A lot of people tend to forget that Bryan Singer's first X Men movie way back in 2000 basically kicked off the new millennium's cinematic obsession with superhero movies. Sure, there have been better ones since, even in its own franchise, and the brand discipline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe nets it a lot of undeserved credit, but the original X Men was the first successful test case proving that it could be done outside of the iconic DC franchises, ushering in Marvel's eventual dominance of the medium. The X series hasn't been quite so reliable as the MCU in terms of quality, lacking a tried and true formula for safe, mainstream popcorn appeal, but in a way, that only makes it more daring. The latest installment Days Of Future Past, a hybrid crossover of multiple timelines seemingly designed to clean up some of the franchise's sordid history, could never have come about through the cookie cutter hit factory of Marvel Studios, and for once, I'm beginning to think that having a few properties licensed out of their hands might actually be a good thing.
Days Of Future Past, loosely based on one of the most famous storylines in the comics, follows the scattered remnants of Professor Xavier's First Class era team trying to avert an assassination by one of their own that will eventually result in an apocalyptic future ruled by mutant hating robots called Sentinels. Actually, we start out in that future world as the characters from the original trilogy, including a revived Patrick Stewart, a heroic Ian McKellen, and a grey streaked Hugh Jackman plot to stop the event before it happens, sending Wolverine's mind back in time into the body of his past self to warn the rest of them of what will happen if they don't get their crap together. Its not really as complicated as it sounds, or at least its executed well enough that the usual problems with time travel narratives are easily sidestepped, never getting in the way of the punching. Mostly its just an excuse to get the whole gang back together and add a grander sort of epic quality to what would otherwise be a fairly straight forward First Class sequel, which is welcome and doesn't come off as the gimmick that it is.
The notion of history casts a long shadow over the film, and not just because its mostly a period piece set in the 1970s, or because its a movie about travelling back in time. The subtitle of the thing might as well be X Men: The Apology, recognizing the mistakes of the past after Singer left midway through to accomplish his dream of making the most boring Superman movie ever made, but before Matthew Vaughn could right the ship with a prequel. Combining the two timelines, DOFP somewhat audaciously attempts to preserve the best of both worlds while at the same time unequivocally stating once and for all that all that stuff we didn't like never happened. Yes its shameless and obvious, but for any fan, also completely necessary, representing perhaps the first genuine comic book style retcon in a comic book movie. Its such a sop to the fans that it even goes out of its way to bring back one of the most hated characters of the entire series just to kill them off violently, which technically isn't a spoiler even if you do guess who I'm talking about, because the time travel mechanic allows for many convenient death reversals throughout.
Pretty much everyone is back and in top form, or at least the ones you could conceivably care about. Much of the advertising has focused on the dichotomy between the young and old Professor X and Magneto, and while all four are as good as they've always been, once again Logan steals the show, at least among the returning cast, his bewildered time traveler showing more depth than in either of his solo efforts (including the decent one). Jennifer Lawrence looks good in a body suit but is as wooden as ever, though her stunt double is fantastic and given many opportunities to spin around and jump at things, so if anything its a net improvement. The only arguable weak link is Beast, who represents the sole returning member of the First Class student body, with Havok wasted in one brief scene and Banshee and Angel killed unceremoniously off screen. Despite a much better make up job this time around and a somewhat interesting Jekyll and Hyde twist to his powers, he doesn't add nearly enough to the film to justify as much screen time as he's given.
The newcomers, with one very notable exception, don't quite fair as well. The future cast is largely made up of new mutants, including the fire wreathed Sunspot, the energy absorbing Bishop, the portal throwing Blink, and the...Native American powered (?) Warpath. None of them are developed really as characters, and mostly serve to add more action to what are otherwise sedentary scenes with people talking over future-Wolverine's unconscious body. Peter Dinklage is criminally under-utilized as Bolivar Trask, as are his character's signature creations the Sentinels, both of which are awesome whenever they are on screen, but neither of which are on screen nearly enough. Then again, I would be remiss if I did not emphatically applaud the all too quick appearance of American Horror Story's Even Peters as Quicksilver, who justifies the whole movie in five minutes in what is easily the best sequence in the entire franchise, effortlessly rendering any and all future portrayals of the character by a different actor (*cough* Avengers 2*cough) prematurely obsolete.
Literally on the same day that I saw this movie, news broke that Marvel Studios had split with Edgar Wright over creative differences with Ant Man, presumably because his brilliant and unique style failed to fit into their mad quest to homogenize their properties to facilitate a larger shared universe. Learning this after coming out of a movie all about altered timelines, I couldn't help but think about another alternate universe, in which, perhaps after the failure of The Last Stand, Marvel regained the licensing rights to this world of mutants. We almost certainly wouldn't have gotten anything as bad as X-Men: Origins, and likely all of their efforts would have been uniformly entertaining and safe, but we also would not have gotten anything as novel as a swinging sixties prequel, let alone a sequel/prequel as crazy and well done as this one, and though we wouldn't know it, I think we'd be the worse for it. Though the process that led us here is comparatively slap dash, it allows for a certain creative energy that the Marvel movies seem to be losing steadily as they become more successful, a willingness to take chances with previously established properties that can and has failed, but can also lead to wondrous places. Days Of Future Past is proof enough of that.
Oh, and one more thing. I really shouldn't even have to say this at this point, but for fuck's sake, stay for the end credits sequence. About half my audience left early, as if the last decade or so of comic book movies hadn't trained them to expect a teaser at the end. Its not even that its that great, at least for those with little or no knowledge of the character its referencing, but you paid for the ticket, you might as well see the whole movie. I don't care if you have shit to do that day, its your civic duty.