X-Men: A Blast From the Past (and Future)

Bryan Singer's Days of Future Past is the franchise's most ambitious installment to date.
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20th Century Fox

The cast, by my back-of-the-envelope tally, has collectively earned 10 Oscar nominations over the years, along with more Golden Globes, Emmys, and BAFTAs than I care to count.

If I’d written that sentence two decades ago, one might have assumed I was describing a Robert Altman film. But it is a testament to the remarkable tenacity of the superhero genre—a genre that has more than once seemed utterly spent—that I’m referring not to an Altman but to an X-Men.

Now it’s true that X-Men: Days of Future Past has achieved this milestone in part through arithmetic sleight of hand, by essentially combining the cast of the first three X-Men films (Hugh Jackman, Halle Barry, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin—here present only in minute cameo—Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, etc.) with that of its subsequent pre-boot, X-Men: First Class (Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult…) Still, it is an impressive accumulation of talent, one reinforced by the return of director Bryan Singer, who masterfully helmed the first two installments of the franchise.

As he demonstrated in those earlier films, Singer has a particular aptitude for taking narratives that teeter on the precipice of preposterousness and imbuing them with unexpected moral resonance and gravity. It’s a skill set in notable demand over the course of this exceptionally ambitious new chapter, which interweaves not only casts but storylines, time periods, and dramatic moods.

Singer opens in the dystopian near-future, with a shot of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan presided over by an Empire State Building with a hole punched through its upper floors. Intelligent robots called the Sentinels have conducted a decade-long war to eradicate mutants, a war that they have unilaterally expanded to include human beings suspected of helping mutants as well as those who might produce mutant offspring down the road. In practice, this seems to mean “pretty much all humankind.” (Yes, the echoes of Skynet rumble loudly.)

A few familiar franchisees (Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine, Storm) and assorted minor mutants (Bishop, Blink, Sunspot) take sanctuary in a remote Himalayan monastery, where they adopt a plan to save the future by altering the past. Kitty Pryde (Page) will project the consciousness of Wolverine (Jackman) back to his semi-ageless 1973 self. There he will enlist the aid of the younger versions of Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) in an effort to prevent Mystique (Lawrence) from killing the Sentinels’ inventor, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage)—a murder that precipitated the all-out war against mutants that has wrought such global havoc.

Still with me? From this conceit, the movie proceeds in relatively straightforward fashion, with a slumbering future Wolverine (shades of The Matrix) trying to accomplish his mission in the past (a whiff of Austin Powers), before time runs out and the Sentinels hunt down the last remaining mutants in the monastery.

There are missteps here and there. The Sentinels are a disappointingly familiar hybrid of the T-1000 Terminator and (especially) the Destroyer from Thor. Even by blockbuster standards, the movie plays awfully fast and loose with the consequences of time travel. And the climactic sequence, in which the Nixon White House is encircled by—nope, it’s a detail too good to reveal—seems like an event far more likely to have started a war against mutants than to have averted one.

But given the scope and audacity of the film, Singer does a masterful job of keeping his many balls in the air. The ‘70s-era storyline has fun not only with the fashion and the cultural touchstones (lava lamps, Roberta Flack), but neatly conjures the look of period film. A central sequence takes place in the midst of the Paris Peace Accords, and there are cunning references to the Kennedy assassination (what could have accounted for the magic bullet?), as well as the introductions of a few characters who appeared earlier (which is to say, later) in the franchise.

Jackman once again seems more alive when playing Wolverine than he does in any other role, though the habitrail-diameter veins in his herculean arms are becoming a matter of concern. (In one of the movie’s many nice touches, we’re reminded that even though he looks the same on the outside, the pre-admantium-ized Logan is a more fragile hero altogether.) Stewart lends his customary air of gentle authority to the proceedings as (the elder) Professor X, and McKellen—well, honestly McKellen looks a bit bored, which is understandable enough after four tours as Magneto and five (and counting) as Gandalf.

The torch, in any case, is being handed off. This film, like X-Men: First Class, belongs principally to the triangular affections and antipathies of the younger Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique. Much has happened since the prior film, and McAvoy’s Professor X, in particular, has borne the brunt of it, losing his powers and his faith. His doubts, as ever, find their antithesis in the heedless certainty of Fassbender’s Magneto. Which leaves Lawrence’s Mystique as—if you’ll forgive the phrase—the x factor, the weight that can tip the scales one way or the other. Mystique is the principal moral axis around which the film pivots, and Lawrence handles this responsibility with a precise balance of strength and vulnerability.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is, in other words, not a particularly lighthearted entertainment. That said, I would be remiss not to note that tucked away amid all the existential melodrama is perhaps the most hilarious set piece ever to grace a superhero film. The subject is a jailbreak, and the instigator is Quicksilver (Evan Peters), the first significant character to be jointly claimed by the X-Men franchise (the rights to which are owned by 20th Century Fox) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The latter managed to get their version (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) onscreen first, in a brief credit-sequence coda to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But it will be awfully tough for Marvel (and Joss Whedon, who will be directing Taylor-Johnson in the Avengers sequel next year) to contrive a more memorable Quicksilver than Peters's. The overall role may be small, but the rewards of this one sequence—which lasts, perhaps, two minutes—are borderline incalculable. Just sit back and prepare to enjoy yourself when you hear the opening chords of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle."

Who knew that saving the world from Armageddon could be such a gas?

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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