Days of Future Past is a much needed game changer for the X-Men franchise. After director Bryan Singer’s departure from the pre-production of X3 (2006), the series seemed to lose its way somewhat until it was revitalised by Matthew Vaughn’s prequel film, X-Men: First Class in 2011. Future Past is a better film than First Class, arguably the best since Singer’s previous effort X2, which in some ways defined the modern “comic book movie” genre. Singer’s X-Men vision has always been at odds with the shadowy, monologue-driven style of other members of the genre such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and Future Past remains true to the colourful palette of previous outings, despite the apocalyptic future into which the audience is initially thrust.
The audience is bombarded with an enjoyably frenetic opening containing a huge amount of plot set-up. This is the future, where huge killing machines called Sentinels have decimated the mutant population in a war of extermination. Humans with the potential to produce mutated offspring are also targeted, meeting the same fate as many of the characters familiar from previous films, the absence of whom creates the sense that no one is truly safe this time around. In this dark future, the remnants of Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) X-Men are still alive, along with Magneto (Ian McKellan), and they have but one hope of survival: to use Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) new found power to transport the consciousness of one of the team back in time to 1973 to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the creator of the Sentinel project, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).
Here the film uses Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, the emotional centre of Singer’s previous X-Men films, as its time travelling protagonist as opposed to the original comic’s use of Kitty. This is a change which makes both narrative and commercial sense. Wolverine is, after all, the best known X-men character, and the explanation that only he can survive the time bending transportation back into the body of his younger self is appreciated. That said, the difference between physical and psychological healing is glossed over and it would appear that Logan is unable to repair mental scarring as easily as he is physical wounds – for example, he suffers a debilitating mental relapse when brought face-to-face with the younger version of William Stryker, the military scientist responsible for his adamantium exo-skeleton and associated claws. There is, of course, the danger that the film becomes just another Wolverine outing, but this never is the case. Indeed, after being used as the means to pull James McAvoy’s younger Charles into the plot, Jackman returns to his role as ensemble cast member. McAvoy becomes the single most important and enjoyable presence on screen, struggling against the depression his physical disability, mental powers and budding drug addiction create after Magneto and Mystique abandon him at the end of First Class. Michael Fassbender also returns as a younger, angrier Magneto, while the single best scene of the entire film is given to newcomer Evan Peters as Quicksilver, whose super speed is gleefully showcased in an amusing set piece involving slow motion wall running and a number of hapless guards.
There is little exposition in X-men: Days of Future Past. The film assumes audience familiarity with the franchise, and, given the amount of plot the film traverses, it is all the better for doing so. This is essentially a re-boot film, not unlike the core concept of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), except without the burden of introducing a plethora of new cast members and characters. Cleverly, the film enables the slate to be wiped clean of such past misdemeanours as X3, without completely obliterating the events of X1 and 2, and with X-Men: Apocalypse on the horizon, the force appears strong in this one yet.