Days of Future Past opens in a permanently overcast dystopia. Black monoliths—weaponised flying analogues of the ones in 2001: A Space Odyssey—monitor the horizon, while mutants and mutant-sympathisers are herded into killing fields.1 It would be moderately effective visual storytelling, if not for Professor Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) overly expository narration. He essentially tells us what we can already see, a problem throughout a film which—so bogged down in continuity—seems to oscillate between not trusting the audience to understand the plot, while also omitting some important details that would clarify its competing narratives. Early scenes are inundated with a cringe-worthy recitation of plot, while details such as why Wolverine’s claws are made of bone are broadly omitted, evident only to people familiar with comic book continuity. While First Class was relatively accessible to a generation ignorant of the previous films, Days of Future Past flashbacks and montages segments of X-Men, X-2, and First Class in a futile attempt to bridge the two continuities.
The fight sequence that follows this patronising opening hints at the potential for this film to succeed. The mutants fight, and in fighting reveal not only their powers but also their relationships, in brief glances shared amidst the fray. These rare and effective set-pieces reveal the film’s protracted interest in physics. One mutant, with the power to conjure portals seemingly out of Portal, fights by redirecting others’ attacks at them, bending space to her will—it’s a legitimate innovation and remains among the film’s most compelling visual devices.2 But this scene segues into more sober exposition, which serves only to emphasise the inanity of the plot. One of the mutants can send people’s consciousness back in time—“a couple of days”—so they can bring warning of the future. Wolverine is sent back further, to the 1970s, so that he might avert this timeline’s tragedy.
The superhero genre, vapidly called ‘today’s Western’ by a wealth of critics, has none of that genre’s remarkable tension, and instead subsists on the strength of its actors. As a franchise, X-Men is among the luckiest. Its first generation of films were buoyed by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, while the reboots have James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.3 With this kind of talent, Days of Future Past—and indeed its predecessor—might instead be viewed as an exercise in what kind of rubbish material talented actors can justify on the screen. McAvoy capably plays a relapsing Xavier with all the facial tics and weakness of an addict, while Fassbender comfortably embodies the kind of Aryan he’s played subversively before in Shame and Prometheus. The film’s most compelling scenes contain some combination of the actors I’ve mentioned, so of course they share the minority of scenes in the film. Instead, our point of view is increasingly anchored by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who, though capable, suffers from the same self-parodying behaviour that destroyed Robert Downey Jr’s later portrayals of Iron Man.
The film’s diverse settings: visually indistinct countries in the future, and Vietnam, Europe, and America in the past, provide mild visual distraction from what devolves into a formulaic series of action beats. Nameless mutants shuffle into the frame, reveal their powers—often utterly unrelated to the plot—and then shuffle off once more. For the majority of the film, the sets are similarly unremarkable. We’re superficially oriented into the 70s with lava lamps, while Xavier’s underground laboratory—untouched in a decade—remains spotless and sheen, identical to its portrayal in earlier (yet temporally later) films. Singer misses an enormous opportunity to revel in the design acumen of the period. When he does, in protracted scenes shot on what resembles Super-8, or in forcing his characters’ mythology on history in JFK’s assassination or the war in Vietnam, it’s engages us. One scene, in Trask’s (Peter Dinklage) office, shows a set coloured with a rainbow of browns that beautifully evokes what I imagine to be the 70s office space. These brief moments—and they are brief—are highlights. Singer should have known better than to omit further meaningful interaction with the era, as in one of the film’s most successful comedy beats where Beast boasts that he can record and monitor “all three networks, and PBS”.
Essentially, the plot in Days of Future Past is nonsensical, with inconsistent pacing that sees the future narrative play out in one setting over a matter of hours, while the characters in the past seemingly globetrot for weeks. While attacking a superhero film’s plot seems inane, these films only become immune to such criticism by adopting an exaggerated tone. Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films are unimpeachable precisely because of the campness of his film’s hyperbolic New York.4 In contrast, Singer’s X-Men stages exposition without irony, with an inconsistent tone of melodrama upended by the contemporary superhero film’s boring fetishizing of ‘realism’.5 Ideologically, the characters seem to have regressed, and while First Class—unsubtly, sure—intermittently succeeded in classing the man-mutant conflict as a Cold War in and of itself, Days of Future Past appears politically stranded, endorsing an indeterminate humanism that doesn’t necessarily follow from the plot.
The film’s best scene, involving a speedster mutant, successfully marries special effects with plot, and the actor (Evan Peters) demonstrates legitimate comedic talent. It’s hilarious without derailing the section’s tone, and convinces me that the film might be redeemed until—of course—the character is left behind. Singer does this all throughout, shedding characters or having them suddenly incapacitated, so that his plot might continue to complicate, where the alternative would be to develop something actually true to the personalities and abilities he’s developed. I am doubtful as to whether it’s worth scouring this inexplicable film for its intermittent instants of quality. The best scenes in X-Men: Days of Future Past are scattered, short, and self-contained. It’s a film that might only be enjoyed piecemeal, streamed online. Wait for the highlights to find their way to YouTube and enjoy them without mind for the film’s remaining husk.
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