Singer Returns to X-Men In Mature, Brisk 'Days of Future Past'

Directed by: Bryan Singer; Runtime: 131 minutes
Grade: B+

Brisk pacing, teamwork, and the gray-area motivations of antagonists are some of the big benchmarks of Bryan Singer's first two X-Men films, the first of which recently celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of its theatrical debut. These strengths commanded enough attention to begin the revival of the comic-book subgenre into the thriving pop-culture machine it's become, for better and for worse, so it naturally came as a blow when Singer pulled out the third installment, the now much-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, in pursuit of ... well, you know, someone something else. A desire for a follow-up to Matthew Vaughn's rebooting of the universe in X:Men: First Class opened the door for the chance to right some of those wrongs, evolving into a take on a two-issue comic story from the '80s, "Days of Future Past", deliberately built to circumvent future events that lead the universe down a dismal course. With Singer retaking the reins, which he does as a director with a darker sensibility and a less heavy-handed perspective on diversity, what results is a vigorous and consequential tabula rasa for the X-Men franchise.

Look, Days of Future Past is a comic-book movie through and through. Even within a universe involving an energy wave that transforms humans to mutants and a mind-control serum that can send mutants to do whatever someone pleases, sending a consciousness back roughly fifty years into their younger body crosses most of the franchise's remaining lines of "groundedness". As with most things, however, it depends on how the writers use those devices, and the idea of desperately changing the past to prevent the dystopian future first depicted in the film -- one of mutant mass killings and concentration camps -- justifies that element. Only instead of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) transporting back to the '70s, to the origin point of this perception of mutants after a murder carried out by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) on a prominent human scientist, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), it's the enduring face of the franchise, the self-healing and gristly Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who travels back into his younger form with her aid to persuade Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) to help prevent this war between species from ever happening ... by stopping their old friend and comrade.

Penned largely by Last Stand writer/producer Simon Kinberg, who himself has claimed that mistakes needed to be made right in the cinematic X-Men universe, Days of Future Past establishes a bleak pathway for the future of mutants in a way that gets everyone up to speed without absolutely needing a refresher on either Singer's X-Men mythology or Vaughn's retooled origin story in First Class. Naturally, it helps to have those previous installments for an emotional foundation, especially in the complicated relationship between the young iterations of Xavier, Erik, and Mystique in the aftermath of events that sent them in diverging ideological directions. Singer gives the audience almost all the tools they need without relying on those previous films like a sequel crutch, though, from quick flashbacks to emotional reunions and a clear emphasis on the reason that humanity's war against mutants -- driven by near-invincible murder machines, called sentinels -- came about. Balancing all those components proves to be a tricky endeavor; however, Singer and his writers are not only up to the task, but embrace the opportunity.

Similar to what Vaughn -- also one of the story's writers -- accomplished in First Class by involving mutants in the events of the '60s Cuba conflict, Days of Future Past smartly uses the Vietnam War-era setting to propel the story's momentum and deepen the characters through the time-travel. Hugh Jackman's vascular, charismatically grumpy turn as Logan flexes some more pensive muscle as a version of the character burdened by heavy losses and the rigors of a genocidal war against undefeatable foes, while James McAvoy embodies a wayward, self-medicating iteration of Professor X who's lost even more after the events in Cuba during his era's own static conflict. Against the backdrop of wartime protests and the fear-mongering involved with preventing further casualties with militaristic control, the layers involved with the story's ten-year progression in time weave together with a burgeoning dread of what mutants could do if unchecked. That ties into the pervasive theme of fearing the abnormal from Singer's older X-Men films, only not nearly as on-the-nose in its allegory to modern diversity struggles.

Nitpicks are to be found in Days of Future Past, naturally, hiccups in logic within the numerous superpowers and the time-traveling, but director Singer orchestrates the crossing paths and grandiose set-pieces with a real appreciation for the scope, wonder, and danger behind the mutants' abilities. He brings back cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel to recapture the expressive visual language and kinetic energy of the first two films, juxtaposing the future's desolate atmosphere of purple neon and shadowy cobalt blue with the warmth and gravitas of the '70s. Immersive computer-generated effects involving the morphing, relentless forces of the sentinels and the malleable powers of Michael Fassbender's dark-gray machinations as Magneto provide many stunning displays of prowess, while a gleefully outlandish sequence featuring Evan Peters as the lightning-fast Quicksilver almost steals the show, brilliantly using slow-motion and particle effects. The action at work here isn't just a rehash of previous films, either: Singer and his writers explore clever, menacing uses for the mutants' powers, from controlling bullets to creating teleportation portals and blasting aircraft in the sky.

A vigorous, inspired hybrid of superhuman subterfuge and blockbuster spectacle takes shape, but Singer also understands the core of what really ups the stakes in Days of Future Past: the melancholy tipping points between defeat and victory, hinged on the determination of the characters to forge a better future and the ability to empathize with why certain villains might do what they do. Very little disposable content emerges in its two-hour rush against the clock, where every explosion and brush with danger crafts an intelligently bittersweet tone, centered on the irreconcilable clash over the next steps for mutants in society -- cooperative or domineering -- as Logan's window of opportunity nears its close. To be expected from time-travel movies of this type, nothing remains the same once the events in the past take hold, forcing an alternate universe into existence following an uproarious, crowd-pleasing ending. There's no telling where things might head with zero baggage and endless opportunities to explore untapped potential, something Singer affords the X-Men franchise in his triumphant return.

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