“It’s good to see you, Charles,” somebody says near the end of Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. “It’s good to see everyone.” The movie banks on the idea that we’ll all feel the same. There’s something like a story here — a gloss on a fan-favorite two-parter from X-Men comics published in 1981 — but it’s really an excuse for a family reunion, as well as the hurried introduction of new characters aimed at some Pokémon-collectorish segment of the audience that just wants to see as many X-Men as possible represented onscreen. If you’ve been waiting for live-action versions of Bishop, Blink, Sunspot, and Warpath, your movie has arrived. If you’d like to see them do more than demonstrate their mutant powers and then die, better luck next sequel.
I know that’s a spoiler, but let’s be adults here. This is a franchise superhero movie that’s also a time-travel movie, produced by a studio that has to keep cranking out these films in order to hold on to the rights. It’s also the de facto sequel to a film whose subtitle was “The Last Stand.” No one ever really dies, nerds. But Future Past doesn’t even manage to make us think otherwise. It begins postapocalyptically enough, in a devastated New York where humans are herded into camps and all litter appears to be comprised of about 15 percent skulls. “The future — a dark, desolate world,” says Patrick Stewart’s voice-over, in case anyone’s watching this on the radio. But as soon as the Sentinels, a squadron of generic liquid-metal CGI-bots, finish murdering a bunch of new mutants we’ve just met, the clock winds back a few minutes and their deaths are averted, thereby establishing the lowest possible stakes for the rest of the movie. Even the mutant redshirts have nine lives.
The time warp is courtesy of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who was the main character in the original comic-book issues this film is based on. Her role here is much smaller, but (as a kind of consolation prize from the screenwriting gods) she’s been granted the noncanonical but highly useful ability to shuttle another person’s consciousness back in time. Soon the remaining X-Men — including Professor Xavier (Stewart, never more stentorian), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, never veinier), and their former nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen, never older) — rendezvous at a mountain temple somewhere in China, to lay narrative pipe while Halle Berry’s Storm makes concerned faces. Berry gets maybe five lines of dialogue over the next two hours, really straining the “glory” component of the phrase “glorified cameo.” Somehow Professor X, who has apparently never seen even one of the Terminator movies, has only just now come up with the idea of having Kitty send someone back to prevent the Sentinels’ war on humankind, which began in the ’70s with the assassination of their inventor, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), by the shape-shifting mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). And somehow Wolverine’s mutant healing abilities make him the only man for the job, because his psyche can repair itself after the strain of time travel.
Sure, why not?
The real reason he’s the chosen one, of course, is that the X-Movies have spent three films and two spinoffs building up Jackman’s Wolverine as a character, allowing no one else so much as a quotable line. He’s the right man for the job because he’s the protagonist. But at least the movie gives him a chance to demonstrate why. After time-tunneling back to 1973, Wolverine wakes up in a water bed, staring at a lava lamp, with Roberta Flack on the radio and an attractive young lady draped across him; within minutes he has perforated some thugs and made off with their sweet ’70s Buick. Badass-antihero status confirmed, via the kind of economical character introduction this movie could have used more of. The bell-bottomed production design of the ’70s flashbacks is an improvement on the blue-gray drabness of Singer’s first two X-Men films. The scene where Russian and Vietnamese military brass celebrate the impending Paris Peace Accords by partying in a French discotheque to “Stop in the Name of Love” en français recalls Matthew Vaughn’s ’60s-set X-Men: First Class, whose groovy first half is still the most enjoyable X-Men movie ever made.
Vaughn was set to direct this one, too, but pulled out in 2012, due to other commitments and what he’d later admit was a lack of interest in returning to a series he saw as having always been “Bryan’s machine.” But the charismatic younger versions of Mystique, Xavier (James MacAvoy), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) that lead this film along with Jackman are essentially Vaughn’s, and you have to wonder what Future Past could have been had he stuck around. I’ll concede that nobody apart from Vaughn has made a better X-Men movie than Singer’s X2, but could no one else be trusted to try? Like maybe a director with a strong visual sensibility, a sense of humor, or some idea of how to stage a dynamic action scene? In a pre–Batman Begins, pre–Iron Man world, the two Singer films felt like breakthroughs because they weren’t actively offensive and didn’t seem ashamed of their source material. But try sitting through them today. They’re dour and sterile, stiffly acted and curiously earthbound, and in the course of two whole movies there’s not one memorable image apart from Rebecca Romijn in blue body paint — although if you liked the scene in 2000’s X-Men where Magneto moves police cars around with his mind, you’ll love the scene in this one where Magneto moves police cars around with his mind.
