Marvel’s most well-worn franchise is back to the future and back to its best in this exhilarating time travelling romp that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.
It’s been 14 years since X-Men arrived like a juggernaut into cinemas and ushered in a new paradigm in Hollywood that shows no signs of abating.
The franchise’s high water mark X2 (2003) still remains one of the most fully realised comic book movies. The same, however, could not be said of its sequel The Last Stand (2006) and the two standalone films featuring the evergreen Wolverine – all of which validated the law of diminishing returns.
As seems to happen with most money-spinning comic book series these days, the clocks were turned back and the reboot switch was flipped with X-Men: First Class (2011), an effective superhero flick that used recent history (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) to posit an alternative reality in which mutants played a significant part.
The golden thread that linked First Class and X-Men 1.0 was Hugh Jackman’s pithy cameo as Wolverine and the character inevitably plays a crucial role in bridging the two time periods for Days Of Future Past.
The other golden thread is director Bryan Singer, who has come home after a patchy recent run that included Superman Returns (2006), Valkyrie (2008) and Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) and in the process delivered the best film in the franchise since his last turn in the big chair with X2.
Wolverine is zapped back in time to 1973 by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to avert a future wherein seemingly invincible man-made robots called Sentinels are within a hair’s breadth of wiping out mutant kind. The situation is so grim that friends-turned-enemies Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have joined forces to make a last stand (not that one) against the metallic beasts.
Meanwhile, back in ’73, Wolverine must convince a younger, more disillusioned Xavier (James McAvoy) to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of the Pentagon in order for him to help them stop the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing military scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), whose murder convinces President Nixon’s government to implement Trask’s Sentinel programme.
Using time travel to change an event in the past in order to alter the future invariably brings to mind the likes of The Terminator and Days Of Future Past doesn’t try particularly hard in hiding its obvious debt to that film as the Sentinels turn the planet into a mass graveyard in its dystopian opening reel.
The film also owes a debt to Star Trek, specifically First Contact and The Voyage Home in its ambition to strike a tone between serious and light-hearted. It’s a tough balance to strike, but one the film carries off with aplomb.
The scenes involving a young Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, are great fun and Evan Peters has a blast in the part of the mutant who’s faster than a speeding bullet. The slo-mo Pentagon kitchen sequence involving a gleeful Quicksilver concocting an elaborate way of getting past the gun-toting guards is an ingenious fusion of special effects, balletic choreography and music (Jim Croce’s Time In A Bottle) that pays off to highly satisfying effect.
Singer just about manages to avoid things slipping into Village People ridiculousness, although Simon Kinberg’s script slips into over-exposition and needless anachronisms, to the extent you half expect Jackman to break the fourth wall and ask ‘are you keeping up?’.
A strength of the film, aside from John Ottman’s nicely judged score, is its ability to juggle a sizeable cast. With the exception of Halle Berry’s increasingly redundant Storm and Anna Paquin’s much-discussed reduction in screen time, pretty much everyone gets their moment to shine, in particular Nicholas Hoult, who continues the good work he put in during First Class as Hank McCoy, aka Beast.
Jackman, Stewart and McKellen slip into their respective roles as they would an old pair of shoes, while Lawrence gives Mystique a very human dimension and McAvoy expands greatly on what he did in First Class.
The biggest plaudits must go to the excellent Dinklage, who offers up a different sort of villain from the ones we’re used to seeing. Even the very worst of humanity think they’re doing the right thing and Trask is no different. Singer wisely cast Dinklage, whose diminutive size suggests a harmless industrialist, but whose character exbibits ambitions that are world-changing indeed.
Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year.