With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.
We continue with Bryan Singer’s 2014 epic, X-Men: Days of Future Past…
Though ostensibly designed as a new beginning for the X-Men franchise, Days of Future Past oddly works better as an ending.
Bryan Singer’s return as director of the franchise, after abandoning the third intended X-Men film in 2006 for Superman Returns, gives the film an unexpected level of continuity back to his original first two pictures and allows it to work as a capstone for the original X-Men cast, the majority of whom return for this adaptation of Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s legendary 1981 Uncanny X-Men saga set in a dark, post-apocalyptic future where both humans and mutants have been subjugated by the Sentinels, a force of man-made, mutant-killing robots. Days of Future Past ends up allowing Singer to both tie-off many of the loose ends left remaining after X-Men: The Last Stand, and continue the rebirth of the saga after Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. As the film brings together two different generations of X-Men and these characters, so Days of Future Past unites Singer and Vaughn, who co-developed the story with First Class writer Jane Goldman, in developing a unique fusion of continuation and conclusion.
Days of Future Past is the most tangibly connected X-Men film to X1 and X2, even beyond Singer back in the director’s chair. It tackles the core ideological difference between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) that formed the backbone of those first films, as it does in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics, and naturally evolves that conflict from its foundation in First Class. Though the plot is driven by Wolverine in his role working to change the past, and it hinges on the historical actions of Mystique, Days of Future Past is as much an origin story for Professor X and his school as First Class was for Magneto. The script is cleaner, the dramatic through-line more directly apparent (at least in the first half), and it manages to both give the original X-Men trilogy a sense of closure while spiralling the franchise off into a new direction. This does for the X-Men franchise what JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot movie did for Star Trek – new life born of old characters.
X2 may be the stronger movie by a yard or two, but Days of Future Past could well be my personal favourite for how it satisfies the viewer on multiple levels.
The X-Men franchise was in really interesting place by the time Days of Future Past came around. It was riding off the back of two critically and commercially successful films in First Class and The Wolverine, both of which worked hard to banish The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine to a point of non-canonical limbo.
The Wolverine, released just one year before DOFP (an easier acronym for short), particularly seems like a project Hugh Jackman *needed* to do. After his breakout turn as Wolverine, shining out even within an accomplished cast, Jackman must have felt the crushing disappointment at the mess that Origins ended up. Teaming with James Mangold, a fairly workmanlike director best known up to this point probably for Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and Western remake 3:10 to Yuma, Jackman crafts a film which picks up on a key, unavoidable thread from The Last Stand—Logan having to kill Jean Grey to prevent the Phoenix destroying the world—and builds around it a tale of atonement. Wolverine, tapping into another well-loved Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Marvel story from 1982, goes to Japan in order to find himself again. Wolverine comes to terms with his own sins in the shadow of Nagasaki, acting as a totem for lingering American guilt at dropping the H-bomb at the end of World War Two. You could even read The Wolverine, on some level, as a piece of atonement for Origins; a second attempt at truly characterising Logan on a deeper level.
It not just succeeds in this but moves the X-Men franchise closer toward the phenomenon that by 2013 was transforming comic-book cinema and Hollywood itself: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nothing was quite the same in the post-Avengers Assemble world The Wolverine found itself in and Mangold’s film takes more than a few notes from Kevin Feige’s playbook. It crafts a stand-alone story focused on one key character while linking here and there to the broader X-Men universe and the history of the franchise, before delivering a post-credits sequence re-introducing Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellen’s Magneto, not to mention the threat of Trask Industries, in a direct lead-in to Days of Future Past in a style that would not have gone amiss in the MCU. At this point, the X-Men saga begins a metamorphosis from a franchise that considered itself a trilogy before rebooting, into a wider, time-spanning, serialised structural narrative.
