene that directly sets up the next movie, an while I suspect that non-X-Men fans may be left in the dark as to what it means, for those of us who are fans it is a perfect set up for the next big bad the X-Men will have to face next time around!
Finally, like every film, Days of Future Past benefits from some strong performances. Hugh Jackman is as comfortable as ever as Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, and while his characterization is not as deep or introspective as it was in The Wolverine, he is nevertheless totally committed to the part and this time is able to bring the unique perspective of all the history he has gone through as the character and let that carry him thought he plot; his scenes with the young Xavier are particularly strong. Speaking of whom, James McAvoy and Patrick Steward both appear as the young and old Professor Charles Xavier, respectively, and while Stewart continues to embody the regal father figure and role model we all expect of this character, McAvoy lets us see the man at his lowest point, his reliance on Beast's serum seeming very much like a drug addiction. Over the course of he film we see McAvoy regain his resolve in the face of everything he has lost, showing an uncharacteristic anger we have never seen in Xavier before, and take steps toward becoming he man he was meant to be; he and Stewart share a scene together and it is perhaps the most touching in the film. Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen also share the role of the young and old Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto, respectively, and while McKellen remains professional despite not getting to flex his acting muscles as much, Fassbender continues to play this part with the same raw emotion, drive, and even sadistic humor that he had in First Class. While we see Xavier grow into becoming the hero we all know, this is where we pretty much see Magneto become the supervillain we all know and love, his turn and battle plan near the end of the film feeling well earned and appropriate. Jennifer Lawrence continues to perform well as Raven Darkhölme, a.k.a. Mystique, this time getting to show a much more physical and vengeful side to her character, taking her more and more in the direction of Rebecca Romijn's Mystique. I can see Grace Randolph's point in her review that Lawrence may not yet be as comfortable with performing in the nude as model Romijn was because this portrayal of Mystique was more introspective and less voyeuristic than seen in the past, which is terrific for Lawrence because it allows her to bring the role up to par with Xavier and Magneto in this mutant-human debate. Nicholas Hoult reprises his role form First Class as Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast, and he definitely serves as a great addition to the mission and Hoult captures both Beast's brilliance and physical agility, as well as a teen awkwardness and inner ferocity, and he also benefits from more satisfying makeup this time. Peter Dinklage is serious and authoritative as Bolivar Trask, and while he may not be the best X-Men villain ever, Dinklage brings his usual air of awesomeness to the part to make this character memorable and someone you should pay attention to. Evan Peters pretty much steals the show when he is on screen as Peter Maximoff, a.k.a. Quicksilver, bringing a much needed sarcasm and teenage humor to an very big and involved story. I really regret that his character could be in more of the main plot, because he was joy to watch on screen and it make me curious to see what Joss Whedon and Aaron Taylor Johnson have in mind for their own adaptation of the character in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Halle Berry returns as Ororo Munroe, a.k.a. Storm, and while I enjoy her in the role more than some people, she sadly is regulated to mostly a major cameo part her, thanks in no small part to Berry being pregnant at the time of filming, put near the end she still gets to show off her character's incredible power quite effectively. Ellen Page also reprises her role as Kitty Pryde from X-Men: The Last Stand, and while I love her plucky attitude and how she plays a key role in the plot, she sadly is limited in what she can actually do, many of her scenes just having her leaning over Jackman with her hands on either side of his head. Shawn Ashmore also returns as Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman, but he too is mostly a familiar extra, although it is great to see him fully iced up for the first time since 2006 and to finally seen Iceman using his iconic ice slide on the big screen. Daniel Cudmore also reprises his role as Peter Rasputin, a.k.a. Colossus, but sadly, like in the past his character, despite his popularity, is mostly here as extra muscle and a great visual, Cudmore once again getting hardly any line (and I don't think he does the Russian accent either). Similar things can be said for new characters introduced in the future, including Omar Sy as Bishop; Fan Bingbing as Clarice Ferguson, a.k.a. Blink; Adan Canto as Roberto de Casta, a.k.a. Sunspot; and Booboo Stewart as James Proudstar, a.k.a. Warpath. Other performances in the film include Josh Helman as Major William Stryker; Lucas Till reprising his roles as Alex Summers, a.k.a. Havok; Evan Jonigkeit as Mortimer Toynbee, a.k.a. Toad; Gregg Lowe as Eric Gitter, a.k.a. Ink; and Mark Camacho as Richard Nixon. Also, keep a look out for some very cool cameo appearances near the end of the film by a few familiar faces.
Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a big, fun, sprawling superhero epic that literally transcends the boundaries of time to fully redeem the once tarnished X-Men franchise, a mission first begun with X-Men: First Class, continued with The Wolverine, and now completed here. It gets back to the core theme of bigotry and tolerance that are at the heart of all the best X-Men stories, while at the same time bringing up new themes such as fate, destiny and most of all hope, all the while delivering audiences the kind of big scale comic book style action with a huge number of characters greater than what was seen in X3, now with the same kind of character and depth we can expect from the best of the series. It is certainly not a perfect film, as I have labeled out in this review, but it is still hands down this examiner's second favorite film in the series, only slightly behind X2. It may not be a rock solid game changing movie for the genre like The Dark Knight or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but this examiner left the theater with a sense of satisfaction and reward for staying loyal to this franchise for so long, a sense that I got out of this pretty much all I could have ever wanted in an X-Men movie. For all of that, I am giving it a low five stars!