Well, knock us down with a feather. We’d been positively fearing “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” from afar. It had a been a while since the franchise peaked, and on paper, the giant cast list seemed to promise another “X-Men: The Last Stand“-style mess at best. Plus director Bryan Singer‘s last film, “Jack The Giant Slayer,” was by some distance the worst of his career, and early marketing materials made it look like ‘DOFP’ had a tiny scope that belied its budget (the second most expensive in Fox’s history, after “Avatar“), and made it seem like some kind of mid-’90s vision of the future.
And yet, the film turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as you’ll know from our review. One of Singer’s best films, and the best X-Men movie since 2003’s “X2: X-Men United,” it’s one that manages to be remarkably coherent and entertaining, given the potential pitfalls involved. That said, it’s far from perfect. As is usually the case with these summer tentpoles, there’s plenty of bad in with the good. So, as such, we’ve done our traditional post-mortem on the movie in detail: you can take a look, but be aware there are heavy spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the movie. And you can let us know what you thought about the film in the comments section.
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Quicksilver, Especially In The Pentagon Sequence
Evan Peters has impressed us for some time now as one of the regulars of the “American Horror Story” troupe, and he is given a gift in this role here. By far the wittiest and most fun of any of the mutants this time out, his Quicksilver is cartoony and extraordinarily useful, of course, while constantly displaying terrific timing both comic and dramatic. And that all comes to a head in what is probably the film’s best stand-alone scene, in which the X-Men, having freed Magneto, now face a whole brigade of guards who open fire. Not just one of the best uses of extreme slomo/bullet-time we’ve seen in forever, and definitively the best use of Jim Croce‘s “Time in a Bottle,” Quicksilver’s mischief comes through in how he solves the situation: through the casual tiny deflection of a few bullets, a couple of pantsings, and a “stop punching yourself” sight gag. It’s not only a joy to watch him work, the payoff when we go back to normal speed is hilarious. One thing though—we guess he has to play Jim Croce extra slow to make it sound right to him?
While Michael Fassbender gets to be all flinty and hunt Nazis in ‘First Class’ and therefore stole a lot of the “OMFG he so cool” oxygen, we’ve always flown the flag for the reboot really being James McAvoy’s picture. And he’s even better second time out. By far the most conflicted character (Mystique comes close), here Charles Xavier, of all of them, is the most ambivalent and shaded of the X-Men, especially as Wolverine plays the all-out good-guy hero. Building the stakes for Prof X who we know will evolve into a creature of Patrick Stewart-levels of compassion and wisdom is a tricky business, but it really works here, as we see him ruining himself from the inside out, prey to gnawing doubt and guilt (though we could have done without Beast’s explanation of Xavier really losing it because Vietnam). Xavier’s adoption of the merciful position as regards the human vs. mutant battle is given texture and context, an active, costly choice, of which he is not at all sure. And McAvoy sells every shade of light and dark, turning in by far the film’s most emotive and emotionally engaging performance, in a character more usually portrayed as a brain on wheels.
We have to confess, we’ve always lumped Simon Kinberg in with the Kurtzman & Orcis of the world: a young screenwriter who seemingly came from nowhere to become a big-deal writer and producer, who’s generally stayed within franchise territory, and whose credits (“X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Jumper,” “This Means War“) don’t really instill much in the way of confidence. But credit to Kinberg (and the likely additional uncredited script doctors, though the credited scribe likely did the heavy lifting when it comes to structure)—what looked like a potential clusterfuck of an overstuffed cast and time travel plotting is relatively coherent and very watchable. Sure, there are incoherences and inconsistencies, but Kinberg makes the wise decision to keep most of the mutant cameos to a minimum, use the old-school cast of Stewart and McKellen et al. fairly sparingly, and focus up on Wolverine and the ‘First Class’ gang, and even the latter group have pretty much been pared down to the most interesting one: Charles, Erik, Mystique and Beast. Even the actual time-travel mechanics (likely inspired by J.J. Abrams‘ “Star Trek“) make some sense. This was a difficult job, make no mistake, especially as the project came together quite quickly, so hats off to Kinberg for pulling it off the most part.
