With a trilogy, two spin-off films, and a reboot, the X-Men franchise has already established sure footing in our collective imaginations, though it has taken quite a while for the series to hit a comfortable stride. It peaked with X2, fell to a critical low with The Last Stand, and hit rock bottom with Origins: Wolverine. Then, it began its successful ascent with First Class, the reboot it sorely needed, followed by a worthy standalone Wolverine movie that re-directed the narrative of both the character and the franchise. Days of Future Past is the culmination of everything that has come before it. The film acknowledges the choices and mistakes of previous entries and re-purposes them into an epic blockbuster with plenty of sci-fi intrigue to spare. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film boasts an A-list cast who light up the screen with charm and wit, all while embracing the wonderful 70’s vibe. This isn’t just the best X-Men film to date. This is one of the year’s best films by far.
In a not too distant future, the mutant race faces extinction. The sentinels, all-powerful machines with unparalleled abilities that can counter any mutant’s powers, have established control over the world and continue to enforce a bleak existence. Those who aren’t cordoned off into camps are on the run with a severely limited life span. The X-Men themselves are merely down to a handful. In the face of overwhelming odds, they have no choice but to send someone back into the past to prevent such a future from ever happening. It’s their most crucial mission yet, to save everyone by altering the course of time.
The time-shifting plot is definitely a mind-bender, but it never detracts from the film. It pulls you in even further as you watch the two different timelines converge on one another. And that’s part of the film’s unabashed fun, to see the future and past selves of the characters interact. They’ve assembled quite the cast here, and while some of them don’t get their due screen time, the film utilizes them regardless, whether it be for a significant plot progression or an action-packed set piece. Characters like Storm, Iceman, and Colossus adhere to the latter. Their appearances function as mere bookends for the film, but these scenes succeed in illustrating the sheer desperation of the characters. They also show how director Bryan Singer has finally tapped into their abilities both as mutants and as a team. He recognizes their potential to deliver the spectacle and capitalizes on it. So despite having a cavalcade of players and only using a handful as actual characters, screenwriter Simon Kinberg knows how to divvy them up accordingly to serve different aspects of the story.
Fortunately, the character of Quicksilver is given the proper treatment. And rightfully so. Evan Peters blazes a trail through the screen with a keen eccentricity backed by caffeine-induced mannerisms. Sure, he can barely stay in one place to hold a conversation, but he grabs our attention no matter what he does. He even treats us to a dazzling slow motion sequence that will undoubtedly elicit waves of laughter throughout the theater. Though his only purpose in the film is to break Magneto out of jail, it’s still an appropriate use of the character since he is the illegitimate offspring of Magneto. The film even makes a clever little nod to this particular detail, which is proof of the filmmakers’ respect for the rich history of the comics. Respect is something of a hot topic among fans, as the film series has often butchered certain character arcs and storylines, but Days of Future Past proves that this time around the filmmakers are determined to get things right.
Wolverine is our way into the narrative. Though it’s a deliberate choice on the filmmakers’ part, it’s also the best one in terms of overall pacing. There’s no way anyone in their right minds would believe that someone has been sent from the future. But Wolverine does a damn good job of convincing people due to the fact that the claws often come out when doing so. This spares us the exhaustion of exposition-overload, which, in turn, allows the narrative to progress quite nicely. Now, Wolverine may be the presumed hero, but the film actually turns out to be Mystique’s story. The plot itself surrounds the assassination of Sentinel creator Bolivar Trask, a scheme conjured up by the vengeful Mystique that becomes a pivotal turning point in history that inevitably leads to the future as we know it to be. It’s also a turning point for Mystique as her character’s arc accelerates her transformation into the cold-hearted femme fatale of the original trilogy, thus bringing her journey in full circle.
Both Charles and Erik, too, find themselves one step closer to their destinies. Erik, left in a glass fortress seething with rage and vengeance, takes advantage of his prison break to finish what he started: to place the mutants at the top of the survival food chain. Charles, however, faces an even darker existence: take a mutant-suppressor serum to ensure his ability to walk, or give up that privilege entirely to embrace his powers as a mutant. This ultimatum calls into question the things we give up for what we believe to be the greater good. Charles convinces himself that it’s better for him to stay outside of people’s minds. Along comes Wolverine, who reminds him that if he continues to remain blind from others, he is accelerating their doom much faster than Mystique since he’s doing nothing to prevent it. It’s only then that Charles embraces his powers, knowing full well that his choices come with a cost.
Mystique knows this better than anyone as her unique shape-shifting ability leaves her without an identity of her own. Through her we feel the isolation and oppression of a mutant whose powers only bring about a greater struggle to live. Thus, the film humanizes her character because we see that she hasn’t always been an absolute villainous presence. She is someone who’s been forced to hide in plain sight, and that internal conflict manifests itself in a corrupted persona with a frail moral compass. The film places an enormous responsibility on Jennifer Lawrence’s shoulders. Luckily, she’s more than capable of the task. Her performance here is notably subtle and nuanced. She characterizes Mystique’s pain through muted expressions, showing us the hollow shell of a person who’s been down a dark path, perhaps the darkest in the film. Yes, it’s crucial to save everyone from a hopeless future. But in a way, it becomes even more crucial to save Mystique from herself.
The final act of the film is where everything comes together. The sentinels reign down on the X-Men’s last remaining stronghold, while back in the past, Erik unleashes his wrath on the government. This mirrored reflection of the past and future already shows how the timelines are meeting in the middle, but so far the changes are circumstantial and have no real impact on its course, like tossing a pebble into a stream. It all rests on a key moment in which Charles finally manages to appeal to Mystique’s conscience rather than simply manipulate her. This paves the way for an emotionally satisfying finale, where we see how the flow of the stream has diverted from its disastrous end. Wolverine awakes in future, in the mansion that he once called home. Slowly he discovers that they’ve not only changed the future, but also saved the lives of the people who were lost along the way. Jean Grey leans against a door frame, back turned to face him as if seeing each other were an everyday occurrence. He extends an arm out to reach for her when, out of the corner, Cyclops stops him only inches away, just as he’s done time and time again. Two beloved characters, brought back to where they truly belong.
So what exactly happened? Did the filmmakers toss away the storylines of the original trilogy altogether? Are the previous films irrelevant now? I wouldn’t say so. Everything certainly happened. Of course, only Wolverine knows this for sure. And we, the audience, know it as well. We know what awaits both Cyclops and Jean Grey. It’s the same exact thing that awaits us all: death. It’s inevitable. It’s a natural course that can’t be diverted. But knowing that we can be saved, if only for a time, is a feat in of itself. It gives us the strength to smile happily at our ending rather than dread its impending arrival. That’s what they’ve done with this film. They didn’t necessarily re-write the mistakes of the past for the sake of resetting the chess board. Instead, they acknowledge the tragedies and the loose ends of the previous films and transformed them into a profoundly entertaining whole, proving that salvation lies in the past. And now we can all look forward to the franchise’s exciting future. We’ve certainly come a long way since the beginning, and I’m sure as hell glad that it’s not ending just yet.