This adaptation of one of the most famous X-Men comic stories acts as a sequel to 2011’s X-Men: First Class prequel but is also a semi-prequel to the existing original X-Men trilogy but takes place both before and after those movies, yet also acts as a sequel to them despite the majority of it taking place years before the events of 2009’s X-Men Origins Wolverine, but at least some of it takes place chronologically after last year’s present day set The Wolverine. Got that? Good. Forget all of it. It’s not going to matter.
There’s a common term in comic book vernacular – ‘retcon’ – which stands for retroactive continuity. Where the writers change established history to fit whatever story they’re currently telling, whether it flies in the face of what has come before or not. Days of Future Past is basically retconning its own cinematic universe in a way not seen before in comic book movies. Mutants, hunted to the edge of extinction in the near future by robotic killers called Sentinels, are forced to make a drastic decision. The remaining few X-Men, led by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), decide to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to 1973 to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the creator of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), an event that fast tracks the creation of the Sentinels themselves. To do so he has to enlist the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who are at opposite ends of the spectrum post First Class; Xavier, disillusioned and Magneto, imprisoned.
Not long after a bravura opening sequence and before you’ve had time to ask any nagging questions (“Um, how exactly are you alive again Professor?” “When exactly did the world get this bad?”) we’re whisked back into the 70’s and the plot is underway. Returning to the X-franchise for the first time as director since the still unsurpassed X-Men 2, Bryan Singer appears re-energised and injects some much needed life into the well worn characters with a tale that seamlessly interweaves the two timelines concurrently for maximum tension. That it never once becomes confusing, as is often the case with time travel stories, is the real masterstroke.
And although the original cast gets somewhat sidelined in the future scenes the real meat of the movie lies in exploring the relationship between the players in the past, specifically Charles, Erik and Mystique. Each of the actors imbues their characters’ struggles with real believability and our prior knowledge of their pasts (and futures) means every one of them rings true. Whether it’s Mystique’s belief that what she is doing is right, or Charles’ attempts to bring her back to the side of good, each character has a compelling and believable motive for their actions. And it’s here that the X-Men movies have the edge over other superhero franchises; the emotional stakes are always higher than the more traditional ‘find the bad guy, stop the bad guy’ superhero fare. While it was great to watch the Avengers Assemble there was no real heart to the piece; in Days of Future Past the characters are essentially fighting for Mystique’s soul. And each of the central trio, plus Wolverine, bring their A game. McAvoy and Lawrence in particular who get to explore facets of their characters hitherto untapped in the movies their characters have appeared in thus far and though Fassbender and Jackman are less well served, essentially retreading old ground as radical crusader and story facilitator respectively, they’re never less than magnetic screen presences.
All of this sounds as if there isn’t any BIFF POW SMACK action but never fear because there’s plenty, and again it’s another area where the X-Men have the edge over their competitors. Not to criticise the Avengers again but all the heroes have there are many variations on punching and shooting; the X-Men series has an array of powers at their disposal and as a result you get scenes which really showcase how vast and varied their abilities are, whether it’s a character that can play Portal in real life leading to some truly inventive battle scenes, or one, Quiksilver, whose power – moving really fast – leads to possibly the funniest scene in a non comedy film so far this year, as he runs rings around guards during a prison break.
Admittedly it’s gets a little muddled in the second act with scenes that don’t fully explore the ramifications of what’s happening – although a Parisian skirmish is a highlight – in the rush to get to the next set piece, the de facto villain is never given any sort of motive beyond ‘he’s the bad guy’ and there’s not nearly enough Ian McKellan, but these are minor niggles in a film that’s absolutely fit to bursting with invention and story to tell, and one that despite the end of the world stakes is a lot of fun. Aside from the aforementioned prison break, there’s a great metal detector gag, and the way the younger Charles describes the time travel plot is a joy.
While First Class could be watched as a pre-cursor to the existing X-Men trilogy, Days of Future Past most certainly cannot, as its events have repercussions for the entire X-Men franchise past and present, especially in the hugely satisfying denouement which will have long time fans grinning with glee. I have absolutely no idea what it does continuity wise, but they’ve given themselves a whole new canvas to tell further X-adventures freed from past movies and storylines. Like I said…retcon.
In what so easily could have been a disaster, Bryan Singer has wonderfully brought together two separate casts and blended them together to create something epic in scope that will please fans of both series.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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