I'll admit, I was impressed by the attempted scope of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST even before I saw the film. What I'd deduced was that screenwriter Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer (who directed the first two X-MEN chapters) were finding a way to incorporate the casts of the original, modern-set X-MEN films and '60s-'70s-era original team from X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. What I had not anticipated (and this may be a failing on may part) was that Singer and company would attempt to use AYS OF FUTURE PAST as a way to line up, course correct and incorporate elements from all of the other X-MEN films (including the dreaded X-MEN: THE LAST STAND and the even worse X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) in an attempt to make this particular cinematic universe feel more cohesive. And for the most part, they pretty much nailed it.
DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is a crowded affair with an unbelievable amount of plot—enough to cover three films, it feels like. But if you're fairly well versed in the other X-MEN films, you should do alright. The story begins in the future, in a world where mutants are largely extinct after decades of being hunted by giant robots called Sentinels, who not only target mutants, but also hunt those with latent mutant genes that may one day be passed on to create mutants as well as anyone who helps mutants hide, escape or otherwise avoid death. In other words, this version of earth is fairly grim. But a few survivors have come up with a far-fetched plan to send a message 50 years back in time, to a specific moment when history changed course and resulted in this desolate world.
The survivors include familiar faces like Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) and of course Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), as well as new faces like Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Sunspot (Adan Canto), Blink (Bingbing Fan) and Bishop (Omar Sy). Basically, Wolverine's future brain is transported psychically via Kitty's powers into his body in the past, and it's his job to find Xavier and Magneto from the '70s (we're talking end of the Vietnam War, Nixon administration here) and help them stop the assassination of the Sentinels' inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the hands of a seriously warped Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
In an ironic twist, Mystique believes this killing will stop the Sentinel program, but it instead it's used by the government as proof that it needs to be ramped up. In another twist, the Sentinels in the future have the ability to adapt to the powers of the mutants they hunt thanks to Mystique's shape-shifting DNA being incorporated into their hardware. Anything to get more Mystique on screen works for me.
So the rest of the film involves Wolverine finding young Charles (James McAvoy), who is living a depressed, drugged-up lifestyle under the care of Beast (Nicholas Hoult); as a result of taking drugs that allow his legs to work again, he no longer has his psychic powers. Then they all have to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of the most impenetrable prison on Earth. Then they have to find Mystique, which is surprisingly difficult, since she's on her own mission to save mutants from being experimented on by Trask (the absence of many of the surviving FIRST CLASS team members is explained here) and eventually attempt to kill him.
And did I mention perhaps the most entertaining sequence in the whole film involving Quicksilver (Evan Peters)? Make fun of his costume all you want, internet, but he's by far the best new character featured in DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. As you can see, the film is in no short supply of story details.
The challenge is to keep the main story going in the past, while occasionally reminding us that the future is in great danger as well. Sentinels are bearing down on old Xavier and his team in the future, while history is in danger of repeating itself in the past. And yet, Singer manages to keep it all aligned somehow, while dropping in references to events from other films. For example, there's a young Army officer named Bill Stryker (Josh Helman) who plays a major part of this story as the liaison between Trask and the military. When Wolverine spots him, he almost loses his mind knowing the pain that this man will unleash on him. It's a nice touch that doesn't feel like as much of a wink to the audience as other moments, such as young Magneto getting his first look at Wolverine's bone claws and commenting, "Imagine if those were made of metal." There are a few moments like that that made me wince (a nod to Quicksilver's parentage might be the worst), but nothing so terrible that they erase what is so good about this film.
With all of these fine actors in the cast, it's great to see Singer give most of them time to really give us a chance to see why casting is critical to making superhero films work. Fassbender owns the last 20 minutes of the film to such a degree, I almost forgot there were other actors doing things around him. And it was great to see Lawrence get a chance to turn pure rage into her most aggressively physical performance. I realize that a lot of her martial arts work is done by a stunt person, but there's something so perfectly broken in her performance that it justifies Mystique's thirst for vengeance. You know that if she succeeds in killing Trask, the world is doomed, but her pain makes us want it for her nonetheless.
The overall quality of the action sequences seems the most impressive thing about DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. Watching Iceman soar on one of his patented ice bridges made me giddy. Or a dust up between Wolverine and Beast is so snarlingly animalistic that you'll never want it to end. With so many strong players in the film, it's actually kind of bizarre that Jackman's Wolverine—the glue that seems to be keeping this franchise alive and on track—is almost lost in this overstuffed adventure. There are moments where I feel he's being wedged into a scene just to get him more screen time, and there's an element to his time travel that involves him keeping calm or risk losing his psychic hold with Kitty in the future that is just plain dumb and unnecessary as anything other than a means to get us back to the future from time to time.
But overall, this is an excellent installment in the X-MEN universe, and I didn't mind having 75 mutants to keep track of (there are even a few familiar faces toward the end of the film that I wasn't even aware were in this) because I knew this was a one-off story and we probably won't have to deal with so many characters in the next installment. I'm not going to dive into whether this Days of Future Past adheres closely to the Chris Claremont version because it doesn't matter; one story does not take away from the other, and certainly there are enough similarities at play in the film that fans of the comic book source material will hopefully not be too heartbroken by any changes.
DAYS OF FUTURE PAST isn't just great storytelling and comic book movie making, but it feels like a necessary step in pulling together a somewhat scattered film series and turning it into a single functioning world. Rarely has taking medicine tasted so sweet.