Counting to X: Days of Future Past

Matthew Vaughan’s original plan was that First Class would be the opening act in a three movie trilogy that would culminate in Days of Future Past. A legendary story that tied a possible dystopian future to the present, it’s regarded as one of the X-Men classics and for very good reason. it would have been the perfect capstone to the series too, and as we’ll see, the final scene here feels like a sign off.

There’s just one problem; the studio decided to do it early.

So the basic idea here is remarkably complex. In the near future, mutants have been all but wiped out in a World War, the Earth is a wasteland and automated hunters called Sentinels stalk the few survivors. A ragtag team of X-Men including a reformed Magneto, Storm, Colossus, IceMan and others fight a series of holding actions as they frantically formulate a plan. If they can send a consciousness back in time to the incident that started the war, they can change the future. And all they need is a hairy Canadian violence enthusiast and a few minutes…

Basically this is the X-Men doing The Terminator, only this time they have to stop Sarah Connor shooting Miles Dotson. Or it’s Quantum Leap where Wolverine has to inhabit 1970s Wolverine and persuade him to put the X-band back to X-gether. It’s a little complex sure, but it’s laid out pretty well and the script is to be commended for absolutely owning the Wolverine focus. After First Class’ note perfect cameo this is far more Wolverine-centric but it doesn’t feel forced. Remember that sensation because his appearance in Apocalypse? Not so much.

Much like First Class, the setting is an excuse for the movie to have a little fun. Amazingly bad ties abound and McAvoy, clearly sensing the coming of the head shaving, gets to show off some magnificently ‘your uncle’s prog rock band’ long hair. Better still, he gets to play something Stewart wouldn’t until Logan; Xavier at his absolute lowest point. Tended only by Hank and living in the abandoned school, this Charles mourns the loss of his legs or his powers depending on when he takes his medicine. He’s also moping about Raven (And Erik) and is miles away from the calm patriarch who sends Logan back in time. It’s a great turn by McAvoy, doubling down on how hard to like Charles really is. It also breaks some new ground and in a gorgeous piece of narrative footwork, allows the most powerful telepath on the planet to not be a force multiplier at crucial points.

Magneto fares just as well. Fassbender brings a tempered intensity to the role this time aroound which lasts about as long as it takes Charles and Erik to be reunited. The pair still crackle with tension but here it’s taken a different way. Like before, Charles shows Erik a path towards peace. Like before Erik walks down it. However this time he then willfully and deliberately steps off. The peace he sees ahead isn’t the peace he feels the world needs and the movie actually does a surprisingly great job of giving Magneto agency and showing why he thinks like he does. His actions here are absolutely evil, but they’re evil coming from a place of scarred pragmatism and that is a nuance you’d never normally expect in a movie like this. Erik knows why he’s doing what he’s doing.He knows it’s wrong. He knows the alternative is worse. Or at least believes that. He has faith in his lack of faith and that’s very dark ground for a movie like this to cover. Especially given how well it does so.

The one character the setting doesn’t do much for, oddly, is the one character the setting all but absorbs; Mystique. Lawrence is under served by the script here and it’s a real shame because the idea of Mystique as a mutant Valerie Solanas is frankly brilliant. Not just because it gives her the agency that she fought so hard for last time but because it’s very much of its time. Stop and think for a moment about how amazing a film following Mystique, a radical mutant feminist through this period of time would be. We get flashes of it here, but far too often she’s reduced to a minor character. The reveal that it’s her DNA Trask encodes into the Sentinels allowing them to adapt is really good but it doesn’t compensate for her lack of an arc. At least until the final scene where she does the hardest thing possible and changes the world forever, just not how she was planning to. Again, Lawrence is one of the best elements of these movies. Again she doesn’t get enough to do.

Meanwhile, back in the future, the original trilogy cast and friends all do fun work with surprisingly little. Omar Sy is great as Bishop despite getting maybe five lines, Ellen Page as Kitty Pride and Aaron Ashmore as a newly mature IceMan likewise impress. But the three that really stick are Magneto, Professor Xavier and Wolverine. Mckellen plays the elder mutant statesman with a hard fought serenity that Jackman mirrors, echoing their conversation in the past about being ‘survivors’. Stewart’s Professor X is the rock around which the whole thing orbits and his conversation with his past self is one of those moments where the movie connects so hard with the source material it’s startling. This is a man from the future, giving himself the advice he already received in the past and it has a poignancy and depth that is as subtle as it is startling.

But for all this, the movie is basically stolen by a single character and a single scene. Evan Peters, the American Horror Story MVP himself, is startlingly good as Quicksilver. An amiable, laconic teenager with a fondness for his personal stereo and stealing things he’s introduced in a whirlwind of motion and gets funnier the more time he spends on screen. The movie’s high spot sees is all him, as Quicksilver rescues the team sent to spring Magneto from prison who have just been cornered. Headphones on, he zips around the room, moving bullets, switching people around and setting up a Rube Goldberg stream of incidents that would make Wile E Coyote wince. After that, he’s not used again but affect that? He doesn’t need to be. So, all in all, the main cast are mostly well served. The new future X-Men really aren’t which given they’re pretty much all women or people of color is depressingly par for the course for the series. Intriguingly, the alternate ‘Rogue Cut’ apparently features far more of them.

In other news, Singer finally figured out how to fight scene! Most of the stuff here is still one on one but its hidden well, especially in the future sequences. Blink, who can open portals, using them to constantly redirect Sentinels around her and her team is fluid, balletic and stunning to look at. Likewise in the past, Magneto’s theft of an entire stadium and the truly horrifying thing he does to Wolverine have a weight and visceral feel that none of the previous movies did. It’s still a little ‘I punch you! ‘I punch YOU!’ But the action here is better handled than any other movie besides First Class.

Then you get to the ending and that’s where a lot of people part company with Days of Future Past. The plan is a complete success and Wolverine wakes up in a newly revitalized Xavier’s School where the staff include Beast, Jean Grey and Cyclops. Cards on the table here, I love this. Days of Future Past does such a great job of painting a grim picture that seeing Kelsey Grammer’s Beast, now on faculty, good-naturedly mess with Logan actually chokes me up a little. There’s a real sense of an ending here, as this man who’s been through so much finds himself in the best possible version of the future and surrounded by the friends and family he’s lost along the way. It’s basically It’s A Wonderful Life with added adamantium and for a lot of people it plays really, really falsely. That’s a valid read but it’s not the one I share. For me, this is the final bow, the moment everything returns to the start and the focus pulls back. I love it. It may be my favorite movie of the series in fact. It’s certainly the best bow out the series could have hoped for.

This is the end the series deserves but not the end it got. For that, we need to cover the final movie before Dark Phoenix, Apocalypse. And, yet again, we need to go back to Alkali Lake.