After we finished First Class, Matthew Vaughn and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we wanted the sequel to be. There was an idea that came from Fox asking us if we would consider using Ian and Patrick, initially just as the old Xavier and Magneto at the beginning and the end but not really tying them into the story. It was something that thematically interested us, but narrative-ly we didn’t really know how to connect. We were thinking about it as a pure sequel to First Class, still in period with that cast. As we started talking about the potential of Ian and Patrick in these small roles, I brought up to Matthew Days of Future Past, not feeling, frankly, that it would be possible to make the movie. But he liked the idea, and I would say we kept a lot from the comic book – someone being sent into the past to save mutants of the future from Sentinels.
At the end of First Class, the scene appears set for a sequel which would essentially replicate the original 1960’s Marvel comics with a fresh aesthetic. Xavier was wheelchair bound, he had the X-mansion ready and the school prepared, he had initial X-Men such as Hank ‘Beast’ McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Alex ‘Havok’ Summers (Lucas Till), and Magneto was fully formed and headed off to create his initial Brotherhood of Mutants. You could easily have set a sequel in, say, 1964 or 1965 with a fully-fledged X-Men team battling Magneto, throw a new young Jean Grey and a bunch of fresh graduates, and you would in broad strokes replicate what we had in Singer’s first X-Men film, just forty years earlier. Days of Future Past affords them the chance to go in a fascinating direction, even if it forces them to hit the brakes on the natural evolution of the X-Men as an entity.
What is interesting about the first X-Men movie is that, unlike many of the emerging Marvel movies at the beginning of the 2000’s such as Hulk or Daredevil or Spider-Man, it is not an origin story. It cleaves closer to the 90’s Batman series in that sense, which presented a fully-fledged Caped Crusader battling his rogue’s gallery, hinting rather than directly depicting the tragic incident fuelling his darker psychological demons. When Singer’s series begins, X has long been running the school, Magneto has long been his opposite, and the primary origin comes through Rogue (who, again played by Anna Paquin, ended up on the cutting room floor in DOFP, which pretty much sums up the treatment of her character, post-X2). Even Wolverine has as deep an enigmatic past as the X-Men themselves, who have a sense of history behind them. Singer deconstructs those characters but it is Vaughn, with First Class, who deconstructs the world behind them.
Days of Future Past is unique in how it manages to combine two distinct franchises together given, tonally and visually, X1 & X2 and First Class feel like different films, made by demonstrably different creatives. Singer’s version is more poised and brooding, placing a contemporary spin on the campiness of the original comics, whereas Vaughn’s film has a period colour and rock’n’roll swagger to it. DOFP brings those stylistic touches together fairly seamlessly. There is an argument, admittedly, that it fails to capitalise on the franchise-rebooting promise of First Class—indeed to an extent it deals with some of those new possibilities quite callously off camera, such as killing characters key to that movie like Angel, Emma Frost & Azazel in the decade gap between films. They feel like acceptable losses, however, to help fuel Magneto’s continued anger and Xavier’s collapse into self-loathing.
Singer and writer Kinberg quite nicely reflect the changing social and cultural landscape in American society between 1962 and 1973, the year DOFP is set. First Class suggested, having averted World War 3 in the Cuban Missile Crisis, that maybe despite their differences that everything might turn out alright in the end. DOFP is more anxious about the future, in a similar context to how Singer’s first film reflected turn of the millennium cultural concerns and later the fallout from 9/11. “The future. A dark, desolate world” are Stewart’s first, ominous words that open the film in the gloomy, cold, Terminator-esque world of the 2020’s. The 1970’s equally for Xavier didn’t live up to the promise of earlier days; he is largely alone, drinking, forced to quell his telepathic power to regain his legs, shambling around his decaying mansion without a purpose. Magneto was locked away for assassinating JFK soon after First Class. His mutants died. Mystique was sundered. Nothing turned out the way they hoped.
