The common trend in super hero films of late has been style over substance. Movies like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Captain America 2 might please on a visceral level, but they narratively bend in genre-conventional ways, without standing out as their own defined films. It is perhaps apt that Bryan Singer, who revolutionized the super hero genre with the original X-Men film in 2000, has returned to redefine the X-series once more. He has crafted a truly impressive time travelling chapter in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Mutant kind has been all but destroyed. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the straggling survivors of Charles Xavier’s X-Men band together for one last mission. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) call upon the talents of time-and-space phaser Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to transfer Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back into his younger body in 1973. There he must locate the young Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and bring them together to prevent their one-time disciple Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage); an event that will accelerate Trask’s Sentinel program and lead to the extermination of mutant kind.
DOFP picks up the steam left over from X-Men: First Class and builds to a scale of epic achievement. The stakes are high, and the storytelling consequently reaches a level of intense intricacy. Luckily, Simon Kinberg is a talented enough writer that he’s is able to weave most of the important story telling beats around the time travel logic, keeping everything moving at a fluid pace. Kinberg has proven himself a master at moving chess pieces across a board – much like Xavier and Magneto – and though the character pieces on this particular story board are many, Kinberg manages to give most of them a real purpose. The essential characters are neatly configured into the plot, and those who are excess are either killed off in the future or given a reason to exit the stage.
One who comes to mind is the super-fast Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who is introduced as a primarily comedic character. He’s a delight to watch on screen as he assists in breaking Magneto out of a Pentagon prison cell using his own brand of hyper-speed tricks to outwit the clueless security guards. But as fun as he is, he’s not really needed after the Pentagon sequence, and doesn’t overstay his welcome. No character hangs around uselessly, and for a cast this impressively big and talented, that’s a notable achievement.
The possible exception to this is Jackman’s Wolverine, who as the future visitor is necessarily relegated to be the story’s exposition delivery man. While Jackman’s curmudgeonly performance is as enjoyable as ever, never before has his character been so weighted down by the need to explain the logic of his being there to everyone he encounters. But while Wolverine may have seen better days, there are three characters and three performances that the film’s success hinges upon, without which this movie would have been just another average super hero flick. And those are James McAvoy’s Xavier, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique.
Bringing Magneto and Xavier together to stop Mystique is fundamental to the plot, but on a deeper and more interesting level it functions as a three-way character conflict. As seen at the end of First Class, Mystique left her former mentor, Charles, to join Magneto’s brotherhood, and Charles is understandably bitter about it. DOFP picks up this emotional thread. Mystique now functions as mostly her own agent, but nevertheless is the center for a push-and-pull between Xavier’s and Magneto’s attempts to gain her loyalty back. What’s interesting is how the three of them view this unique situation. Xavier sees her as a sister, and just wants her to come home and do the right thing. Magneto wants her to reach the full potential of her power, sacrificing all morals along the way. And Mystique simply wants vengeance for her fellow mutants. She’s neither as morally untouchable as Xavier, nor as blatantly murderous as Magneto. Mystique is the catalyst of the film, and Lawrence is a force her own as she fiercely fosters a single-minded blood thirst. Yet glimmers of uncertainty bubble forth as the angel and devil on her shoulders attempt to direct her convictions.
A few weeks ago, James McAvoy was asked who should be the new face of the X-Men franchise if Hugh Jackman were to retire. He gave his vote to Lawrence, and after watching this film, it’s easy to see why. She’s practically already replaced Jackman, as the emotional distress and uncertain future that once defined Wolverine’s arc have now been transferred onto Mystique.
Mystique is the crux of a fascinating emotional triangle. Of this triangle, Magneto is the weakest link. Fassbener and McKellen excel separately, but they never quite gel as the same character. There’s just too many differences in the way they physically and emotionally embody Magneto. More problematic is that Fassbender all but carried First Class, and after such an impressive first outing his contributions to this film have been significantly diminished. Magneto’s goals are not as fully formed and understandable as Mystique’s and Xavier’s. It’s questionable that he spends much of the film’s climax attempting to wipe out the President’s cabinet even though he knows what the future outcome will be. After such a strong character arc in First Class, it’s disappointing to see his motivations become so hazy.
But where Magneto disappoints, Xavier impresses. DOFP does for Xavier what First Class did for Magneto. Seven movies into the franchise, and finally we get a movie that’s really all about Charles. The dual performances of McAvoy and Stewart also come together much more successfully than Fassbender’s/McKellen’s.
DOFP’s plot thematically reflects onto Xavier’s personal arc. The story finds the Xavier of 1973 a beaten and broken man. Abandoned by his best friend and the woman he thought of as a sister, he has retreated within himself. He takes spinal injections that restore his walking ability, but dull his mind to the point of being unable to access his powers. This proves a disaster for the other mutants who need him, and for the first time we see just what a world without Charles Xavier would look like. No one mutant needs to be saved more than him, and the rest of the mutants cannot be saved without him.
This is the most fully formed version of Xavier that we’ve yet seen. McAvoy portrays his pain, anguish and regret with an emotional honesty and vulnerability. This exposes the once emotionally guarded professor to a degree that makes him appear – ironically – human. Stewart plays the Xavier on the other side of the present. War torn and weary, the future Xavier has nevertheless lost none of his resolve, and Stewart’s performance evokes years of hardship and solemn understanding.
The two Xaviers come together in a beautiful scene that plays out as the film’s emotional crux. As past meets future, Stewart tenderly tells McAvoy that the key to his future is to hope again. He speaks not just of hope for himself, but of hope for all mutants and humans alike. The weight of Xavier’s mission has never been heavier, and the idealism at the core of the X-Men films has never been clearer. For all the special effects and comic book dazzle, the best thing about DOFP is its character study of Charles Xavier. Paying close attention to his arc, one develops a greater understanding and appreciation of what makes him – and consequently, the X-Men – tick.
There are still other elements to be appreciated. Bryan Singer has greatly matured as director, and he expertly handles large scale set pieces with multiple small ingredients. This talent is especially evident in the Quicksilver sequence and the big Sentinel climax, where Singer deftly works each of the characters as highly coordinated cogs within the greater storytelling machinery. Essential too is John Ottman’s editing. His skill at cross-cutting provides the emotional payoff in the finale as past and future are uniformly brought to a head. Also of note is the dual editor’s/composer’s musical work, as the memorable fanfare from X2 makes a triumphant return here. This is dramatically potent for a movie that works on drawing from franchise nostalgia. But equally important is the hope of a better future for the X-Men.
Ultimately the movie acts as a reset button on the X-Men franchise. This is notable for fans who were upset with the direction taken in Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Now the series has been given a chance at redemption and new life. Though some may view the ending as a cop-out, it’s certainly in-keeping with comic book traditions. More importantly it opens up the storytelling well for expansive new possibilities.
In a modern world of generic and factory-churned super hero franchises, it’s refreshing to see that the X-Men series has plenty of life left. The movies have increasingly become less about spectacle and more about character study, and X-Men: Days of Future Past is the first to balance the two with near-perfect precision. The franchise’s next installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, looks on paper to tip the balance in favor of spectacle again. But hopefully in execution it will treat its characters with equal importance. If DOFP teaches us anything, it’s that good characters can change the future.