After the disappointing and directionless X3: The Last Stand and the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, prospects for the continuation of the franchise had gone from great to grim in just a few short years. Desperate to breathe life back into the series, 20th Century Fox turned to director Bryan Singer to help right the ship, and although Singer didn’t return to the director’s chair, he oversaw production of X-Men: First Class, an origin story centered on the friendship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) in their early years.
A critical and commercial success, First Class set the stage for an expanded X-Men universe featuring younger versions of the mutant superheroes, but many fans still clamored for more adventures featuring the original cast. With Singer back at the helm, X-Men: Days of Future Past aims to balance precariously between the two, giving the original onscreen mutants one last chance to shine, while simultaneously pushing the younger generation forward, and fixing a few glaring continuity errors along the way.
The film opens with a tremendous action sequence in the near future, where an army of mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels have driven the X-Men underground. This sequence of events was set into motion some 50 years earlier, when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated Bolivar Trask, a military scientist and anti-mutant activist whose experimental Sentinel program would only be accelerated by his untimely demise.
With only a handful of their kind remaining, and their numbers dwindling seemingly by the second, the elder Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) discover that Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has the ability to transport a person’s consciousness into their younger self. It’s a painful experience, one that Xavier is far too fragile to withstand, but thanks to his innate healing ability, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the perfect candidate to be sent back to alter the events that led to the destruction of the mutant race.
Waking up in his 1973 body, Wolverine is tasked with tracking down and reuniting Xavier and Lensherr to stop the assassination of Trask. Easy enough, right? Unfortunately, Xavier has become a bitter, reclusive alcoholic, wasting away in his mansion with his only remaining friend, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), while Lensherr is incarcerated in the most secure building in the United States after being implicated in the death of President Kennedy. After all, as Xavier puts it, “who else could curve a bullet?”
Getting Lensherr out of trouble is a seemingly impossible task, but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is the young Pietro Maximoff, better known as Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and his handful of scenes are some of the most entertaining moments in the film, particularly an escape sequence that conveys his super-speed abilities by shooting at 3000 frames per second. There have been glimpses of this moment during the film’s trailers, but the scene as a whole is staggeringly beautiful, and the character’s bizarre sense of humor provides a sense of joy and playfulness that are noticeably absent from the rest of the film.
That’s not to say X-Men: Days of Future Past is not enjoyable – on the contrary, it’s a thrilling experience from start to finish, with plenty of emotional resonance to go along with all the action and special effects. Jackman’s performance is less growling menace and more wise mediator, adding yet another dimension to an already complex character. McAvoy and Fassbender still have remarkable chemistry, but the film truly belongs to Lawrence, whose ability to emote through layers of body paint and prosthetics makes Mystique more relatable than ever before.
While it’s a shame that most of the original X-Men cast are relegated to cameos, those minor appearances tend to come during jaw-dropping action scenes. The futuristic battles between the Sentinels and the last remaining mutants are a joy to behold, with Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) finally using his abilities in ways that fans have always wanted to see, and newcomers like Blink (Fan Bingbing) and Bishop (Omar Sy) getting an opportunity to kick ass alongside the veterans.
There are also plenty of references to the previous X-Men films, as Days of Future Past attempts to bridge the gap between the original trilogy and the reboot. William Stryker (Josh Helman) is a looming presence throughout the film, with his work evoking images of the Weapon X program, and the final moments are full of fan service cameos that effectively close the book on the original characters. For the most part, it succeeds, and while there are still a few questions remaining, there’s so much to love here that the minor details no longer feel relevant.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a return to form for Singer, whose directorial efforts since the first two films have been rather poorly received. His emotional connection to the material and his love for the characters has never been more evident, and the X-Men have never been more compelling or entertaining. This latest installment proves there’s still plenty of life left in the franchise, and we can’t wait to see what comes next when the mutants return in 2016.