The Tone Doesn’t Get Too Grim
We love Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy, but for a while, we almost wish they didn’t exist, if only because of the few years of Nolan-ized blockbusters that followed: dark, grim, and unrelentingly allergic to fun, which is what summer escapist tentpoles are meant to be. But things have been improving this year. Both “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Godzilla” have combined heavy stakes with actually being enjoyable, and without slipping into dourness, and ‘Days Of Future Past’ continues the trend. Singer and co. might overstep the bounds a little bit at the very beginning, but for the most part, the grim future setting is leavened both by making the action fun (the inventive deaths for the anonymous future-mutants help), and by the lighter tone of the 1970s sequences. Some characters have heavier issues than ever before—Charles’ drinking, Mystique’s quest for revenge—but it’s balanced nicely by characters like Wolverine and Quicksilver, who aren’t taking matters too seriously. The X-Men’s great benefit is that they can have a more serious subtext at work in a way that, say, Thor doesn’t, but Singer also remembers, perhaps even more successfully than with “X2,” that the audience are here to have a good time.
Not Drowning In CGI
Last time Bryan Singer made an X-Men movie, it was eleven years ago, and the modern superhero movie was still somewhat in its infancy. But things have escalated fast, and even a relatively grounded entry in the genre like ‘The Winter Soldier’ climaxes with a host of exploding into pixels, to say nothing of the city-trashing that ends “Man Of Steel.” There’s spectacle in ‘Days Of Future Past,’ certainly, with waves of sentinels and Magneto’s stadium-lifting parlor trick. But it’s used sparingly, and in general Singer keeps the action focused on the characters battling it out. Indeed, in both of those examples, he still manages to keep things contained: the future mutants only ever battle a few Sentinels at a time, while at the climax, so many filmmakers would have had the robots rampaging through D.C., but Singer actually uses the stadium as a way to hone in the action (perhaps learning a lesson from the “keep them contained” climax of “The Avengers“). There’s still a ton of CGi in the film, but it’s used smartly, and almost always mixed in with live-action elements, preventing it from ever descending into the video-gamey vibe that so many of these films do. It’s something we hope they remember moving forward with the sequel.
On the one hand, we imagine Jennifer Lawrence probably regrets signing on to “X-Men: First Class”—she’s got to balance the lengthy shooting schedule with her other, even bigger franchise, “The Hunger Games,” while also trying to fit in more awards-friendly work, and photobombing people on red carpets. Plus it means lord-knows-how-many-hours in the make-up chair before she can even get in front of a camera. On the other, we can’t imagine anyone we’d rather see playing the part. Mystique/Raven’s role here is both beefed up (she’s literally the most important mutant in history), and weirdly wasted (see below), but Lawrence kills it, both with a ninja-like physicality that bridges the gap between her younger turn in the first film and Rebecca Romijn‘s equivalent in the present day, and with her ever-present ability to take an emotional beat and knock it out of the floated-by-Magneto park. From an ability, with Fassbender, to suggest years of sexual history, to her terrifying revenge face, and absolute hurt when her colleagues turn on her, Lawrence continues to be a delight to watch in these films. Word’s starting spreading about a possible Mystique spin-off, no doubt as an attempt to keep Lawrence interested in the franchise, but for once, that doesn’t sound like the worst idea as the character has gone from a second string villain in the originals to an integral part of the series going forward.
We’ll admit, this movie generally does more right than it does wrong, but while we’re here deconstructing it…
Quicksilver’s Hasty Exit
Not a huge dealbreaker or anything, but we admit, it’s kind of amusing that Quicksilver’s powers are so amazing, he can literally run circles around all problems. So, breaking Magneto out of the Pentagon? No problem. But wouldn’t it have been just a little handy to keep him around for say… every other problem, obstacle and conflict for the rest of the movie? Sure, the X-Men send him home because he’s a kid, but it seems silly especially when everyone’s under a “do-or-die” threat of changing the course of history and time. Maybe it would’ve been worth the risk to include the kid after all? And yes, the filmmakers say he’ll be back for “X-Men: Apocalypse,” but good luck with that because you’ve already established a character that can basically defeat anyone with his speed.
