Review: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ gives the franchise a new lease on life

Over the last month, I've re-watched every entry in the series that Fox has produced since “X-Men” in 2000 as my kids worked their way through the films for the first time. What I found most interesting about the revisit is how my reactions to the films as they were being released and my reactions to them now aren't really the same. Each film was on a specific point in the larger continuity of comic book related movies, and the only way to judge them was how they stacked up to everything else that was being done in the genre at that time. Now, though, looking back at them all is illuminating, especially since it feels like “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” is the end of everything up to this point and the beginning of whatever comes next.

One thing has been very clear since this series began: while they are drawing on comic continuity for suggestions, they have not been bound by any particular rules of adaptation. In fact, they have almost exclusively altered things. I don't think you can point at any particular run of the series and see a direct correlation between what's onscreen and what was on the page. Sure, “X2” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” nodded to the “Dark Phoenix” storyline, but barely. I would find it a little ridiculous to actually call those films an adaptation because of how loosely they line up to the motivations or the characterizations of the books.

That's fine, of course. I think the only way to truly build a film franchise that works on its own is to do what they've done and try to do something that has its own arc, its own internal logic, its own voice. One of the inevitable side effects of making a film like “Days Of Future Past” where past folds into present is that you almost have to look at how this works to set everything that's come before into a new context, and the success or failure of the film is predicated in part on how well it binds everything into a coherent whole.

While this is no more slavish in the way it incorporates story ideas and character beats than any of the earlier films in the franchise, it feels like the single most successful attempt to pull the shape of one of the beloved comic stories into the film world. It also feels like Bryan Singer has finally figured out how to shoot an action scene where the X-Men actually look and feel like the X-Men, and where the fantastic is handled the right way.

Singer was certainly at the forefront of the current glut of comic book movies, but looking back at those first two films now, it feels to me like he was never fully comfortable with the things he was shooting. Part of that came from Tom Rothman and 20th Century Fox. Rothman was famously dead set against many of the trappings of the comic book, including Sentinels and the original costume designs, and one of the reasons that it seemed so hard for them to commit to the most fantastic elements of the series in those first few films was because of Rothman's influence.

Continuity has always been a little iffy in this series, and if you try to somehow align the ending of “The Wolverine” with the start of this film, or you are worried about how Professor Xavier got from his location at the end of “The Last Stand” to where we find him in this film, you will probably drive yourself crazy. I admire the almost defiant way they don't even try to explain many of these things. They are so focused on telling this particular story that it feels like they don't want to waste the time or energy trying to fill in those details.

As the film begins, we are in a dark future where mutants have been hunted almost to the extinction point and where even regular humans have seen their numbers decimated by the terrifying Sentinels brought to life by Trask Industries. We see how the last remaining members of the group once called the X-Men are struggling to survive and stay a few steps ahead of their pursuers. Kitty Pryde has become a key part of that struggle, using her ability to project someone else's consciousness back in time to constantly send Bishop (Omar Sy) back to just before each attack so he can warn them and they can move locations, making it so each attack didn't happen. We're shown how this works in a tight, succinct opening sequence, and it works both as an exciting action beat and a set-up for what has to happen to drive the remainder of the movie.

The older versions of Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have an idea for how they might manage to put an end to the cycle, but it's going to require Kitty Pryde to do something she's never done before, and it's going to push Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, who somehow looks better now than he did when he first played the character 14 years ago) to the breaking point, even in a best-case scenario. Sending someone's consciousness back decades will push any mind past what it can sustain, but thanks to Logan's healing factor, he should be able to recover and somehow bear the pain long enough to make a permanent change in the timeline, one that will permanently erase the Sentinels completely. In order for that to happen, though, Logan is going to have to undo the timeline that already exists, and that involves getting both Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) to work together. It also involves finding and stopping Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) as she crosses the moral line that permanently pushes her into the shadows.

It sounds complicated, but one of the things that works so well about the script by Simon Kinberg (working from a story that was hatched with Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, who pumped such vital new energy into the series with “X-Men: First Class”) is that it makes it all feel simple. You get how they're going to do what they're going to do, you get what the stakes are, and you get a strong sense of the ticking clock. This is the last time Kitty will be able to do this. If Wolverine fails, there is no more reset button. Everyone will die, and there will be no way back for any of them. With all of that in motion, Wolverine makes the jump, and the film effectively becomes a sequel to “X-Men: First Class” for the majority of its running time.