The Singer movies did succeed in capturing the allegorical dimension of the comics — the way “anti-mutant hysteria” has served through the years as a go-to metaphor for real-life racism and homophobia. When Bobby “Iceman” Drake reveals his abilities to his parents in X2, it’s written unambiguously as a coming-out scene, even before Bobby’s mom asks him, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” There’s nothing allegorical about Days of Future Past, and the movie’s weaker for it. The post-Vietnam setting is just an excuse to set a couple of action scenes in a Paris that might as well be Toronto. The plot is about a fearful society whose expansion of its security apparatus (via the deployment of giant robots) has unintended consequences, but Singer doesn’t even touch the story’s topical resonances. I didn’t find the muddled NSA-surveillance themes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as subversive as everyone else seemed to, but at least the movie was thinking about something outside the bubble of its own mythology.
There’s also no real moral quandary to be grappled with. Dinklage’s charisma aside, Trask is a two-dimensional Science Asshole character — who must nonetheless be saved for the good of all mankind. A better movie would have actually made him sympathetic, then required the X-Men to kill him themselves to save the future, or at least forced them to weigh the value of his life against countless others. (Not to keep harping on this point, but in this case, that “better movie” is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which the Trask figure is Joe Morton’s Miles Dyson, unknowing would-be father of Skynet.)
So what’s left? A few amusing period jokes about acid and the Kennedy assassination and Jim Croce. Cool-looking ’70s Sentinels, like the offspring of Cleatus the Fox Sports Robot and a grape iMac. Plus lots of mutants doing mutant things. The so-and-so-is-actually–Jennifer Lawrence–in-disguise reveal gets old after the first time it happens, but Fassbender’s imperious standing-up flying style never stops being funny. The fact that Fassbender’s far too good to be in this movie actually makes him more effective as a character who’s developing a haughty disdain for mere mortals; his Magneto is the kind of archfiend whose first order of business after escaping a maximum-security prison is to tie himself a dope ascot. Simon Kinberg’s script doesn’t give the equally overqualified Lawrence as much to play, but she kicks a lot of people in the head and walks through an airport dressed like she’s flying to Morocco to chill with Jimmy Page. That counts for something in a movie that doesn’t exactly honor the X-Men’s long-standing tradition of fully realized female characters. Storm aside, the fate of the world ultimately rests with three white dudes.
Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s original “Days of Future Past” story was effective in part because it came out of nowhere. The issue of X-Men that preceded it was about Wolverine and Nightcrawler teaming up with Alpha Flight to fight a Wendigo in Canada; the one after it is a Kitty Pryde Christmas story that flagrantly rips off Alien. But in between, for two issues, things got really dark, in a way they rarely did for superheroes back then. Issue no. 142 actually made good on its instant-classic cover blurb: “This Issue: Everybody DIES!” Almost everybody did, even future-Wolverine, who had hair like Paulie Walnuts. The story ends in the present, with Kitty having saved both today and tomorrow, but on the last page we see the mutant-hating Senator Robert Kelly striking a deal with recurring X-antagonists Henry Peter Gyrich and Sebastian Shaw to build new and improved Sentinels. Everybody lived, but the notion that the X-Men might actually be doomed in the long term has reverberated through the comics ever since; the Darkest Timeline story would become one of the riffs every X-Men writer plays at least once, from the ’90s crossover “Age of Apocalypse” to Grant Morrison’s “Here Comes Tomorrow” arc from 2004.
Singer’s Days of Future Past builds to an everybody-dies climax, complete with sad slow-motion impalements, then undercuts it with a happy ending. No spoilers, but let’s just say Wolverine kind of wakes up to find that his novel A Match Made in Space has been published and Biff Tannen is detailing his car. Nothing about these last moments suggests there’s more story to be told, although the obligatory post-credits scene — featuring our first look at a villain whose identity the announced title X-Men: Apocalypse has already revealed — promises there will be. Maybe “En Sabah Nur” is ancient Egyptian for “It is what it is.”