We Miss Logan/Wolverine’s Reluctant Hero Status.
Almost devoid of quippiness and shorn of most of the gruffness that makes the character so eternally endearing, here Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine is probably the blandest we’ve seen him be. In fact in some scenes in which the dramatic tension really lies between Magneto and Prof X, he’s pretty much the fifth wheel; a hairy guy photobombing in the background. Embarking on a dangerous mission, for which he immediately volunteers, and tasked with recruiting Xavier and others to his cause, Wolverine here has little internal conflict, bar a sudden Stryker flashback which only happens at one narratively convenient moment in order to incapacitate him. We understand the oft-mentioned parallels between his role now and Xavier’s own in his life (there’s a lot of you-saved-me, no-you-saved-me stuff going on), its just a shame the screenwriters felt they couldn’t salvage any of Wolverine’s famous reluctance to play hero this time. It’s not a dealbreaker and it’s not like we don’t get enough Wolverine elsewhere, but along with the mystery of Prof X’s coming back to life ,we wonder what has happened in the intervening years to turn Wolverine into, essentially, GI Joe.
Some Questionable Digital Photography
Since “The Usual Suspects,” Bryan Singer has never made a film without longtime director of photographer Newton Thomas Sigel, and you can see why. Their work together has traditionally been strong, and when he’s on top form, like with “Three Kings” or “Drive,” Sigel makes a good case for being among the best in the world. But we have to say, on the basis of both “Jack The Giant Slayer” and this, it might be time for a parting of the ways. ‘DOFP’ is certainly more attractive than ‘Jack,’ which managed to be both gaudy and … brown, but the near-future scenes are so dimly lit for the most part that they come off as feeling a bit cheap. But worst of all are some of the interior action sequences, which have that sort of Michael Mann-circa-“Collateral” early digital photography vibe to them. That’s fine, and even exciting, if it were 2004, but it feels amateurish and cheap when in a $200 million movie in 2014. The problem, it appears, is that the film was shot in HFR technology, presumably at the point at which people believed Peter Jackson that it was the future, but then the film wasn’t mastered or released in the format. That means that certain sequences in the film look like they come from a Canadian SyFy drama rather than a legitimate tentpole.
Mystique & Magneto’s Motivations
So the time travel, to some degree or other, actually makes a kind of logical sense, but it’s a shame that the motivations of the characters don’t always do the same. In particular, Michael Fassbender‘s Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence‘s Mystique are pretty muddy in terms of the actions they perform, and the reasons behind them, enough so that it starts to threaten to break the movie. Mystique is clearly on a revenge mission against Peter Dinklage‘s Bolivar Trask, but we only ever see her in vengeful assassin mode, with the reasons given thanks to some blurry autopsy photos of Jason Flemyng and Zoe Kravitz. And because you never quite believe why she’s on such a mission (even after she’s been told the potential consequences), it makes her relenting at the end, failing to pull the trigger on Trask amid the chaos, and instead helping to bring down Erik, feel entirely unconvincing and unearned (why does she start listening to Charles only now?). Though she’s positively transparent compared to Magneto who has broken out of prison, swiftly convinced that they have to stop Mystique to prevent mutant extinction, tries to kill her, then tries to talk her out of it, and then decides to pull off a show of force in front of the entire world, the exact thing that would surely convince the world that the mutants are a giant threat (indeed, it’s a little puzzling that they wouldn’t push ahead with an exterminate-the-mutants plan after one of them DROPS A FOOTBALL STADIUM ON THE WHITE HOUSE AND TRIES TO KILL THE PRESIDENT). In theory, it’s in the spirit of the character, with Magneto always looking out for a chance to get one over on humanity, but the I’ll-help-you-until-I-try-to-kill-them reversal is already familiar from “X2,” and Fassbender’s more nuanced turn makes the megalomania seem very sudden.
