Sequels are tricky. The invitation to expand a story we love is often bewitching, but too often we find only disappointing downgrades in the very qualities that brought us so eagerly back. This goes doubly so in the world of the super-blockbuster, where films can easily cost $200 million to produce, and worldwide renown is mandatory to stay in competition. Nowadays studio executives will often shy away from risky new content, electing to ride their known successes into the ground. So when a franchise’s newest entry not only averts the dangers of becoming a good tune played too often, and turns them instead into as many victories, it’s a rare and gratifying sight. I am happy to recommend “X-Men: Days of Future Past” as just such a film.
Who would have thought automating murder would cause so much heartache? The year is 2023, and it’s no longer just the mutants facing extinction. The Sentinel Program, initiated upon the assassination of its progenitor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in 1973, has overrun the banks of its original intention, and its chillingly competent death machines are targeting not only mutants, but anyone who helps them, anyone who will birth them, and anyone whose children could birth them one day. In short all of humanity now hangs in the balance, and the last hope is to cut this timeline out at its root, to travel back and prevent the assassination of Trask before his martyrdom jump-starts humanity’s descent into self-destruction.
Now, these clearly are all familiar elements, especially for fans of science fiction. But the brilliance of “Days of Future Past” is not in genesis, but in synthesis. It treats its moments of homage with honesty and diffidence, as if to say, “look, you know how this time travel stuff usually goes, so we don’t have to spend time dwelling on it.” The conceit of life-changing information thrown decades back in time focuses and expands the character’s struggles, the strengths they uncover in themselves and draw from one another to overcome their collected shortcomings. Would you recognize the moments that shape your life when they come along, even if told in advance? How would you react? The emphasis is not in the cause, but in its effects, which are surprising nevertheless.
From the very first, there was something special about the X-Men films. The franchise has taken some strange and second-rate turns in its middle installments, but has at its best always strived to honor the strength of the beliefs laid down in the comics. First, that everyone knows what it’s like to be rejected, to be an outsider. Second, that it often takes more than one hero to conquer the challenges life gives us. Finally, and most significantly, that in a war, the worthiest struggle is never the utter decimation of the enemy, but relentlessly seeking a way to live with our enemies, to find what will unite us rather than drive us apart. The principle struggle is ideological, with Magneto’s insistence that war between mutants and humans is inevitable pitted against Xavier’s optimism, that peaceful co-existence is possible, and in fact the only viable option for either side.
“Days of Future Past” is the clearest manifestation of this dichotomy yet: the war is here, nearing its end game, and Xavier’s belief in the imperative of peaceful coexistence has been vindicated, only painfully and far too late. In this it fulfills the promise of the early films that later installments stumbled over. Having exhausted its strength for hope in the future, the franchise must fall back on the power of combined effort, in order to find a way through its most basic premise, the universal pain of being an outcast, of being in a world you don’t really belong.
The foremost thing worth getting excited about here is the cast. I can still remember first becoming genuinely interested in the first X-Men film when I heard “Star Trek’s” Patrick Stewart would be playing Professor Xavier, and subsequently the corresponding moment when I lost all interest in the franchise during “X3: The Last Stand.” However the disappointment of that film was equaled if not vanquished by the joy of seeing the younger generation’s story in “First Class”, in which James McAvoy’s Xavier and the inimitable Michael Fassbender’s Magneto brought a new dimension of intimacy and gravitas to the pulpy comic background of their two characters and the world war they nearly started. So the prospect of these two powerhouse ensemble casts, coming together under the director of the original franchise’s two best films was deliriously exhilarating. And what a pleasure to see it play out so well.
As in their previous installment, McAvoy and Fassbender approach their characters with unexpectedly humanity, understanding exactly which positive and negative aspects deserve emphasis to drive their roles to greatest effect. Hugh Jackman is as perfect as Wolverine as ever, and though he kicks plenty of ass, he also gets to turn his charm to the quieter side of the narrative, anchoring the story’s heart in scene after understated scene. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique works hard to integrate the sneaky, sympathetic chameleon drama of “First Class” with the twisting, latter-day ass-kicking Rebecca Romijn interpretation of the character, and her part makes use of her considerable talent beyond just how good she looks in blue. Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen… well I had to keep telling myself I was watching them play characters, rather than seeing they themselves, together and continuing their rad bromance, but they are as ever of course beyond evaluation as assets to this business.
The film is sold to us on spectacle: Watch the trailer, count the shots that don’t have CGI in them. And it delivers on a grand and satisfying scale. In case I didn’t make the point clearly enough before, the Sentinels of 2023 are wonderfully well-made as ruthless, terrifying killing machines. If you want to tell a story about people with the ability to make remarkable things happen, it takes a skilled hand at the art of making the impossible actual, at least on screen. If you pay your money to see big and amazing things happen, you will go home happy. And all other discussion aside, there is one one delightful surprise of a sequence worth the price of admission alone.
But I found it most interesting that while there are conventional action scenes for fun, where the interior emotion is, “oh yeah, this is gonna be good,” most of the action that keeps you glued to your seat feels more like, “oh God it’s all going wrong, I can’t look away.” You don’t want the fighting to keep happening, because it’s chaotic and savage, and happening to people you care about. This is a grounded and somewhat refreshing approach to violence in movie storytelling, and of course it ties back into the idea that using one’s abilities to destroy the opposition is a dark and risky road.
This is because the staying power of the movie isn’t its grand visuals or frenetic action, but its people. Each major character has a journey of transformation to make, each stacked together to empower and reinforce the weight of the others. The echoes sounding between past and future struggles, and between internal and external conflicts, are woven into a thoughtful and resonant character study, one that looks past super-powers to question what is really worth fighting for, and what kind of heroic sacrifice is truly beneficial for us all.
The film is not without its faults. It would’ve been nice to see more of Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, though doing so may have slowed the pace. Once or twice we are asked to intertwine one minor cause-and-effect with another, basically for the sake of the plot, and I’m sure the blogosphere will have plenty to pick at in the nuts-and-bolts of the film’s premise and material conclusions. But in the moment, spending time with these remarkable people, the suspension of disbelief is easy, and well rewarded.
Most every one of us know what it’s like to be an outcast. It’s a hurt that never grows irrelevant. We’ve all been wounded in the past, wanted to see someone punished for the pain they’ve caused us. If a popcorn film can bear the weight of an ideological message, this has one is worth taking in, about the power of forgiveness, of working to conquer not our enemies but the bitterness and negativity they have provoked in our own hearts, and trying and find a way to avert further harm maturely and without reparation. In the end, though it fits in with the rest of today’s sequels in solving problems through the punching of things, it also stands out as a meaningful film of ideals: about goodness, about tolerance, and about the enduring power of hope.