With X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer returns to directing the characters he first successfully brought to the big screen more than 10 years ago in X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003). In between he directed the fanboy-maligned Superman Returns (2006), the even less liked Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), not to mention the underrated, though problematic, Valkyrie (2008). After these diversions, among others, one has to wonder… Does he still have the touch that made the first two X-Men films so enjoyable before he handed the series off to Brett Ratner, who directed probably the least liked film of the franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)? Can his new X-Men film measure up to the humanity director Matthew Vaughn brought to the series with X-Men: First Class (2011)? And how far gone is the witty, suspenseful director who gave us The Usual Suspects (1995)?
The last question is the easiest to answer: The old director is long gone, sucked deep into his passion for superheroes first manifested with the early X-Men films before going wayward and indulgent with Superman Returns and then hitting a wall with Jack the Giant Slayer, the director at his most cold and dispassionate. Unfortunately, his time spent with mediocre films has a presence in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s made plainly clear when considering what Vaughn brought out of the youthful X-Men characters in First Class. In the hands of Vaughn, who burst on the scene adapting a darker group of wayward heroes with the excellent and harrowing Kick-Ass, the X-Men felt human in a manner the franchise has never felt before or since. When Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as Professor X tangled verbally while coming terms with their powers and the role they had to play on this planet, the script and the director gave them space to explore their burden without over exposition. The British actors stepped up with performances that made the characters seem like something more than cartoon characters. Those performances were the best special effect of the entire film.
There’s just no room for that kind of soul in this epic version of the X-Men, and it’s fun an diverting, as these summer tent pole films should be. However, as Vaughn proved (not to mention Christopher Nolan and Marc Webb) these superhero films can still have soul brewing below the digital effects and stunt choreography. X-Men: Days of Future Past has an uphill battle for space to flesh out our heroes, as the drama is packed not only with characters but doubles some of them. With time travel at the heart of the film’s plot, the drama sees the younger mutant heroes in a parallel story line with their elder counterparts.
All the actors are back, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as a younger and elder Professor X, and Fassbender and Ian McKellen as Magneto. There’s also Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and even Ellen Page playing the most essential Kitty Pryde role of the entire series. All are quite capable thespians, but the film just feels too concerned with set pieces and action sequences to allow for much feeling. There are even expositional speeches some characters give on their own histories to help clarify who they are to the plot and where they are emotionally. Ultimately, it is futile to look for any redemption beneath the 3-D effects and the convoluted plot of this new X-Men film.
That said, no one is going into an X-Men film expecting to feel emotionally involved with the characters unless you’re bringing childhood sentimentality with you. The film literally cuts right to the chase in a world in ruin where our hero mutants are being hunted down by giant robots called Sentinels. Kitty Pryde has mastered the ability to send the consciousness of one her fellow mutants back in time, so her rag-tag group of familiar heroes old and new can stay a step ahead of the attacks. As this on-going war unfolds, the drama includes lots of action sequences. Singer’s longtime editor John Ottman also provides the film’s punchy orchestral music that accentuates the action a bit too literally sometimes. Like the campy ‘60s-era Batman TV show, punches are often emphasized with musical stings. The battles with the Sentinels, though, are vicious affairs that feature many dying mutants. Thanks to time travel many get to the chance to die more than once, some in quite horrific ways, even if they are ripped apart in their elemental states. But it still seems futile. Only when Wolverine volunteers to have his consciousness delivered to the watershed moment of these Sentinels, in the early ‘70s, does hope seem to arise, but he’ll have to convince an embittered, young Professor X about his mission.
It’s telling that despite all the thrilling melees between mutants and sentinels and the twisty plot, that a brief moment alone with one character steals the entire film. There’s a glimpse into the experience of Quicksilver (played impishly by Evan Peters) with his power to speed himself up through the moment while everyone else around him practically freezes. He, Wolverine and Professor X are trying to bust Magneto out of a maximum security prison when they are confronted by security guards who fire a barrage of plastic but deadly bullets. Quicksilver saves them all before Wolverine can even extend his claws. It’s a split second, but it’s drawn out to two and half minutes as Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” is used to score the “action.” The melancholy classic adds a nice dimension to what would be just a mere humorous set piece. Peters captures a sort of loneliness in an almost mundane expression of his mutation, as he sets the guards up for profound failure before they can even realize it. It’s a brilliant scene in a film that certainly does not forget humor in the face of apocalypse, but more significantly, it has a bit more resonance in highlighting how lonely these heroes can feel, which cuts to the core of the perpetual us vs. them message behind the X-Men.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a fine action movie, and it will do well for the ongoing domination of superhero movies at the box office. Singer knows he’s not creating anything more than this. You can tell that even in how he handles the exaggerated ‘70s wardrobe of the characters. He knows he’s not obliged to re-create the ‘70s of American Hustle or Boogie Nights. That’s why it’s kind of funny to see Peter Dinklage in a polyester suit and a Tom Selleck mustache. It’s all comic book exaggerated, and everyone steps up with the degree of severity that these kinds of films call for. But it’s a miracle what spending a little time with a character does to flesh out the proceedings.
X-Men: Days of Future Past runs 131 minutes and is rated PG-13 (some mutants suffer brutal deaths, there’s an impactful use of the phrase “fuck off” and you get a gander at Jackman’s backside). 20th Century Fox invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. It opens in theaters pretty much everywhere this Friday, May 23.