The Real Threat Is Somewhat Vague
Question, for a thousand points: who is the villain in “X-Men: Days Of Future Past?” Is it Bolivar Trask, who has a fear of mutants for some reason and wants to exterminate them, but only poses an intellectual threat and who our heroes spend the movie trying to save? Is it Mystique, who’s technically the antagonist, in that the heroes are trying to stop her, but is still sympathetic? Is it Magneto, who remembers he’s evil in the last thirty minutes? It’s not really any of the above. In theory, it’s whoever is controlling the Sentinels in the future, but we’re never given any details of them bar the “worst of humanity.” It doesn’t have to be Peter Dinklage in old age make-up, but some kind of human face behind this beyond just robots dropping out of airships (or hell, even a hint that the Sentinels went rogue and turned on everyone) would help give a human face to the threat that the mutants face. Or at least, give a reason to how the world ended up ruins.
Beast Is Lame
Sorry about this one, we really are, because Nicholas Hoult is an actor we really like and we think he’s pretty perfectly cast. It’s just that Beast, as always, when he blues-up, looks like a Smurfy Teen Wolf and he’s hampered here even further by being basically a big blue lapdog/enabler for Prof X. With his only interiority coming via occasional moony eyes made over Jennifer Lawrence‘s Mystique and one scene where he makes a (really obvious) breakthrough based on watching the television news, mostly all he does is repeat exposition, go to turn the power back on and fail to lift things off Prof X. Oh, and occasionally fly a plane. Made of metal. Containing Magneto.
OK, shoot us, but we had no idea who that was, and furthermore thought it was a girl (who looked slightly like Saoirse Ronan at one point). Of course, we’ve subsequently discovered that it is in fact a mutant called Apocalypse who one presumes will play a central role in the next X-Men film, given that it’s called “X-Men: Apocalypse.” What else? Oh yes he appears to be building a pyramid in Ancient Egypt (or on the “Stargate” planet), so we can conclude two things: 1. he’s either very very old, or there’s more time travel jiggery pokery going on (we hope not) and 2. the Egyptians weren’t that smart after all and needed supernatural aid to build the pyramids. Ha! Dumbasses.
Holocaust References In Opening
Remember how we said the tone managed to mostly not become too grim? There was a reason we said ‘mostly,’ because the opening scenes showing off the mass-murder of mutants and humans leaves a pretty sour taste in the mouth. The movies have never been shy about the parallels: both the first movie and ‘First Class’ open up with Magneto at an actual concentration camp, which felt like a mission statement from Singer that at least in the original, this isn’t going to be campy, this is something with real world implications. And while there’s a level of tastelessness at work there, Singer mostly made it work. Here, though, there’s something especially grim about the mountains of charred corpses we pan through as Patrick Stewart dumps the backstory: the imagery explicitly references war crimes and the Holocaust, and in a way that feels particularly uneasy for the start of a comic book movie like this. Some might not find a difference between this and the first film, but it just felt much cheaper here to us.
How Is Professor X Alive Again?
We’ll leave it to bigger geeks than us to obsess over all the very many continuity issues that the ever-problematic time travel aspect throws up (where’s Doc Brown with his “alternate timeline” blackboard diagram when you need him?) because very few of them actually inhibited our enjoyment of the film while we were watching it. With the exception of this one, which seems kind of a whopper. So, at the end of ‘X3’ (which otherwise seems to be roughly canon, judging by the mutants still alive in the Sentinel future of ‘Days of Future Past’), Jean Grey kills Prof X, or at least obliterates his body. The epilogue strongly hints that he has at the last moment transferred his consciousness to another body, which we don’t see. And, well, daft, obviously but fine. But why would he look like himself in the Sentinel future then? One theory mooted was that he transferred himself into the body of his never-before-mentioned identical twin brother which well, oh my fucking God. But even that gigantic leap doesn’t explain why future Professor Bob Xavier (or whatever his name is) would be in a wheelchair.
