There are some things that you just can’t help but give second chances to. Despite the innumerable ways that they have disappointed you in the past, you know that somehow, if given enough time, they will prove that you were right to trust them all along. This is how I have felt about the X-Men films since X2. Despite a strong start to the series, it quickly spiraled into a miasma of false starts, tangled continuity and disappointing Wolverine spin-offs. And just when First Class offered a fresh new start to a stagnant series, Days of Future Past loomed ominously in the distance – an impossibly complicated film that would attempt to merge the franchise’s parallel timelines into a streamlined retcon. I had never been so worried about the direction of the franchise, nor have I ever been so pleased to give a struggling series a second chance.
The future is a bleak and desolate wasteland. In their blind desperation to secure their survival as a species, mankind developed Sentinels – robotic drones that can adaptively incorporate the powers of any mutant that they come into contact with. Not only have they brought mutants to near extinction, but have even succeeded at eradicating humans whose genetics would eventually produce mutant descendants. Faced with the inevitability of their own destruction, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr have made common cause against a titanic mutual enemy.
Even at the brink of extinction, however, there is still hope. Kitty Pryde’s ability to phase through solid matter has developed to the point where she can phase a person’s consciousness into their younger body: allowing them to travel backwards through time and change the course of future events. She succeeds at sending Wolverine back to 1973, where he must unite a misanthropic Xavier and an incarcerated Magneto, at a time when the two men couldn’t be further apart, in order to prevent Mystique from assassinating Sentinel inventor Bolivar Trask and setting into motion the events that would convince humanity of the need for Trask’s weapons.
In nearly any other year, X-Men: Days of Future Past would have been an easy choice for the year’s best action film, let alone the year’s best superhero film. But with that title already in the hands of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Days of Future Past will have to settle for simply being the most entertaining film to come out this year. Its grim future – depicting a genocidal war against a rogue, mechanized army set in a nocturnal wasteland – combines the best features of both the Terminator and Matrix franchises, and yet somehow manages to keep from feeling derivative of either one.
After a brief voice over gives us the pertinent details that have developed since The Wolverine, the film cuts to a Sentinel attack on a fugitive band of mutants. In less than five minutes, we watch Sentinels break into the Russian bunker that they’ve been hiding in, use their own powers against them and cut down every last one of them – strangling Sunspot, crushing Colossus’ skull, shattering Iceman’s decapitated head, impaling Blink and incinerating Warpath, Bishop and Shadowcat – before the group successfully warns their past selves of the attack and prevents their own deaths. This is the metric that sets the pace for the rest of the film.
X-Men: Days of Future Past singlehandedly undoes the entire series’ tangled continuity, leaving only the events of First Class and itself unaltered. Wolverine’s transformation into Weapon X, X-Men Origins’ radical reimagining of Deadpool, Rogue’s melodrama with Bobby and Kitty and Jean’s love triangle with Scott and Wolverine, all wiped clean in a little over two hours: streamlined into a readily understood series of events that only requires watching two films to be familiar with, rather than seven. It opens the franchise up to potential films that would be impossible with the previous timeline, such as X-Men Origins: Storm, Gambit and Nightcrawler. It even manages to pit Mystique against both Charles and Erik, setting her – and possibly Wolverine – up as a potent third party in the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse.
Despite being fundamentally different films, Bryan Singer’s Days of Future Past adopts the same directorial style as Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Despite an unwieldy script that spans two different timelines and features nineteen centrally important mutants (three pairs of which appear in both timelines), three humans and two generations of Sentinels, the film still manages to make narrative sense. The timelines do not become so entangled that you can’t make sense of the plot. The characters do not become so lost in shuffle that they fail to warrant their own continued existence.
The film’s climax intercuts between two battles while never becoming confusing nor losing focus on the characters’ very personal struggles against one another. The first is a three-way showdown in 1973 Washington D.C. between Magneto, Mystique and Charles’ new X-Men while the second is a valiant last stand between an army of Sentinels and the combined forces of Magneto and Charles. Rather than competing with one another for importance, the two scenes accentuate one another: each making the other more, rather than less, exciting.
Without a doubt, it is Mystique who is at the core of the film. Not only is it her DNA that allows the Sentinels of the future to become a reality, but it is her decision to kill Trask that propels the United States government to act in accordance to human, rather than mutant, interests. The climax of the film isn’t so focused on whether Charles can stop Erik from assassinating Nixon and his attendants as it is if he can convince his sister to spare the life of a single man who has done so much evil against their kind.
In a remarkable turn for her character, even though she gives in to Charles’ desire to spare Trask, she continues to reject him for both his politics of mutant assimilation and a lifetime spent trying to control her. Likewise, she rejects Erik for trying to kill her in an attempt to rewrite the dystopic future. She instead choses her own path toward mutant independence, free from the men who tried to use her for their own ends.
Days of Future Past’s consistently high quality is only occasionally brought down by a few, relatively minor issues that I took with the film. I found the prospect of Magneto using the “Magic Bullet” to assassinate JFK – undoubtedly for his attempt to kill him and the nascent X-Men during the Cuban Missile Crisis – far more compelling than Magneto trying to save him because he was a mutant. Going into the film, I was hoping for a more antagonistic confrontation between the past and future Xavier: more starkly pitting the elder’s idealistic altruism against the younger’s disillusioned apathy. Additionally, it feels as if this is the third film of a trilogy without a second installment. I would have loved to see a film depicting Magneto’s brotherhood’s involvement in the Kennedy assassination parallel to Xavier’s struggle to deal with his life as an invalid and his failed attempts to start a school for mutants.
Without a doubt, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the darkest, most ambitious and all-around best X-Men film to date. It tackles an iconic and incredibly difficult storyline from the franchise’s colorful, fifty-year history with remarkable skill: not only doing justice to its source material, but to the film series to which it belongs. It handles the complex issue of civil rights alongside the personal betrayals of two close friends: Charles’ absence while mutant activists died at the hands of humans and Erik’s all-consuming need to prevent the atrocities of his youth from becoming the realities of his present. Overall, I give the film a 9.5 out of 10.