The latest installment of the venerable X-Men series maximizes everything that worked in First Class (2011), and minimizes everything that didn’t. All of the forgettable eponymous team members from the first movie are discarded – off-screen no less – leaving the characters who mattered and the actors who worked (mostly): Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, and Beast. The mental chess games between James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, by far the highlight of the first film, take on greater depths in this one.
In fact, Days of Future Past maintains a sense of urgency missing in almost all of the previous installments of the X-Men series, save perhaps 2003’s X2. It starts in right from the beginning and never slows; the result is a brisk 131 minutes. The presence of multiple time periods, the flashes of an apocalyptic future, and the interweaving of old characters from the original trilogy help to lend the film a sense of grandeur and importance it could not have attained with only the kids.
If anything, the bookends of the movie could have used more fleshing out. The extreme vision of the future necessitated setup beyond a minute-long prologue, more context with which to link then and now. Instead, new characters like Bishop, Blink, Warpath, and Sunspot simply exist, while the team-up between Xavier and Magneto is unexplored. The presence of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) is especially egregious as plot contrivance; her newfangled time-projection powers never explained at all.
Yet, Days of Future Past is generally able to overcome the imbalance. This is credit to the actors of the original trilogy, who inhabit their characters with ease: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in particular make the most of their limited screen time. Meanwhile, the team dynamics are made apparent in the spectacular (and surprisingly brutal) action scenes. All this, alongside the simple direness of the situation, is crucial to the unique level of character development afforded the glue of the movie.
Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has been at the center of every X-Men movie, and this one is no different. But the time-travel aspect of Days of Future Past provides arguably the most interesting take on the character yet: Wolverine as reluctant leader. Six X-Men movies in, he is the opposite of a blank slate, but the subtleties Jackman conveys in his interactions with the younger cast elevates the first and second acts. He confronts his uncertainties, acknowledges his weaknesses, and – of course – snarks.
At the other end of the scale, the film falls flattest when it leans on Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique. That First Class failed to distinguish any of the recruits haunts Days of Future Past, which irritatingly and ineffectively pushes forth with the assumption that Mystique is crucial, not just to the ideological war between Xavier and Magneto, but to their individual psychological states as well. This is as much a failure of casting as it is the script, as Lawrence – excellent in so many other roles – never quite owns the screen here.
Fortunately, however, Mystique’s importance is also linked to her actions in the primary Sentinel-centered plot, meaning the film never loses too much momentum by dwelling on her. Again, Days of Future Past strides ahead with purpose, and the fact that it is predictable is overshadowed by its professionalism: character motivations are clear and the few turns that take place are completely understandable. Throw in a couple of memorable set pieces (Quicksilver!), and the result is quite possibly the most complete and engaging X-Men movie ever made.