“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is, pardon the pun, a marvel of comic book franchise filmmaking. It’s not only a strong (possibly the best) entry into the “X-Men” line, but one that carries all of the emotional and thematic weight of the series with it, turning the previous installments into the cars of a freight train that builds momentum and collides into the audience’s expectations with tremendous force.
“Days of Future Past” opens in the midst of a dystopian world ruled by killer robots called Sentinels, which, in a jarring change from standard superhero world rules, are so powerful that the heroes are at their mercy.
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is again the protagonist, his presence here reminding us why “X-Men: First Class,” the one installment without him as the central hero, felt like it was missing something. It’s Wolverine who, courtesy of his ability to instantly recover from any injury, is tasked with traveling back to 1973, where he must prevent an assassination that sets up the dystopian future.
With so many characters to choose from, it’s pleasing to see that director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg aptly put the series’ most compelling personalities at front, with others (such as Halle Berry’s Storm) receiving short but adequate screen time.
There’s a grandness to the time-hopping mixture of period piece and sci-fi future, one realized by the narrative’s deft needling of the two chronological threads. The Cuban Missile Crisis hijinks of “First Class” felt like cheap cinematic tourism, but the ’70s setting here is made interesting via the contrast with the future, with the Paris Peace Accords and a climactic battle at the White House supplying settings that cement the film’s genuinely epic feel.
Although Wolverine is the protagonist, the story is primarily one of the young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), whose peace/war, MLK/Malcom X dichotomy is used to great effect in the ’70s, even as their future selves (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, in welcome returns) have finally united against the imminent destruction of their race. McAvoy and Fassbender turn in two of the best performances in comic movies to date as the ultimate frenimies, with the former’s wounded compassion and the latter’s militant fury providing the primary philosophical conflict. At the center of this conflict is Jennifer Lawrence’s shape-shifting Mystique, whose actions could either start or prevent genocide. These actors manage the underrated and unusual feat of making the moral struggles of cartoon characters resonant and even profound instead of pretentious.
Singer, whose 2000 “X-Men” marked the beginning of comic book blockbusters as we’ve come to know them, is basically an old-hand at this, and here he proves that his hand has been missed since he left after the second installment. He’s learned a thing or two and has evolved along with the better comic films, as the action in “Days of Future Past” represents a marked improvement on that of the prior “X-Men” entries. The immense scope of the film works against it in a few instances; certain happenings and characters whose inclusion despite irrelevance suggest an editing process that cut away a wealth of content. But these moments are brief, fading in the face of the film’s pleasures, which include not only neat special effects and compelling performances, but light humor derived from the cast and the settings.
This is perhaps the first superhero team film that depicts its members as powerful individuals heightened by teamwork in combat, not merely godlike figures each fighting their own small wars. This collectivity gives the action scenes a sense of narrative weight; they feel like the logical result of the plot’s components, as opposed to empty vessels for special effects, a superlative accomplishment in this genre.
With so much going on, there’s not a huge amount of time to tend to Wolverine’s character arc, but Singer does treat the hero with special care, the kind worthy of the series protagonist and fan favorite. The main characters all get their due emotionally and thematically, but the ending pays particular, rewarding attention to Wolverine’s journey from the first film to last year’s superlative “The Wolverine.”
This clearly wasn’t easy, as Singer and writer Kinberg had to weave together dozens of characters and “X-Men” events into something coherent and affecting. It’s obvious by the ambition of the story, which heavily mines one of the comic series’ most revered tales, that “Days of Future Past” wasn’t approached as another mere installment, but as the peak of the franchise. It’s complex, and while that complexity isn’t a virtue in and of itself, it is when filmmakers use key characters in important ways, with weight that simultaneously acknowledges the scale of these mutants’ abilities and achieves the effect that the characters claim. The fate of the world seems to be in the balance as their lives unfold. The end credits assure us that there will be more “X-Men” films, and that’s almost a shame; what a delight this would have been as a finale, an exclamation point to the series, giving the whole affair an impact very rare in comic book films.