The X-Men film franchise has always been a saga full of ups and downs, highs and lows. It began so promisingly, with Bryan Singer expertly splicing together thrilling action and intriguing subtext in the first two films. Unfortunately, the helm of X3: The Last Stand fell to Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame. He traded in the emotional power of the first two for some shitload of explosions. Followed by the atrocious X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009, the series continued on this downward path until 2011 arrived, and with it, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. It was perfect: a supremely talented new cast, an adorably retro vibe, and a rooting in historical events which restored the power of the ideas behind X-Men, something which perhaps had been left behind somewhere in X2.
Bryan Singer returns (thank God) to direct the next instalment – the exciting, if confusingly titled, X-Men: Days of Future Past. And just look at the cast list – the sheer amount of acting talent crammed into this film is unfathomable. Messrs Stewart and McKellen return as the great Professor X and Magneto, with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender coming in from First Class as their younger selves. How so? A slightly addled plot sees the old enemies (Stewart and McKellen) in a devastated, apocalyptic Earth in the future. They send Wolverine (a veiny but excellent Hugh Jackman) into his younger body in 1970, to prevent Mystique (a capable Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating a scheming scientist (brilliantly creepily played by Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage) due to the unforeseen repercussions. Got your head round that? I know, it’s boggling.
On one level, this film is absolutely astounding. Singer produces glorious special effects, both in the space-age, apocalyptic future and in the trendy 1970s past which dazzle but don’t distract us from anything else going on, even if the 1970s parts are infinitely cooler. One particular sequence is when Quicksilver (Evan Peters) disposes of several of the Pentagon guards in supreme style. It’s quirky, funny and visually wonderful. The film is paced well, and with the small exception of an almost caricature Richard Nixon, is acted impeccably. McAvoy and Fassbender are possibly even better than they were in First Class, and the film is full of powerful, emotionally brutal scenes of dialogue, including one between both past and future versions of Professor X. McAvoy portrays a rather broken Professor, while Fassbender is still incredibly awe-inspiring as Magneto.
The problem with Days of Future Past is, unfortunately, inherent from its title. The third act is, on a human level, great. Without revealing too much; relationships are resolved, James McAvoy cries, and they’ve both signed on for another sequel in 2016. But the script, although admirably ambitious, is as confused and ambiguous as its name. Playing with two different time zones is always dangerous fare, especially when you make the entirety of history changeable at any point if the script requires. Essentially, it works “because time travel”. It’s a film that reached for the stars but fell somewhere on the Moon (if we remember that X3: The Last Stand exploded before leaving the ground, it’s not bad at all.)
Of course, there are countless plot holes regarding the previous films, mainly being the fact that Professor X has been dead since X3. But Singer and his cast are doing a great job of rejuvenating a tired and broken franchise, so let’s let them off and leave them to it. I wish them the best of luck for 2016.