When the first trailer released last year, I wrote about how excited I was for this movie. It was heralding a return of Bryan Singer to the franchise as director, and promising to fix all the continuity snarls that pop up when you treat an ongoing film franchise as part of a quantum field where various events may or may not have happened in previous installments.
Of course, now that it’s out, we’re all rather ashamed of the fact that Bryan Singer’s in trouble for alleged sexual assault (and consequently probably will not return for the film’s sequel; also this is apparently the third time Singer’s been accused of sexual predation, which doesn’t mean anything in a legal sense, but does suggest that he has a problem and needs to stay away from children), and there are still some continuity problems that didn’t get sorted with the reset.
Nonetheless, this movie is good. Without reservation, I can say that if you haven’t gone to see it yet, then it is well worth your time if you enjoy either action movies or X-Men.
Getting into specifics, the reasons I think Days of Future Past is a good movie come down to a basic understanding of the dynamics that are core to the concept. The X-Men are social pariahs who have to operate largely in secret. Because no one else trusts them, they rely heavily on one another, and this interpersonal trust is supposed to be reflected in their team dynamics. You don’t have a group of six superheroes who all go out and do things to be individually awesome (a trend that is all too common in previous entries in the series); you show them working together and playing off one another’s strengths (though the characters who get more exposure also tend to get upgrades to their powers that make them better able to operate by themselves, the point of the mutant concept is that each character has one specific power, in contrast to the two or three powers typical to solo heroes, so they have to rely on one another). All that’s to say that the action sequences in this movie are some of the most engaging I’ve seen in a long time, and most of that has to do with the fact that the characters are working together (Blink’s especially cool in the future sequences, as she makes absurdly awesome use of her portals in conjunction with just about everyone), and the relationships are apparent in how they interact, even when there’s no dialogue (also, the climax is simply fantastic with how it’s constructed to show the simultaneous battles in the past and the future.
On a character level, I feel like everyone gets really good treatment. Most of the mutants in the future timeline are very minor and serve as window dressing to the plot going on in 1973, but they don’t feel like pointless cameos (while I love shout outs to fans, the X-Universe is so vast that it’s way too easy to make these movies feel crowded with extra characters that don’t serve any purpose or get any development); what I mean to say is that when characters in the future die (and you know they’re going to die because this is a story about resetting a timeline; that’s always the ideal place to kill off characters just for fun since nothing has to be permanent) there’s an emotional impact.
Like I said though, the future plotline is the B-story in this movie. All the real meaty drama happens in 1973 with the plot to stop Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the Sentinels (apparently he’s an accomplished roboticist and biologist, since he invented the Sentinels, but all we ever see him doing in a lab is working with tissue samples from various mutants). There’s some good stuff here with pretty deep explorations of Charles Xavier’s loss of confidence following the near disaster that was the Cuban Missile Crisis and Erik Lehnsherr’s descent into further extremism following his imprisonment for assassinating JFK (in a minor twist that I think is kind of adorable, it turns out Erik was trying to save JFK, who was actually assassinated because he was a mutant). Also, we get a decent treatment of Wolverine, complete with all the baggage he’s piled up over the course of five previous major appearances in the franchise (I know Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is a money-maker, but I wish the character would just get a chance to rest). Mystique’s great too (I’ve read that some folks thought Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was a little flat here, but I thought she nailed it; Mystique’s a character who’s all about deception and protecting herself; it makes sense that she wouldn’t emote much in the presence of people who she feels have betrayed her).
Of course, there are some problems with the film. If I have to point to anything, it’s going to come back to Mystique, though not because of the way she’s portrayed (like I said, I think her arc in this movie is great, and I’m perfectly happy with the performance). The problem is that she’s the only woman in the ’70s plotline. The other three female characters from X-Men: First Class were all written out inexplicably (to give a quick rundown, Moira MacTaggart got her memory erased by Charles at the end of the previous movie, and Angel and Emma Frost are victims of Trask’s mutant dissections). I understand the decision to kill off a swath of characters from the last film as a way of building motivation for Mystique, because she spent time with both Xavier’s and Magneto’s crews, but that doesn’t excuse the failure to involve some other women in what’s going on! Yeah, Angel was a minor character, and yeah, January Jones was atrocious as Emma Frost, but that’s not your only pool of characters to pull from.
I mean, come on, you’re adapting “Days of Future Past,” and you completely overlook Destiny, one of the most important characters to Mystique’s history, who was a major player in that same source material! I understand the need to keep the cast trim (I’ve complained in the past about bloated rosters in previous X-Men movies) in order to keep everything brisk, but in a group of five major roles (six if you want to count Beast, though he doesn’t do much besides being the reliable aid to Charles) it’s a problem when there’s only one woman. Heck, the story’s framed so it would make perfect sense for Mystique to have a partner like Destiny; Charles was always trying to control her and Erik manipulated her, so why not have someone who’s on board with her plan and treats her like an equal (for that matter, Destiny’s precognitive powers would be a great hook to get Mystique to see what a mess killing Trask would make).
As it stands, there’s some problematic stuff with the relationships between Charles, Erik, and Mystique. The arguments between the two men about how they treated Mystique and what they’re going to do to stop her from making a pretty big mistake read like a couple of ex-boyfriends conspiring to get the woman that got away from them back under their thumb. It’s uncomfortable, and the only thing that makes it not so squicky is that Charles at least acknowledges by the film’s end that he’s been treating Mystique wrongly and that he has to stop trying to control her. Erik’s kind of a blank slate, since he seems to be all about personal agency (for mutants at least), but he’s also ruthless and willing to kill Mystique to keep things from going badly. Overall, I’m glad that the plot resolves the way it does, but up until that point it feels entirely paternalistic with the male leads doing everything they can to keep the female lead from doing something because they know better.
Turning from plot specifics, I want to point out some continuity problems that still exist. Spoilers follow. Firstly, Havok makes a cameo as a mutant who was drafted for Vietnam. I didn’t have a problem with his presence in First Class at all, and I’m okay with him being the older Summers brother, but with the ending establishing that everyone from the original X-Men movie (released way back in 2001!) is alive and well in 2023, there’s a problem. Even if you use a sliding scale similar to how Marvel manages the timeline in its comics, and say that the events of X-Men (or whatever parallel events happened in its place in the new timeline) is set in 2011 (there’s some wiggle room since it’s set in “the near future”) then that means that Scott, who appears to be in his late 30s or early 40s in the new 2023, wasn’t born until the 1980s at the earliest. We’re just going to ignore X-Men Origins: Wolverine; nothing in that movie is canon, so it’s possible this might have happened. Yes, perfectly possible that Scott is nearly 30 years younger than his brother Alex.
Well, maybe someday the rights will revert to Marvel and they’ll get everything straightened out. In the mean time, this is a good movie, and as long as Fox continues to make films of this quality for the series, I’ll be happy.