Following his supremely successful introduction of Marvel’s much-loved mutants to the big screen in 2000, Bryan Singer returns with a bang, firmly reestablishing his footprint on the series from the opening credits and putting his heroes through hell in the process.
Though the silken tones of Sir Patrick Stewart are a comforting reintroduction to the world of the mutants, his words aren’t quite as welcome. As he puts it, this is a “dark, desolate world – a world of war, suffering and loss.”
The familiar X-Men we know and love are battling an enemy they cannot defeat – shapeshifting, mutant-hunting Sentinels with the Mystique-like ability to mimic and absorb power. Set against the backdrop of a bleak future, bearing rather obvious parallels to the concentration camps of WWII – and, of course, Magneto’s origin story – Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Storm and Colossus fight alongside new mutant comrades as they continue a rather futile struggle for survival.
Their last hope is a rather complicated one, involving Kitty’s ability to project a person’s consciousness into their past self, and the prevention of a murder in 1973 that has set Trask Industries on a disastrous path of apocalyptic proportions.
In a twist on Chris Claremont’s original tale, the only mutant capable of surviving such an ordeal is Wolverine, who reluctantly volunteers to risk everything once again to save the future of both mutantkind and humanity itself. Thus, the mythology of the original X-Men trilogy is folded, rather neatly, into that of First Class.
So while a greying Wolvie is lying on a slab in China at the mercy of a determined Miss Pryde and protected by the last mutants standing, his slightly younger self enjoys a psychedelic awakening following a forgotten night with a barely-remembered woman. The ever-reliable Hugh Jackman slips easily back into the role that made him a star, giving us a good dose of his alter ego’s trademark caustic charm (complete with gratuitous nudity) as he sets off to find Young Charles, free an incarcerated Young Erik Lehnsherr, and begin to right the wrongs of the past.
Given his complete domination of the film’s promotional materials, audiences might expect Jackman to steal the show. But as great as he is, bone claws and all, Hugh can’t compete with James McAvoy’s superlative talents.
From the first moment we see Charles, drunken and broken following the loss of his legs and Raven, and cared for by Beast, the story finally has its heart. In stark contrast to Patrick Stewart’s solid and composed Professor X of the future, Young Charles is a dishevelled, depressed mess – albeit one with excellent taste in swears and gin.
McAvoy’s ability to engage an audience and take them on an emotional ride is unparalleled, coming to the fore as we witness his character’s difficult reunion with the man he blames for ruining his life and the subsequent evolution of his relationship with Raven.
If it all sounds a bit dour, that’s because it is. The fun went out with the swinging Sixties and Singer’s return brings a somber, serious tone that’s short on one-liners and lacking in laughs – while the innumerable cameos and nods to the comic-book canon will give every fan a grin, the only real reprieve we’re given is Evan Peters’ standout turn as Pietro ‘Quicksilver’ Maximoff. But the impressive and skilled cast are on fine form as the script makes the most of their dramatic abilities.
Despite Magneto’s rather muddled part in this tale, Michael Fassbender presents a more nuanced portrayal than before, providing a nice balance between Ian McKellen’s remorseful old man of the future and his sexy, anarchistic younger self. Jennifer Lawrence shines too, as a grown up and angry Raven who has embraced her inner badass in the intervening years since defecting to the dark side.
Some time spent with Erik and newly-acquired ninja skills make for an angry young woman and mutant freedom fighter on a mission – albeit one with dangerous consequences. And Peter Dinklage’s mutant-hating Boliver Trask is a villain satisfyingly conceived in shades of grey.
Earnest and worthy aren’t qualities that tend to produce successful superhero movies. But somehow, Singer makes it work, neatly negotiating the inherit problems presented by time travel and the butterfly effect, and putting the X-verse on an interesting new path in the process. Days of Future Past might present as many questions as it answers – but for the first time in the franchise’s history, the future seems truly – and gloriously – uncertain.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past will be released on 22 May 2014. Read our massive behind the scenes special in the new issue of SciFiNow and find out more about the comics that inspired the film with our awesome new digital magazine Uncanny Comics.