X-Men: Days of Future Past is almost certainly the most ambitious comic book film that has managed to make it to the silver screen. In this post-Avengers landscape, bigger is better. Bigger casts, bigger stars, bigger more interconnected universes. When Matthew Vaughn spun the X-Men franchise into its own past with 2011’s X-Men: First Class, it seemed safe to assume that the older X-cast of the original trilogy would be put out to pasture (save Hugh Jackman, of course, who has been in every film of the franchise). Enter Bryan Singer, returning to the franchise after a decade away, who has found a way to unite the two casts into a giant mega-blockbuster adaptation of the Days of Future Past storyline from Uncanny X-Men. The old could meet the new thanks to the magic of time travel. With everyone (seriously. Everyone) on board to tell this decade-spanning tale of an apocalyptic fight against the darkness, this film is definitely playing for keeps in a crowded superhero market.
The story opens in the midst of a dreary future dystopia. Mutants are on the run, hunted with extreme precision by the ultimate X-Men boogeyman, the Sentinels. The vast majority of the mutant population has been wiped out, save a small pocket of resistance fighters, who stay a step ahead of their pursuers thanks to Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) ability to send people’s consciousness back in time to their earlier selves, who are then able to warn the group of their impending doom. It’s an escape tactic and nothing more, simply delaying the inevitable, and it cannot be sustainable in the long run. Thanks to insight from Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), it becomes clear that the only way to get out of the spiral of misery is to find a way to send someone back far enough into the past to the point when the Sentinel program took off due to the assassination of Sentinel creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), thus branding the mutants as dangerous killers. Thanks to his uncanny healing factor, Wolverine (Jackman) gets the call to go all the way back to the early 1970’s to stop this future from ever happening with the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
On its face, the plot of this film is inordinately complex. Multiple timelines featuring multiple iterations of the same character played by different actors, jumping back and forth between the decades can be a difficult plot to juggle. Considering that the Sentinels had not even been established in the cinematic X-universe prior to this one (other than a short cameo in the regrettable X-Men 3), so the script from Simon Kinberg has quite a bit to plow through in order to set up all its dominoes before they can be knocked down. The grunt exposition work is a thankless task, and the future scenes suffer greatly for it. Too much of the first act is spent watching mutants, both new and old, huddled in bombed out buildings and mountain caves talking through their problems. Singer tries to break up the monotony with some action, but the combination of of uninteresting and brand new characters and undercut stakes thanks to the time travel angle (some shocking moments are undone before they can even be fully comprehended) end up hurting more than they help. The only point of interest in these sequences is Blink (Bingbing Fan), whose portal-opening mutant power is the one inspiring aspect of the whole tedious, mind-numbing affair.
Luckily, once Wolverine wakes up in the 1970’s, the quality of X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up almost immediately. Freed from the dour weight of a post-apocalyptic genocidal bummer, McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult (returning as Beast from First Class) get the benefit of a little levity that lightens the mood and allows the film to breathe. This world is surprisingly bright and cheery for a post-Vietnam America, but the change in tone is welcome. McAvoy is in especially rare form here; his confidence from First Class is all but stripped away by the betrayal of his friends, and his despair feels real and earned. McAvoy makes the arc that takes him from drug-addicted hermit back to Patrick Stewart-esque leader of men into a treat, and his performance is bolstered by Fassbender’s meaty turn of genial antagonism. Fassbender was the best part of First Class, and his mastery of the Magneto character with all of his youthful aggression remains on point. They also have the benefit of being involved in the film’s best sequence, an exhilarating and humorous heist/rescue set piece featuring Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who steals the show for every moment he is on screen. Dinklage’s Trask is a nice departure as a villain for how noticeably not crazy he is, and the same can be said for Lawrence, who walks the tightrope between good and bad with care.
Still, the giant cast often works against X-Men: Days of Future Past, as Kinberg’s script does not have enough room to give all of these characters their due. Quicksilver and Blink are revelations, undeniably exciting new blood, but amount to little more than extended cameos. The other new blood does not fare nearly as well, as no reason is given to care about characters like Bishop (Omar Sy), or Sunspot (Adam Canto), or Warpath (Booboo Stewart). This sense of facelessness harms the overall stakes of the film, to the point that when things inevitably cuts back and forth between past and future during their dual action scene finale sequences, it is more difficult to care about the fate of the future than it should be. The final act suffers from this, though the 70’s scenes remain engaging throughout, even if it is tough to figure why one should legitimately care about the bigger picture.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is essentially two films in one. One of these films is much better than the other, and thankfully it is the one that is featured for the majority of its 130 minutes. The stakes, and by extension any interest in the larger plot as such, rely on the bad side of the film, and those future sequences drag everything down like an anchor, and all the great work from McAvoy and Fassbender and Peters cannot entirely raise it from the depths. It is a shame for a number of reasons, both because it makes the film noticeably worse, trending it right into mediocrity despite its highlights, and because of the implications of its ending and post-credits bumper. Singer has his moments, and there are some inventive sequences that are of a much higher quality than most of its comic movie brethren, but he remains shackled by Simon Kinberg’s pedestrian script and its clunky exposition. The eyes are bigger than the stomach with this one.