The film franchise based on Marvel Comics’ ‘X-Men’ comic mythology (which follows the exploits of “mutants” – people born with superpowers) are the last connections to the time when superhero movies were still a novelty and when lines like ‘What did you expect, yellow spandex?’ were eaten up by fans who were simply happy to see their favorite characters taken seriously by Hollywood. The aesthetic of early superhero films were clearly lifted mostly from The Matrix and Blade. The one thing nobody ever really talks about when revisiting the original X-trilogy is that none of the films are particularly good in purely cinematic terms and they are poor interpretations of the X-Men mythos. They do get a character or concept right on occasion (Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine), but in terms of interpreting the X-Men, they never seize the opportunity to tackle what has been a most interesting and pleasantly soap operatic serial storytelling (the comics being 50+ years ongoing). Four movies into the film franchise, with the critical & commercial flop, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, almost putting the series to whimper of a close, something remarkable happened: X-Men: First Class. The film was conceived as a soft reboot while also serving as a prequel to the previous films and it established a whole new tone and mission statement for the films going forward. First Class director Matthew Vaughn (L4yer Cake) embraced the freestyle camp and soap opera fun of the comics while allowing the mythology’s sense of social commentary to breathe and really come alive.After another fun brief one-off film focusing on the character of Wolverine (who has been the central character for every X-film prior to First Class), fan-favorite Bryan Singer, who directed the first 2 entries in the franchise and produced the rest is back at the helm. Singer has slowly gotten notoriety for not being reverent or respectful of the X-characters and mythology save for Wolverine but it seems many lessons were learned from the success of First Class as this film, X-Men: Days of Future Past is not only a good movie, it’s Singer’s best X-Men movie, and the best X film to date.
Singer has improved as a craftsman, gone are the generic late 90s/early 00s music video aesthetics of Singer’s older films in exchange for inventive visual storytelling and a much more comic-book inspired design and a look clearly influenced by Marvel’s Avengers film series. For the first time, a live-action X-Men film actually looks and feels ripped from the pages of the comics and brought to life. The story itself feels like a typical X-Men comic as well: giant robots, nonsensical superpowers, time travel, relationship soap-drama, and loud social commentary. On a conceptual level and an aesthetic level, this film should please fans despite little attention given to the 70s-period design. Fans however, are not the only audience and thanks to a sharp script conceived by First Class filmmaker Vaughn, the improved filmmaking skills of Singer and the solid performances of the entire cast (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Nicholas Hoult etc) film is built into a well-oiled action blockbuster. The action sequences bring the super-powers to life in sharply choreographed set-pieces that seem ripped right out of the comics, with one of the highlights being a super-speed /slow-motion sequence featuring mutant speedster Quicksilver (played with youthful charm & charisma by Evan Peters) and a climax involving Magneto that is too good to spoil. The thunderous score and deliberate editing from John Ottoman (frequent collaborator w/ Singer) add to the comic-book/real world hybrid atmosphere. It’d be one thing if Days of Future Past were simply a well-made sci-fi/action film, but the thing about blockbusters is that EVERYONE watches them, they are the modern day incarnation of campfire tales so “well-made” etc are general expectations reasonably demanded of these films. And since these films are seen by the largest audience possible, it presents the opportunity to say something to the audience and reach them in a way more intimate, smaller art-house fare can’t always do. Any fan of the comics will tell you that the best X-Men stories are the ones with big moral plays at the heart. From 17+ years X-Men comics writer Chris Claremont’s opus on the effects of social justice, prejudice and young adult coming-of-age to Grant Morrison’s New X-men, a sci-fi fable on generational war, social progress, evolution and responsibility: the X-Men mythos always has something to say even when it downplays the social commentary in favor of a nuanced look at human relationships. While earlier films dabbled with those aspects, they have only just begun realizing them with absolute focus. As a result, Days of Future Past is not only the smartest live-action X-Men film, it’s the most socio-politically relevant (managing to wave in the saga’s fictional timeline with real-world events) and that is the one element of the X-Men franchise that has always set it apart from its other tights & flights genre peers and it works on screen. The X-Men is a metaphor for minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, generational war or the generally disenfranchised.
We live in an era of social progress, and if one were to look: popular media has always been reflective of its time and Days of Future Past, much like Captain America: The Winter Soldier has decided to touch on contemporary matters and it does this while tying off a dramatic treads laid out from the beginning of the franchise. The future, set shortly after the X-Men 3: The Last Stand is doomed to a dystopia of giant robots called “Sentinels,” mutant genocide and a fractured society. Things have gotten so bad that Wolverine, the protagonist of the past films, must now travel back in time to fix things in a sort of knowing meta-commentary on the state of the film franchise itself. Wolverine isn’t at the heart of this picture though. Shapeshifter Mystique (played brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence) and her complex relationships with Xavier and Magneto is the central conflict at the heart of the film, NOT the giant robots or dystopian time travel. She is torn between Xavier’s stance on assimilation into non-mutant society and Magneto’s stance on superiority over non-mutant society and that becomes the central dramatic through-line tying Days of Future Past together.
It’s this battle for the soul of Mystique that extrapolates what the film is ultimately about: learning to work and live with others while respecting individuality & agency. Think about the powers of both Xavier and Magneto: the former can manipulate minds and the latter can control metal – both are powers based on control and controlling others. Mystique’s power is to transform, she can literally become who she decides for herself to be. It is not particularly challenging to see how this conflict and moral dilemma will resolve itself but it plays out so well, the predictability does not even matter. There’s an admirable level of ambiguity concerning the ideologies of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender)and the film even dares to call the two out for their apparent privilege & status among humans AND mutants alike, turning it into a plot point. Magneto, Xavier and even Wolverine represent the “old guard” both within the context of the film and the film franchise itself. The three of them were ostensibly the only characters given focus or complete dramatic arcs in all of the live action films. However, by positioning Mystique at the center of the film, a foundation has been laid as a catalyst for change both for the movie’s fictional universe and the franchise as a whole.
In the end, Days of Future Past is not only a well-crafted blockbuster, but it is surprisingly intelligent. By embracing the ideas and overall feel of the comics, it brings new life into the X-Men film franchise. The future of the franchise has been reshaped and now, along with reason to keep the films going, they also have limitless opportunities of where to take the films. Like the mutants, this film franchise has evolved.