Mystique’s Magic Blood
OK, after “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and now this, the next person who uses “magic blood” as a plot device gets a Colossus-sized slap. The bad guys need Mystique to perfect his Sentinels so that they can replicate mutant powers (in fact, it’s genius scientist Bolivar Trask who asks to capture her, except in the original timeline, he’s already dead by the time that she’s caught and experimented on). As it turns out, all it needs is her blood to experiment on, which is handily pulled off the pavement after she’s shot in Paris, in a very dubious bit of science. But not as dubious as the way that Mystique can replicate people’s appearances, but not their powers, and yet they use her blood to give the Sentinels mutant powers. Like we said, Kinberg’s script is reasonably tight and logical, but this might be the biggest gaping hole in the middle of it.
Wolverine Drowns Then Lives?
Perhaps one of the worst elements of the X-Men’ movie series has been Wolverine’s “healing powers.” What made sense in the comics, a mutant who can heal faster than the average person made sorta sense, in the movies became ridiculous. Wolverine has instant healing problems to the point that if you cut off his arm, these movies would practically think it logical that one arm would grow back immediately. So forget that Wolverine can get shot and then the bullet will fly out because he’s instantly healed—you’ve lived with that fallacy for like six movies. But in ‘Days Of Future Past’ Wolverine drowns. When you drown, that means you die. The powers are not immortality and healing that will take you back from the dead. When you die, that’s it. You can’t heal drowning. But in Singer’s movie, Wolverine is found by General Stryker so he can follow in the continuity of doing experiments on Logan and giving him adamantium claws (let’s forget that Logan has adamantium claws in the future of ‘DOFP’ that isn’t explained either, like he’d undergo that process voluntarily?). In most movies this would be a laughable deal-breaker, but in a super hero movie of this type where nothing’s really grounded, not even gigantic baseball stadiums, we suppose you just gotta let it go and laugh.
Never Underuse Peter Dinklage
There was so much to like about Peter Dinklage as the villain Trask (we were particularly impressed that there’s not one reference or allusion made to his height in the whole film) that our main issue here is that he’s just not in it enough, and when he is, he’s underused. Wouldn’t some actual interaction between him and Mystique, the mutant he so covets and who so loathes him, have been a ripe dramatic opportunity? Instead it’s just her pointing a gun at him and not shooting. And in their first shared scene where she impersonates the Vietnamese official, Trask gets to escape peril by, um, walking out of the door into the hallway while everyone’s distracted. The character is awesomely styled in those ’70s duds and haircut, and Dinklage invests him with way more charisma than he should have given what’s written for him, so why not give him more to do?
Why Does Magneto Lift The Stadium?
Part and parcel of not really understanding Magneto’s motivation in the last third of the film there’s his somewhat baffling decision that the best way to go about showing the world what mutants can do is by dumping a stadium onto the White House, thereby creating a sort of fortress. Fine, if he wanted to exclude the world, but he doesn’t actually, he wants the cameras to record his coup and for the message to get out as widely as possible. The stadium sequence is impressive, but why not tear apart the White House from the inside? Or start hurling all of D.C.’s cars one by one through its windows? Or any of a million other things you could do with his power that aren’t lifting and flying across a city with a stadium. And we can’t really forget how much the geeks moaned about the silliness of Magneto moving the Golden Gate Bridge in X3—can a whole football stadium, while he’s also controlling the sentinels and presumably deflecting helicopters and fighter jets and whatnot, really get a pass?
The Complaints Of Retconning
If everyone hates Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” and part of the filmmaker’s aims in ‘DOFP’ were to wipe out that continuity, why would audiences complain that Singer’s latest essentially undoes everything in ‘The Last Stand’? Look, we understand that when things don’t make sense, it can be annoying, but wiping out that film is probably not the worst thing that’s ever happened to the series. Sure, there are problems with that, such as Wolverine’s consciousness jumping back in time to a “newfound” present where everyone is alive and how would that make sense? But the end of the movie is such a mess of continuity and time that it’s certainly best to just let it live and not get too caught up in it all. Otherwise your brain will break (or the flaws will just seem too evident).
Thoughts? Your favorite or least favorite moments of the movie? Weigh in below.