Since Bryan Singer‘s X-Men debuted in 2000, Hollywood has given us three different Incredible Hulks, two Spider-Men, two more Supermen, and has abandoned and already started rebooting the Fantastic Four and Daredevil. The filmic legacy of the X-Men before now spanned six uneven movies and covers confusing timelines that date back to the 1800s.
With the release of the new X-Men: Days of Future Past, that timeline now extends into the dark future of 2023, where giant robots called Sentinels oppress humankind and mutants alike. At times, Singer’s new film — and his first return to the X-Men since the series-high X2: X-Men United in 2003 — feels like an alternate history lesson. He and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have the formidable task of bringing together plot threads and character motivations from films with differing tones.
I’m not going to lie. It is challenging to digest all the details of a time-travel story that flashes back and forth between alternate realities in 1973 and 50 years from then, but X-Men: Days of Future Past works mainly because it keeps its emotional reality rooted in the familiar struggles of its characters.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are back as frenemies Professor X and Magneto, played in 1973 (like they were in 2011′s X-Men: First Class) by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively. It’s not clear, and certainly not advisable, from a plot standpoint exactly why Wolverine (series mainstay Hugh Jackman) must break Magneto out of prison in 1973, but certain lapses in logic must be accepted to buy into the general premise, which is essentially “getting the band back together” in a past that never was — to change the future.
As always, the threat of mutants to the human population is at the core of the conflict, with the Professor and Magneto on opposite sides (in the past at least) and Wolverine struggling with his immortality. But Jennifer Lawrence‘s tormented Mystique is the surprising center of the movie, since a crucial decision that she makes in 1973 sets the Sentinels on the path toward enslaving the planet.
Singer has a way of juggling an ensemble cast that includes almost 20 mutants that keeps X-Men: Days of Future Past on solid enough footing even when its multiple reality timeline bends and almost breaks. He narrows his focus on each character to a couple of defining traits and then illustrates those traits through action. One shining example of this is newcomer Evan Peters, who plays the lightning-fast and carefree Quicksilver. He steals the movie with one inventively funny slo-mo scene that’s shot from his perspective and tells you everything you need to know about him.
X-Men: Days of Future Past shows Singer exercising some much-needed control over the franchise he built 14 years ago and wrangling a lot of loose ends. It’s a welcome return, and although the material itself is a little unwieldy, it successfully brings together characterizations from the ’60s-set X-Men: First Class with the modern era ones.
There’s a certain amount of satisfaction just to be had in the fact that the new film isn’t a re-imagining — or a reboot with another origin story — even if Singer and Kinberg do pull a J.J. Abrams Star Trek-style move and sidestep consistency problems by using an “alternate reality.”