My initial review gave Days of Future Past four and a half stars. Big mistake. Huge. I recently watched it again and it's clear now that this is a five star film. Not just because the action, the story, the performances and music are fantastic, but it's clear from the very start of this sucker that Bryan Singer, and by extension this franchise, are finally having fun again.
It's been years since we've seen this level of sheer entertainment from this particular bunch of heroes. The X-Men franchise has been floundering for a while. Ill-advised spin-offs have kept it limping along but since Brett Ratner and X-Men 3 flipped a giant (hopefully accidental) middle finger to both fans and audiences, the astonishing X-Men have been in desperate need of resuscitation. The Last Stand made audiences feel simultaneously condescended to and confused by what was going on, X-Men Origins was just a mistake and The Wolverine, while it featured a hell of a sequence on a bullet train, was seriously lacking in fun. Even in the highs of X-Men 2, in my book the franchise's best entry just ahead of the original, there was still a sense of lethargy, a feeling that eventually weighed down the whole series by only its third outing. This kind of arthritis never really held down various other superhero franchises. I'm not saying Iron Man 2 was great but the series itself was always buoyed by Robert Downey Jr. and co. seemingly having the times of their lives. Part of the problem was the giant cast which was fundamental to the DNA of the X-Men series. An X-Men movie which left out half the characters meant it wasn't an X-Men movie. An X-Men movie with the lot of them turned out the bloated and messy Last Stand.
Then Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman came along with X-Men: First Class and injected a whole host of new characters and performances and a whole lot of new life in the process by going back to the roots of the team. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender especially brought in some ferocious energy as the duelling geniuses Charles and Eric. But for all the terrific set-pieces the film sets up and gleefully knocks the hell down, there's a still a bunch of issues in there (that, "we should have nicknames" speech being one of the better examples) which only seem more glaring when juxtaposed against all the things the film does so very right.
Then comes Days of Future Past. Matthew Vaughn, apparently continuing his one-and-done streak with superhero movies after Kick-Ass, bailed on the project (though he and collaborator Goldman still have a story credit) and made way for Bryan Singer's return. After giving us the original one-two punch of X1 and 2, as well as a host of fantastic films, chief among them the amazing Usual Suspects, there's no doubt that Singer can put magic on the screen. What I didn't expect going in was just how much life he could get out of a franchise which should, by now, be dead by rights.
What's immediately apparent is the urgency in this film. The opening credits sequence itself is like a super-speed version of the previous X-Men DNA + music openers. It's as if everyone involved is rushing through all the formalities to get to the good stuff. After the five previous entries, Singer and his collaborators are freed of the heavy lifting of origin stories or explanations. Characters are introduced in seconds flat and then freed up to break stuff and go nuts. The first action sequence will leave you gasping for air as Singer effortlessly pulls together Iceman, Kitty Pride and Colossus with some newbies (Sunspot, Blink, Warpath and Bishop for anyone keeping track) in a sequence that feels like it's been ripped straight from a comic book. The scale and dexterity of the action especially shocked me throughout the film, as set-piece after set-piece seemed to break the elementally-bound shackles which occasionally frustrated throughout many of the previous iterations. Vaughn's influence on the action here cannot be overstated. After showing the limitless nature of the X-Men with First Class in scenes like Azazel's night time attack or Magneto's complete control over a cool hundred or so missiles, it feels like the team behind Days of Future Past have found a way to push that idea even further. Iceman is a force of nature, Colossus is a metal badass, Blink, Sunspot and the rest of the new crew are tested to their absolute limit and it definitely feels like it. And the X-Men drop like flies here. Sequence after harrowing sequence leaves this film with a whole lot of bodies piling up and it's a credit to the team that each death feels earned, not just some throwaway that had to happen because the script said so. You're not going to be walking out asking why the X-Men didn't just try harder. These guys push it in battle after battle and the consequences feel brutal and real. The sight of the crew being taken out early and often keeps the movie tearing along at a cracking pace. The ticking clock is established quickly and the mechanics are laid pretty bare early on and then the film gets right down to business.
Obviously if you've even seen one trailer you know that there's time travel involved here and it gives the story a huge scope to play with. It's a credit to the writers that each story feels equally important. The future setting could easily have been left to its own devices while we went back in time. Instead, we cut back to and fro to see how just how quick that clock is ticking away and the race to the finish will leave you feeling frantic in the final moments. In the midst of all this there are the smaller grace notes which feel perfectly placed. Things like Wolverine's reaction to a water bed or Mystique's nonchalant reading of an invitation while her victim slides slowly down a wall are all small but welcome moments within the overall doom of the plot.
And then there's the film's crowning achievement, the coup de grace. Quicksilver. Oh my god. Days of Future Past contains not only the best action scene of the franchise to date, but probably the action scene of the year with Quicksilver's inspired prison break through a kitchen. Set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," the sequence is one of the funniest, most inventive, breathtaking scenes you'll ever see in a superhero film and is sure to be the talking point of the film, if not the series. It's a scene that will most likely have Joss Whedon completely re-evaluating anything he's written for the character in the next Avengers film and deservedly so.
It's also wonderful to have John Ottman back on board for the score. After writing the playbook for the series' sound, hearing the gleeful brilliance he brings through the cracking composition is a welcome return. The music helps to set that headlong rush into motion by the opening credits as it whips through the arrangement in approximately a third of the time spent on it in previous installations.
What's even more impressive is the amount of time the films spends on its characters, specifically the central trio of Magneto, Mystique and the Professor. The rift between these three left at the end of First Class has been exacerbated by the war and the growing awareness of the mutant species and it shows in the crackling scenes between them. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy spend the most time together out of these three and they make every beat count. Put two actors like that in a room together, of course the scenes are going to be gold but the script puts such care into crafting their points of view that it gives the film some real emotional heft. Jennifer Lawrence has more to do than she had in First Class and she uses every moment well, showing us a Mystique which we haven't really seen before in the series. Of course, outside of this central trio there's the always fantastic Hugh Jackman as Wolverine who simply is Logan by this point, Patrick Stewart as the Professor of the future and Ian McKellen as Magneto. These two are always spectacular in their roles and have given the series gravitas from the start, as they do here once more. Stewart's heartfelt speech to his younger self is a highlight of his performance. The rest of the cast also play their parts well, Ellen Page especially making the most of her expanded role as Kitty Pryde and Nicholas Hoult doing the same with Hank McCoy/Beast.
If this review hasn't spoken much about Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask, it's because his character may be one of the scripts main problems, as it fails to address or even provide some kind of a motivation for his character's actions towards mutants. He's supposed to be the main villain of the film but its seems more like he's a pawn for the story to set Magneto up to be the bad guy once more, rather than a character in and of himself. The script also shoehorns in an unnecessary detour to Vietnam with Mystique. Whether it's a showcase for the state of the world at the time or just to give J-Law some extra badass cred (hardly necessary for the Girl on Fire), it's mostly a waste of time in what is a lean, fast-moving story. And don't even attempt to think about how the Professor actually exists in Patrick Stewart's body after the events of The Last Stand.
Despite these couple of missteps, Days of Future Past is a breath of fresh air for the series, and a necessary one if the planned Apocalypse instalment is going to have any traction at all at the box office next year. If the film had simply been the Quicksilver scene followed by 90 minutes of stock footage on a loop, I probably still would have been happy, but when it's surrounded by a story which feels urgent and relevant, performances which elevate what's already some pretty strong material and direction which seems to show that Bryan Singer is actually having fun again, it's the strongest entry in the franchise and a hell of a film to boot.
I feel like I've covered this. The Quicksilver scene. Of course. What else?