It used to be that you could talk about comic-book movies in broad strokes. It’s been 25 years since Michael Keaton donned a cape and cowl in the ultimate summer blockbuster, “Batman.” Tim Burton’s imagining of the vigilante hero launched a modern superhero cinematic movement. In those days, there was one major comic-book release every few years—each adaptation fitting the mold and displayed for comparison.
But this isn’t 1989. I know because I’m not currently getting drunk behind the garbage dumpsters of the Palm Beach Gardens’ Publix, blasting N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” through a boombox before racing grocery carts through the parking lot. This is 2014, where comic-book movies are so frequent that I’m reviewing my third in two months.
The “X-Men” movies have carved out their own little corner of the geek-o-sphere. A popular comic book for decades, it’s had a slew of hit-and-miss movie adaptations. The series has been, at best, marginally entertaining. At worst, they’re a schizophrenic mess that is harder to follow than a Terrance Mallick film translated into Magyar. “Days of Future Past” attempts to streamline a lot of frayed, loose ends the series has created and comes as something of a reset for the whole shebang.
It succeeds wonderfully on both fronts. This was no easy feat as 2011’s “X-Men: First Class” attempted a similar reboot with far less substantial results. There were still fans clamoring for the original cast, featuring Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X. Only some preferred the fresh start with James McAvoy as a young Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Director Bryan Singer had the epic chore of merging these two narratives. He succeeds in making something better than the sum of its parts.
We start in the future where superpowered mutants are being hunted to extinction by an army of killer war machines called “Sentinels.” The world has been ravaged by these robots and the X-Men have one last-ditch effort to save the world by traveling to the past and preventing the incident that set the apocalyptic events in motion.
The plan revolves around scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the architect of the Sentinel robots. His creations can detect mutants and wipe them out with extreme prejudice. Trask’s experiments on superpower mutants begin to yield smarter and more resilient models, all of which lead to genocide. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back in time to rally the troops to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from orchestrating a chain of events that will doom both humanity and “mutanity.”
As convoluted as time-travel plots are in big-budget blockbusters of this caliber, it fittingly ties together all the various generations of X-Men that have been portrayed on film. Once he successfully travels back in time, Wolverine ends up in the polyester-clad ‘70s. There, President Nixon is looking to the military-industrial complex to provide a solution to America’s growing mutant problem. He has to assemble a team to help save the day, but it’s no easy task. (Is it ever?)
As well, the blast to the past contains a drug-addicted Professor X who has lost his way. Magneto is a prisoner of the state, jailed a hundred floors underneath the Pentagon. Getting the band back together isn’t exactly a cakewalk.
“Days of Future Past” works so well because it doesn’t try to be another ever-escalating series of set pieces, building to a ridiculous climax. Every scene feels perfectly suited for the story and there’s a strong focus on the characters. I marveled at the restraint Singer shows in staging such a large story. Nothing feels pointless or extraneous. Even the massive effects-laden scenes suit the scale of the story.
So many comic-book films feel like they’re getting away from the filmmakers as they try to unleash as much destruction, carnage and seizure-inducing visuals as possible, in the end exhausting their audience (“Amazing Spider-Man 2,” I’m looking at you).
“Days of Future Past” demonstrates a rarity among comic-book movies: It relays a really good story without throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the synapses. It’s a great summer blockbuster that’s smart enough to not make you feel stupid, which in this day and age says something.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Starring Patrick Stewart, Ian
McKellen, Hugh Jackman
Directed by Bryan Singer