If there’s one word to sum up the latest installment in the long running X-Men franchise (subtitled Days of Future Past this time out), it wouldn’t be “epic.” It wouldn’t be “intense,” “electrifying,” “visionary,” or “game-changing,” either. “Talky,” on the other hand, fits perfectly. As a matter of fact, the film is one long lecture, an exercise in exposition constantly reminding the audience of what’s at stake, who’s involved, and the ramifications of both success and failure. Thanks to its always on-point casting and performances, the two-hour plus running time goes by at a decent clip. On the other hand, the movie’s main motive seems to be: “There’s horrible, future-altering events at work here. Let’s have a conversation about it.”
Indeed, in a dark dystopian world where mutants (and their human supporters) are being hunted out of existence by shape-shifting robots called Sentinels, a ragtag group of survivors including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Bobby Drake), and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), among others, are at their wits’ (if not their words’) end.
Facing certain extinction, they decide to send Mr. Knuckle Knives back in time to prevent Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating a U.S. Defense contractor named Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. This act apparently leads to the development of the Sentinel Program, the killer automatons, and the end of the X’s as we know them.
Having successfully traversed the years, Wolverine must now convince the young versions of Xavier (Jame McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to join up and fight. With the help of Beast (Nicholas Hoult), they must all find a way to stop Mystique and save the world.
While they are often credited as “reinventing” the comic book genre, Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies have always been a question of fanboy pandering vs. mainstream commercial appeal. Walking the fine line between Christopher Nolan realism and outright Marvel imagination, their success is part star power, part characterization, and a whole lot of simplistic storytelling. When Singer hasn’t been involved, the results were either routine (Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand) or wildly creative (Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class). With him in the director’s chair again, it’s like stepping back into one’s own cinematic time machine. Singer has been away from the series for almost 11 years, and a lot has changed in the superhero genre since then.
From the moment we see Jackman back as the lead, you know X-Men: Days of Future Past is reverting back to its old, and frankly flat, form. In the previous installment of this new proposed trilogy, Vaughn had the good sense to keep the character as a cameo (and a hilarious one at that). Here, he’s part of everything — the first fight, the main storyline, and the inevitable open-ended finale. In fact, Wolverine is so important to the plot (and Singer’s return to the franchise) that it’s like we’re watching an extension of James Mangold’s standalone side project from last year. Oddly enough, in the original comic book (from 1981) of the story being explored here, it is Kitty, not our buff stud muffin, who saves the day.
Of course, that won’t do for a series that has easily milked a single idea (man vs. mutant) going on seven films now. Singer’s set-pieces, including a comical one featuring the faster-than-light-speed Quicksilver (Evan Peters), are solid, but what’s in between weighs everything down. We don’t get the goofy gravitas of The Avengers, or the teen angst travails of Spider-Man. No Singer’s X-Men most resembles what Zack Snyder did last year with Man of Steel. He’s over-committed to the material, to a fault.
X-Men: Days of Future Past does have its merits. Keeping its mouth shut is not one of them.