Caution: minor spoilers ahead.
The movie’s been compared by some to The Avengers. Obviously, the two films are very different: The Avengers was the culmination of several movies starring solo characters, bringing them together into a single film. Days of Future Past similarly brings the cast of the original movie trilogy (including Wolverine, who’s starred in two solo films) into interaction with the cast of X-Men: First Class, which was mostly set in 1962. There are similarities here, although the analogies aren’t perfect.
But the movies are more similar in tone. The Avengers has a frenetic feel, chock filled with characters, yet doesn’t feel confusing. Days of Future Past pulls this off too. Both also have a lot of fun sequences and clever dialogue, which don’t add a lot to the movie but help the films keep rolling forward emotionally. For example, when Wolverine’s consciousness arrives in the past, he wakes up — like a fish out of water — next to a girl he was supposed to be guarding, pops his claws only to find that they’re still bone (prior to his admantium infusions by Stryker’s Weapon X program), and gets snappy dialogue as men arrive to confront him.
Like The Avengers, Days of Future Past also delivers some pretty mind-bending super-hero fight sequences. Early on, we witness a Sentinel attack in the future, and it’s filled with super-powers used in logical but unexpected ways — ways you could probably only depict in motion pictures. Magneto lifting of a stadium, which was included in the movie’s trailers, is another stand-out. But probably nothing beats the scene in which Quicksilver helps Professor X free Magneto from the Pentagon, running along walls and clearly having fun as he sets people up for defeat, the moment time resumes its normal speed, and adjusts the trajectory of bullets in mid-air.
This is all stuff we’ve never seen, in all the super-hero movies of recent years, and we’ll probably be talking about them for years to come.
Days of Future Past distinguishes itself, however, by retaining the vaguely more serious tone of the other X-Men films. After all, a mutant apocalypse in the future hangs over the entire proceedings. The themes of discrimination and intolerance are back too, and they work here. (For example, the fact that the future Sentinels have turned on humans too reflects the fact that, when we prevent one group to be persecuted or discriminated against, we’re protecting our own rights too — after all, we could be next.) More uniquely, the movie’s defined by a sense of regret, especially in the strained relationship between Professor X and Magneto.
These themes help the super-heroic action from feeling like mere spectacle. It’s not just that he heroes have to beat the powerful villains to save the world. Days of Future Past bothers to ground this action in larger themes and to give its characters actual arcs.
The story’s also defined by the young Professor X’s need to believe in himself again. He begins the film very much in the position of a drug addict, his school — and his dream — a failure. This reverses the normal relationship between the professor and Wolverine, as the latter is forced to become the teacher, while it’s the professor who’s troubled and lost. By the end of the film, he’s had to believe that Mystique doesn’t have to be defined by her mistakes, and this helps him to believe the same about himself. It’s a character arc that could easily seem pretty dark, but it’s a wonderfully optimistic one, which the elder Professor X characterizes with the word “hope.”
It’s through this kind of maneuver that a movie about a pending future apocalypse (with shades of Terminator and The Matrix), not to mention a Professor X who looks strung out, doesn’t wind up feeling grim at all. In fact, it’s all pretty hopeful — and dares to take a much more old-school, super-heroic morality, in which everyone can still be redeemed, than almost any super-hero story today, in movies or otherwise.
And it’s surprising how much fun it is seeing Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Ian McKellen as Magneto, and Halle Berry as Storm — especially all together. And look, isn’t that Anna Paquin, back as Rogue? Ellen Page back as Kitty Pryde? Seeing them together makes you realize how definitive these actors feel in these roles (even if Ellen Page was the third actress to play Kitty Pryde). I even recognized — and could name — Shawn Ashmore. In the end, Kelsey Grammer, Famke Janssen, and James Marsden even get cameos. And the First Class cast — particularly James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence — are fun to watch too. As is knowing original director Bryan Singer’s back. There’s even a title sequence that’s highly reminiscent of Singer’s first two films.
This isn’t a revolutionary movie. But it’s very good. It compares favorably to most of the Marvel Studios films. It’s one of the best X-Men movies; in fact, it may well be the best.