X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is based on, but fairly liberally adapts, one of the (justly) most famous and beloved of storylines on the X-Men comics pages–an idea that may strike fear into the hearts of many an X fanboy and fangirl, and not without good reason. After all, arguably the most famous and beloved X-Men comics story of all time, “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” was sloppily and offensively reduced to a subplot in the altogether botched third installment of the film series, THE LAST STAND. But that film and this one provide a classic compare-and-contrast case study in how one can effectively take necessary liberties with the source material while still respecting and retaining the core arcs and themes–and Bryan Singer, returning to the X director’s chair after a decade-plus absence, not only gets the balance right but also further enriches the material and the ongoing film franchise with his own unique spin.
As an old school X fanboy myself, the more obvious surface deviations rankle a bit at first. The basic scenario remains the same. Sometime in the future, humanity’s prejudices against superpowered mutants have escalated not only to outright war but genocide, with mutants being hunted down and exterminated by giant robot executioners known as Sentinels. With the free mutant population, much less the X-Men team, reduced a rapidly dwindling few, a desperate, last-minute plan to save the race is enacted: send the consciousness of one remaining X-Man back in time to prevent an assassination that serves as the literal and figurative trigger point for the chain of events directly leading up to that point. Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (with story credit also going to Jane Goldman and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS director Matthew Vaughn) then adjust the details, both to keep in line with the films’ own unique continuity and, to be frank, satisfy certain commercial interests. Here, instead of that of a fear-mongering senator, the assassination that must be thwarted is that of the very creator of the Sentinels themselves, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage); but the biggest change is that the X-Man being sent back in time is, of course, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) rather than the comics’ Kitty Pryde. Kitty (Ellen Page) still plays a prominent role in this version of the story, however, taking the place of Rachel Summers (a terrific character from the comics who will, sadly, probably never appear in the films, due to her rather–to put it mildly–complex backstory) as the one whose powers make time travel possible. (Just exactly how they do, though, is a bit of an unexplained mystery I am willing to handwave and forgive.)
Cynical purists could scoff that once again the X filmmakers have twisted a legendary story in order to pump up the most popular character’s prominence (love the wily, clawed Canadian though I do, that he was entrusted with a critical decision in THE LAST STAND’s Dark Phoenix desecration was all sorts of wrong on too many levels), but it turns out to be a rather sly way of drawing in even the most casual viewer not only into high concept time-jumping premise, but also Singer and Kinberg’s most radical adjustment to the story. With the fate of the very world, much less the entirety of mutantkind, at stake, this is one of the most epically scaled of X-Men comics stories, and the film version reflects that size and ambition in its large ensemble encompassing actors from both the FIRST CLASS prequel and the original three films in the franchise. But even with a larger cast than usual, this turns out to be the most intimately focused of the series to date, zeroing in not on Logan but rather Professor Charles Xavier. While Kitty and the future Professor X (Patrick Stewart) send Logan back to the FIRST CLASS era of 1973, the Charles he finds there is far from the battered-yet-not-broken one we last saw at the end of that film. Unkempt and living in near-seclusion, his vast telepathic powers suppressed by drugs that enable him to walk (developed by his one remaining young charge, Hank McCoy/Beast, again played by Nicholas Hoult), the 1973 Charles (James McAvoy) is broken, and rather bitterly so. A confluence of events and circumstances have drained all hope for and belief in his idealistic dream of mutant and human harmony: ever-increasing paranoia about mutants after the closing events of FIRST CLASS; in a nice use of the real world historical context, his now-shuttered school did not go untouched by the Vietnam War and its attendant draft, which stole away many of his young mutant students; not to mention the still-lingering sting of the betrayal by his once closest friends Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). And so beyond the concrete physical particulars of reaching Mystique before she can fire her fateful bullet, the greatest task in Logan’s mission to save Xavier’s dream is resurrect the dream within the dreamer himself.
And so unlike both the previous films and the source story, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST rather boldly plays strongest not as a typical superhero action extravaganza but a truly character-driven drama. The great irony in pushing Wolverine to the forefront in this version is that he doesn’t have a lot of big fight scenes, which, while possibly disappointing to fans of his trademark berserker rages, effectively reinforces that this is an older, wiser, and (slightly) more mature version of Logan than we’ve seen before. Jackman does a terrific job conveying the subtler, differing nuances while still maintaining the familiar, devil-may-care core personality, and he and McAvoy have a great rapport with the Logan/Charles role reversal relationship here.
But while Logan is the entry point into the story and concept, the heart is lies with Charles, Erik, and Raven, and Singer takes advantage of the embarrassment of acting riches that is the central trio of McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence. All three are at their most movie star charismatic here, with their formidable dramatic chops lending real gravitas and palpable emotional stakes as they continue their struggles and conflicts with each other and within in order to act for the greater benefit of their kind.
This isn’t to say, however, there isn’t action nor a sense of fun in DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. In the case of the latter, certain lighter, broad strokes don’t work too well, namely the depiction of President Richard Nixon, which skirts silly sketch comedy. But the fun more effectively and sufficiently manifests elsewhere: Wolvie being Wolvie, he’s never above tossing off a well-timed wisecrack here and there, and the introduction of the heretofore unseen-on-the-big-screen Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is one of film’s biggest and most unexpected delights, his super-speed abilities making for one showstopping action sequence that is certain to be a huge, word-of-mouth-driving crowd pleaser. (All due respect to the great Joss Whedon, but he has his work cut out for him in introducing the official Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the character in the upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON–especially with ever-bland GODZILLA star Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the role.) But Singer and Kinberg smartly use the momentum built by the mostly drama-focused two-thirds to amplify the impact of the film’s dual-pronged action climax, with Magneto showing his magnetic might in 1973 while his future incarnation (Ian McKellen) fights side by side with Charles, Kitty, Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), and Sunspot (Adam Canto) against an army of Sentinels. While the film could have used more glimpses of the post-apocalyptic future world (and, indeed, there was more originally filmed, featuring Anna Paquin’s now very barely seen Rogue), Singer makes the scenes set there count as both action beats and solid support for the main story thread in set in the past.
But the biggest support DAYS OF FUTURE PAST gives is to the X-film franchise’s future, building on and advancing the renewed fan and general audience goodwill generated by FIRST CLASS and last summer’s THE WOLVERINE. Singer and company leave this film with a myriad of promising plot possibilities and directions on where to go next, but what most intrigues is how and where the characters progress from this point–a reflection of how well the film captures the true essence of what has made and will make the X-Men’s uncanny popularity survive and thrive in days of future and past. Grade: B+
By Michael DeQuina