This feels quite apt. The X-Men franchise, at its best, balances the fear and anxiety of a world torn asunder and ripped apart, divided by differences and hysteria, with an innate hope in humanity and the ability to work together for a better world. That is the central ideological struggle between X and Magneto and Days of Future Past works to remind Xavier of that belief – one he lost between this film and First Class as the cultural revolution of the Sixties gave way to the sobering, harsher truth of the Seventies. The early 21st century may be a cold dystopia but we see another war toward the beginning – Vietnam, where Mystique is getting mutants out before Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) can experiment on them. Is there a war that more encapsulates futility and the destruction of dreams than Vietnam, certainly in the American psyche? Singer and Kinberg portray two worlds – one where the end of days is happening, another where we exist on a knife edge. DOFP’s anxiety in 2014 now almost feels prescient given events of the last few years. “Are we destined down this path, destined to destroy ourselves like so many species before us? Or can we evolve fast enough to change ourselves… change our fate? Is the future truly set?” X wonders as the film opens
Trask is among the more interesting villains in the X-Men franchise. He operates essentially as a more powerful version of Senator Kelly from the first X-Men film, fused with the anti-mutant rhetoric of William Stryker (it makes sense that Stryker gets a lot of his mutant experimenting ideas from Trask that he later uses on Wolverine). There is also a distinct whiff of Robert Oppenheimer about him. Oppenheimer was of course the inventor of the atomic bomb who didn’t quite appreciate the magnitude of his creation until it wrought unimaginable damage. Trask isn’t around long enough to see quite what the Sentinels will become but feels utterly justified in pandering to the hawkish, indeed babyish whims of President Richard Nixon about the mutant threat (how much is Nixon’s portrayal here foretelling Trump in many ways too?). Dinklage plays him as an apparently rationed, reasoned scientist, but he is anything but; he appeals to former Vietnam war mongers at the Paris Peace Accords and later the US government about the emerging threat, mainly for his own self-serving reasons. Trask is little better than the Nazi scientists who killed people like Magneto’s parents, yet his warped ideology sees them as a vanguard against human extinction: “How many of our sons and brothers did we just ship home in body bags? Maybe fifty, fifty five thousand? And how many more on the other side? Never before, in all of human history, has there been a cause which could unite us as a species… until now.”
Days of Future Past utilises time-travel, of course, in a significant way, and very much takes a cue from the Terminator franchise in how it adapts Claremont’s story – particularly Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence) aka Mystique can, in some sense, be read as X-Men’s Sarah Connor here; as Sarah in T2 determines to kill Miles Dyson before he can create the program that leads to SkyNet, Mystique’s murder of Trask results in the development of the Sentinels and the dark future to come. In a way she is a reverse Sarah Connor; she has no idea killing Trask leads to everyone’s destruction, human and mutant, with her rationale being to prevent Trask from experimenting on her kind. Wolverine, sent back to stop her, is the T-1000 equivalent here – despatched to prevent a death which would result in the devastating future, thanks to Mystique’s DNA being used to develop the Sentinels. Beast, having become convinced time operates in a straight, immutable line, is anxious about Wolverine’s entire mission: “What if, whatever we do can’t be changed? What if Raven will kill Trask anyway? What if that is who she is?“.
This is a logical development of Mystique’s character in First Class, given how that film saw her pivot between the affections of Charles and Erik for different reasons. Lawrence gets much less screen time in DOFP given Mystique ends up becoming as much of a McGuffin as a character, but centralising her as the key factor in how the future ends up is a great touch. It not only makes her struggle between Xavier and Magneto’s ideology crucial to the future of mankind, it further personalises that struggle as part of the root division between those two men. Mystique’s choices end up as a microcosm for all of mutantkind. It does come at the expense of the psychological exploration of Raven’s character (there is no intriguing ideas here about sexual attraction and rejection from these two men), but it is worth it for how important Mystique becomes to the entire plot, when she could have ended up as just a footnote. “Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn’t mean they’re lost forever” is Charles reply to Hank’s earlier concern, echoing the words of his future self. Believing in Mystique is what helps him find himself again.