I like that the majority of the film deals with the younger cast. While I like the cast they put together for the first three films, I think McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence brought a huge new energy to the series, and picking up with their stories is, I think, the most compelling place for the films to go at this point. Sharp-eyed fans have been wondering for months how Charles is walking again since we saw him catch a bullet in the base of his spine at the end of “First Class.” Rest assured, there is a reason, and while I don't quite follow the logic, it's obviously meant to work as a metaphor for addiction and the way it sidelines someone. Hank (Nicholas Hoult) has also found a way to suppress his Beastly nature, but it's imperfect, and from the moment Logan finds the two of them, he's poking at this fragile peace they've tried to make for themselves.

The one weak link, script-wise, is Bolivar Trask, played here by Peter Dinklage. It feels like Dinklage does as much as he can with the role, but there's really no weight to him as an antagonist. At this point, the franchise has pretty much thrown one movie after another at us in which there's somebody who wants to cure/exterminate/subjugate mutants simply because they're mutants, and this one's no different. Trask is a military contractor who has the big idea of developing a technology that can not only identify a mutant but that can target them exclusively, and it feels like they should have gone deeper in terms of giving him some sort of personal investment, some reason he decided to create the Sentinels. It doesn't help that we've got a young version of Bill Stryker, who has inexplicably become the most important person in the entire X-Men universe, running around and learning his hatred/fear of mutants here. I may be tired of Stryker at this point after having seen him show up over and over, but at least there's some attempt made to motivate him, and in this film, we see the seeds of what would eventually become the Weapon X program.

When you pack a film with dozens of super-powered characters, not all of them are going to get to play out a full dramatic arc in the film, and it's safe to say that there are a lot of characters who just bounce by in the film without us really getting to know them. I was a huge fan of “The New Mutants” during its original run, and the Bill Sienkiewicz era of that book is still one of my favorite runs of any comic, so seeing Sunspot show up, even if it is just for a moment, was a kick. I would imagine there will be a lot of comic fans who get excited to see this mutant or that mutant go by. What's nice is that even the characters like Blink (Bingbing Fan) or Warpath (Booboo Stewart) or Bishop get to show off a little bit of what they can do before they are hustled offscreen for the rest of the film, and characters like Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) are closer here than they've ever been before to their comic-book counterparts. There are a number of characters who barely register, like Havok (Lucas Till), who had a much larger role in the last movie than he does in this one, or like Toad (Evan Jonigkeit), who is immediately interesting on a visual level but who basically is an unusual extra and little else.

The new character who makes the strongest impression is Quicksilver, played here by Evan Peters. He's recruited by Logan and Professor Xavier to help in a jailbreak. The way the scene is shot and staged is dynamic and interesting and a very funny use of his powers. This sequence serves as a challenge to not only Joss Whedon, who is also using Quicksilver in next summer's “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” but also to whoever ultimately makes a “Flash” movie. There is a real sense of play to the Quicksilver scenes, and when he leaves the film, it's a shame. I'm still not sure about the visual design of him, but Peters does a nice job of playing him as a sort of gleeful weirdo, and I hope they bring him back for “X-Men Apocalypse.”

This is ultimately about three people and the tensions between them that threaten to make it impossible for Wolverine to save mutant-kind. McAvoy and Fassbender play this like they're playing Shakespeare, and because of the way Jennifer Lawrence has approached her portrayal of Mystique, the entire franchise now plays different in hindsight. These are people who have been hurt by one another, and when they lash out, it is a dangerous situation. The best scenes in the movie are the moments where Charles and Erik struggle to find a way to relate to one another and to not let the hurt run their lives. Yes, I dig the action scenes in the film, but the reason I feel like the series has new life is because these actors are treating the material so seriously. The fear, the hurt, the doubt… these are the things driving them, and they make the emotional material feel raw and real.

By the time the film wraps up, it's obvious that this is the end of the first major act in the history of “X-Men” on film. Some major adjustments have been made to the timeline, and suddenly at least one of our heroes isn't burdened by the same angst that has driven him for so long now. Certainly, this doesn't mean they live in a permanent state of acceptance, but they can work towards that, and the series can go pretty much anywhere now. Do yourself a favor. Avoid spoilers. While I think the last act of this film pretty undoes everything Logan learned in “The Wolverine,” I don't mind. The series needed this transfusion, and for the moment, it's exciting to see how far this franchise (and the genre as a whole) has changed in the 14 years that these movies have been in production. Even if Singer never makes one of these again, he can leave knowing that he delivered something that showed real growth, something that makes me think this series has plenty of stories left to tell.

“X-Men: Days Of Future Past” opens May 23rd.