We’re two for three in superhero movies so far this summer. Bryan Singer’s welcome return to the X-Men franchise is incredibly successful with Days of Future Past. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed it more than First Class, which I enjoyed initially and have liked even more with subsequent viewings, but between the two of them, the franchise has officially been rescued from the God-awful Last Stand and only slightly better Origins: Wolverine that were nearly the one-two punch that killed this cash cow. (Maybe I should have hoped for that so the characters could return to the Marvel fold, but we’ll let it go.)
Loosely adapted from one of the most popular stories that the characters have ever been involved in, it begins in an undisclosed future where mutants and many humans have been hunted down by the robotic Sentinels from the comic books. We get to see a few of the X-characters in this future that I honestly never believed would appear unless it was the kind of crap cameo that Brett Ratner relegated Psyclocke to. We get Blink, man. I am honestly flabbergasted about that one. And she is done well. (For those that don’t know, Blink is a popular mutant that creates portals. She seems depowered and decidedly non-lilac in this instance, but still.) It feels much less like the mutants of the film are getting short shrift here just to pack in as many as possible the way some of the lesser movies have done. In a departure from comic lore, Wolverine is sent back in time to stop the Sentinel program from ever being started. (In the comics, it was Kitty Pryde that did the honors, which I would have welcomed instead of getting yet another Wolverine-centric movie, but the bean counters at Fox apparently think only his bub-ness sells tickets, First Class to the contrary.)
It is a little surprising to me that Singer seems more at ease with the cast of First Class over the runtime than those of the original film since Matthew Vaughn was at the helm for that one. I guess maybe he was hands-on as a producer? In any case, aside from some clunky exposition that even Patrick Stewart can’t keep from sounding overdone (and he has a lot of experience with exposition from Star Trek) the movie gets going quickly and doesn’t stop often. It all comes out a bit Terminator-ish, but then Marvel beat Cameron to the punch by a couple of years so all’s fair.
The time-travel reset button is a brilliant thing to do on multiple fronts. Number one, it gives the people currently making the films a chance to eliminate all the horrible decisions made when Fox was in the mentality that the X-Men films a) needed to be forced into a trilogy, because that’s just how it’s done and b) needed to be crapped out as soon as possible in order to punish Bryan Singer for taking a job directing Superman Returns. I think making that movie was punishment enough. Number two, it allows the use of both the original characters and the new cast that earned the right to continue the series. Number three, it creates the possibility of doing two equally deserving continuities, one in the past and one in the present going forward. If this is Fox trying to play catch up with Marvel Studios, all I can say is bravo for doing it in an incredibly inventive and dramatically fulfilling way compared to Sony and their botched Spider-Man experiment.
Even though it is yet another movie with Wolverine front and center, we get to spend a lot of time with Charles (Professor X) and Erik (Magneto) in both timelines, and the film is all the better because of it. Their relationship is by far the most interesting part of this series and First Class made that painfully obvious. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be fantastic in their roles. At this point they own them just as much as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Combine that with pretty meaty parts for Mystique and Beast and you have a much more rounded ensemble film than it could have been. They lucked out when they cast Jennifer Lawrence and they seem to know it, making her an integral part of the story. As per the aforementioned Blink and Kitty (Ellen Page, returning as one of the two good things from X3 worth saving), as well as other mutants like Iceman, Bishop and Storm, they aren’t really given much to do for an arc, but they’re well used enough in action sequences that they don’t feel like they’re given short shrift. Many others have glorified cameos, but nothing feels particularly forced.
The only other new characters to truly be of note are pretty much Evan Peters as Qucksilver and Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask. Both are excellent. For all the hubbub about Quicksilver appearing in both this film and the second Avengers film, I doubt there will be much similarity in the portrayals. In Future Past, Qucksilver, really only brought in for the purpose of one action scene, is less the abrasive speedster from the comics and is instead an carbon copy of DC Comics’ Impulse with a worse costume. An ADHD-riddled kid with bad hair and a penchant for being charmingly annoying. The action scene in question is possibly the most fun scene in the entire film, so it’s understandable that Singer was so hyped to use him.
Trask does horrible things in his quest to realize his dream of the Sentinels. He cautions that mutants will replace humans, citing Neanderthal man’s disappearance as a warning. (Of course he wouldn’t be privy to the current theory that Neanderthals actually interbred with cro-magnon.) We’re given glimpses of his life that indicate he’s a genius and he talks about doing a lot of good things for humanity. But it’s obvious he doesn’t see mutants as humanity, only as a means to an end. They don’t exactly subtle-up the Nazi metaphors. And just to make one statement about who would normally be one of the villains of the film, it was nice to see Richard Nixon portrayed as an actual human being and not a complete cartoon bad-guy for once. The government and the military aren’t shown to be evil or even necessarily in favor of wiping out mutants. They simply get used by Trask as more means to his end.
The movie is paced elegantly with never a dull moment, but also never being overwhelming. It feels like all of Singer’s superhero movie experience has been leading to this moment where he finally feels comfortable with all the things he was holding back on in the second film. (Having the brass at Fox on his side instead of demanding Jon Peters-esque changes on a whim it probably helps.) The action sequences feel fresh, despite several of them having a lot in common with previous installments which is a testament to their presentation and the quality of the effects. There is no question in my mind why this movie cost so much and it honestly seems worth every penny. It is polished and even the questionable CGI just makes it seem that much more comic book-y.
After seeing the teaser at the end which brought many a “What the hell?” from the crowd in our theater, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Singer, Vaughn and their cohorts bring to us next.
(Four damns given out of five)