Officially the seventh instalment in the X-men series of films, but the second in a trilogy beginning with the previous film X-men: First Class, X-men: Days of Future Past looks confusing on paper. Add in a Terminator-style time-travel premise and you have the potential for a mess. One of Days’ biggest strengths then, is that overall it works. But to say it simply works is underselling a great film which arguably stands on its own as an entertainment experience, as well as part of a long-running series.
The plot draws elements from the aforementioned Terminator series, but also the BBC’s Life on Mars and its fish out of water in the 70s scenario. In the future, the X-men are losing their battle over a ravaged earth thanks to an inability to resist against sentinels; an army of robots able to adapt to survive the X-men’s various attacks. This ability comes from the DNA of Mystique (the blue one played by Jennifer Lawrence), who was captured when she assassinated the sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). The X-men figure out that if they send Wolverine (the one with claws, played by Hugh Jackman) to go back in time to stop the assassination, Mystique won’t be captured, and therefore the sentinels won’t be a threat. With me so far?
With the exception of a few not particularly interesting action scenes in the present day, the plot is mostly an excuse to go back to all the young versions of each character from First Class. This is a great thing. One of First Class’s biggest strengths were its characters, who to my mind were far more interesting than their older counterparts, as well as a chance to bring in some top acting talent like James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.
Things have changed though. Professor Charles Xavier (the mind-reading one, played by James McAvoy in the past/present) has become a sort of reclusive rockstar, complete with heroin-like substance issues (it’s actually a solution for his spine, but it’s a sort of golden colour, and I see what you’re doing Marvel). It’s a role that means James must shift gears, from hopeful genius to bitter misanthrope, and he carries it off with aplomb. The young Magneto (the metal-bending one; Michael Fassbender) is also back, minus Irish accent but plus anger. Charles and Wolverine’s attempt to break him out of his prison, working with Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), who can move with superhuman speed, is a particular highlight.
The way Days of Future Past weaves history into the X-men storyline is a delight to watch, as its comic book narrative filters into events such as the Vietnam War and the Paris Peace Accords. It’s a similar approach to history that Watchmen took, creating a story that manages to be historically and socio-politically aware while still letting its outlandish nature run free. More attention to period detail seems to have been given this time too, with the appropriate 70s fashions and brown wallpaper.
All of this doesn’t mesh very well with the dull and grey future, and future scenes are thankfully short and few and far between. The emotional core from First Class is what kept me, as a non-comic book film fan watching, and it continues into Days. I could happily spend so much more time with these main characters, each with their own motivations, goals and emotions. All the superhero power stuff is done just as well, with convincing CGI and snappy directing, so the film should please both camps.
With clever, historically aware writing and fully dimensional characters, X-men: Days of Future Past works, both as comic book adaptation and a very human drama. While those who have seen all the previous films (including that bland Wolverine spin-off) will no doubt get more out of it for having done so, the film works just as well simply as a sequel to First Class. It proves a comic book film doesn’t have to be gritty like Nolan’s Batman films to be intelligent and though-provoking.