While the mechanics of time travel are quite loose, and relegate poor Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde to little more than a conduit, it becomes worth it for allowing James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart to share a scene, with the old X imparting wisdom to his younger self. “It’s not their pain you’re afraid of. It’s yours, Charles. It’s the greatest gift we have: to bear their pain without breaking. And it comes from the most human part of us: hope. Charles, we need you to hope again.” This entire aspect of the plot feels partially cribbed from JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek, which alongside the MCU and the Terminator franchise feels like another chief inspiration; it too finds a way to fuse together two distinct timelines and allow Leonard Nimoy’s aged Spock to interact with his younger self and place a young James T. Kirk on the path he needs to tread. Old Spock and Old X serve similar functions to each of their plots, even if the time travel logistics perhaps hold up a little better in Star Trek than they do here.
The reality is that Days of Future Past inherits a continuity mess and frequently does little to try and resolve it. Bolivar Trask was played by Bill Duke in The Last Stand as a middle aged black man, 30 years after Peter Dinklage’s character is white, middle-aged dwarf. Professor X’s return to life, hinted at in The Last Stand but only confirmed in behind the scenes extra material, has no explanation tied to it – forget The Last Stand, he just exists again. Equally, Old X here mentions his bond with Mystique as we saw in First Class but there was no hint in the first three X-Men films of any existing bond, or even that they really knew each other. Plus there remains a huge question mark over how the timeline changing works – if the dark future happens after The Wolverine, then how does changing the past bring back Jean, Cyclops et al? Days of Future Past attempts to iron out consistencies from the earlier films but just ends up creating more of them.
Luckily, the sheer volume of plot, theme, ideas and execution swirling around DOFP mean you can overlook these gaping inconsistencies. The X-Men franchise was always backing into a connected, serialised canonical mythology in a manner the MCU has avoided; that has a few minor continuity issues sometimes but it has largely been mapped out over a ten year period, whereas X-Men was developed film by film for many years. Much like how the 2015 James Bond film Spectre attempts to retroactively tether all of the Daniel Craig era together as one continued story, Days of Future Past tries to reconcile where the original films in the franchise were heading with where the rebooted concept was going, and from a narrative perspective it achieves that nicely – especially in the first half, and thanks to the master stroke of having Wolverine be the catalyst of the story in the past. He may not be the lynchpin, and the film may really be about Xavier rediscovering his own hope and belief, but without Wolverine there is no film, just as it should be.
There is also a deeply satisfying, meta-textual aspect to Days of Future Past which sets it apart from every other X-Men film. This is a level of payoff for an audience who have spent nearly fifteen years going with the franchise through various twists and turns, an audience who after The Last Stand likely thought they would never see Old X and Magneto again, or Storm, or Iceman etc… You can see from this perspective how much, even perhaps unknowingly, Avengers: Endgame takes a cue from Days of Future Past. It too serves as a victory lap for the first incarnation of its franchise, having certain of its heroes face younger versions of themselves, even travelling back into the 1970’s as part of their mission to save the future. Both films understand that audiences will be fine with looking back in order to serve the present, and are deeply satisfying as a result. DOFP understands the value in delivering long-standing payoff while laying track for a new incarnation of the same franchise, set in an all new continuity.
The film ends, of course, establishing the groundwork for future films that could tell aspects of the story we saw in the earliest X-Men films—events now apparently erased by the dodgy temporal mechanics at the heart of the film—but it feels like a richer prospect given these characters are aware another time line, another future, existed before them. Much like the Star Trek reboot time line, in which each film has referenced or paid a debt to the franchise’s past, X-Men now has the opportunity after Days of Future Past to evolve along a similar path, which it began doing with 2016’s Apocalypse. The mechanism for that, and how Days of Future Past manages to satisfy existing storylines, further develop key characters and depict the corrupt malaise of the 1970’s, makes it one of the most clean and propulsive X-Men films in the entire series.
Oh and how awesome is that Quicksilver scene?
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