X-Men: Days of Future Past is a worthy inclusion in the Marvel Canon

3 out of 4 stars

It’s X-Men film number seven, ladies and gentleman.  With as many ups as downs as we’ve had along the way, nothing could have prepared us for a success like the latest iteration.  X-Men: Days of Future Past takes the famous story arc from the X-Men comics and gives it top-notch production values and an appropriately gloomy approach from returning director Bryan Singer.

xmen-days-of-future-pastThe world of mutants has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland where robotic supersoldiers called Sentinels hunt down mutants and humans alike.  The X-Men have all but vanished, leaving the archrivals Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) no choice but to team up and use a hidden power of the mutant Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat (Ellen Page), to end the war on mutants before it ever begings.  They send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to visit the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and convince them to join forces to prevent the aforementioned war’s impetus: the moment the younger Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) killed the Sentinel program’s creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects and Superman Returns) makes a welcome return to the franchise, proving the X-Men films would not have been what they were without his sense of pacing and suspense.  His greatest triumph in Future Past, however, is his (and his producers’) willingness to embrace the darker side of the story.  Scenes set in alternate futures depict grisly murders of beloved characters.  These deaths are never used for shock factor, but instead set the stakes for the story and allow us to remember the emotional impact these characters have had on us previously.  His character-heavy scenes seem gutted by editing, but all-around, Singer seems to be in top form here.

Screenwriter Simon Kinberg (Sherlock Holmes and Mr. and Mrs. Smith) returns as well, following his screenplay of the infamous X-Men: The Last Stand.  Kinberg’s language never wanders into awkward territory (yes, he gets his share of Marvel-y puns), but the script never necessarily gives us anything to think about on the drive home either.  Its play-by-play nature simply and smartly allows the actors to show rather than tell.  But when Kinberg falls into expository territory (paired with unnecessary flashbacks from Singer), the characters suddenly feel wooden and unreal.  This uneasy tone feels especially awkward considering the amount of gravitas of which the star-studded cast is capable.

james-mcavoy-on-the-epicness-of-x-men-days-of-future-pastThese talented veteran actors deliver from top to bottom, and even the lesser known actors playing smaller roles show strong potential.  Jackman’s dry wit and subtle emotional range serve him well, proving once again that he is no one-trick action hero.  Dinklage provides a strong showing too; his Trask is as methodical as he is ruthless, but all within a charismatic if not smarmy delivery.  And both Professor X’s and Magneto’s create clear, surprisingly sad paths from the men they were to the men they will become.  The surprise of the cast, however, is the delightfully funny Evan Peters as Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver. His character’s youthful vigor and maniacal taste for fun provide some of the most hilarious moments of the picture, proving the young actor knows how to make the most of fifteen minutes of screen time.

In particular, a scene featuring Quicksilver’s skill with super-speed proves not only to be as thrilling as it is humorous, but a prime example of what visual effects can create in this day and age.  While the effects of the rest of the movie produce oddly tinny textures and blatant green-screen moments (save for a particularly awe-inspiring scene featuring RFK Stadium), this sequence brings to mind the first reaction to the famous bullet-dodge scene from The Matrix.  The well-executed editing and material manipulation from the visual artists (not to mention genius direction from Singer) brought my screening’s audience to hearty applause.

The period aspects of the film have been painstakingly executed here, surpassing the efforts of the highly successful X-Men: First Class.  The updated 70’s costume designs (as well as those of hair and makeup) never become a joke, instead using the styles and cuts to show clear character arcs.  The usage of found footage and newsreels create a vintage aspect to the point that the more dramatic scenes shot this way feel disturbing in a Blair Witch Project manner that never reaches outside the consistent tones set down by Singer.  Mystique’s attempt to kill Trask is particularly bone-chilling thanks to this tool.

Summer blockbusters generally follow the mass appeal rules of filmmaking, trying to draw in as many different shapes and sizes as possible to make the big bucks.  X-Men: Days of Future Past dares to color outside the family-friendly lines, embracing the pitch-black story in its original tone and setting it loose with top notch performances and production values.  It never completely lets go of its popcorn flick nature, but this provides a smart balance between story, character, and thrill.