‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’: J. Law Reinvigorates a Tired Franchise

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In the future, the X-Men are tired. They’ve been fighting a losing war for decades against robots called Sentinels whose evil fire vagina dentata threatens to swallow them at every turn. That dystopian future is far more CG than reality. It’s grim. Bodies pile up around the X-Men while characters we’ve learned to love over their 50-plus-year history in comics and on screen die.

But perhaps we’re a little tired too. The X-Men have starred in six superhero films, since 2000, that have been all over the map, from the good (X-Men 2) to the bad (X-Men: The Last Stand) to the made-for-Asia spinoffs (The Wolverine) to the reboots (X-Men: First Class — or, as I like to call it, X-Men: Muppet Babies). We’ve seen this all before — especially when Wolverine howls in pain to an unforgiving sky. The world is about to end, and the only people with the ability to save it are the X-Men, if only humanity would stop discriminating against them and let them fight.

But there is some hope. A reboot, which, in this future dystopia that takes places in the foreign markets the film seeks to capture (Russia and China), means traveling in the past. Kitty Pryde, who we know can walk through walls, can also, somehow, through the magic of blue laser hands, help people’s minds walk through time. And thus we have a dual narrative. A future battle to facilitate the changing of the past in order to provide a good future. Whew.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is a convoluted attempt to return to what made the series good, utilizing a plot from the comics: in a dark future, the remaining X-Men fight an impossible battle until… they send Wolverine back in time, to 1973, to make sure that baby Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence in the blue paint) never kills Trask Industries’ Dr. Boliviar Trask (Peter Dinklage), setting off a chain of events that leads to Mutant annihilation in the form of the indestructible Sentinel machines.

It’s silly, of course, but it’s a chance for the early-2000s X-Men to share the screen with the magnetic, sharp actors from First Class. Lawrence, James McAvoy (young Professor X), and Michael Fassbender (young Magneto) know how to make this kind of pulp feel meaningful (or at least fun), and McAvoy’s first appearance, as a sodding, be-robed, feral drunk — very Withnail and I locked away in a crumbling version of Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters — is a blast. Hugh Jackman’s played Wolverine for ten-plus years now, and he can put on the adamantium skeleton like he’s wearing a slightly faded smoking jacket that stinks of cigar. Despite being the engine that keeps the plot whirring in this round, there’s not much to do for our favorite Canadian, besides bringing the characters together and letting Professor X and Magneto argue with each other.

But the film doesn’t get whirring until we get to the past — the first battle, set in an apocalyptic future where the mutants are heavily outnumbered by the evil robots, is just a chance for CGI fighting (that looks good, at least) and a rainbow coalition of X-Men that we haven’t met before but will play well abroad, with actors like Omar Sy (wonderful in The Intouchables) and Fan Bingbing. For maximum overseas appeal, both scenes are set in Russia and China, which, in the future, seem to be just an empty warehouse and pagoda-laden single set, respectively. Ellen Page, as Kitty Pryde, has some sort of time-travel ability that allows her to transport people between worlds, and the world’s best senior pals, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, bring their gravitas to the roles of Professor X and Magneto.

But the future is pretty much a depressing bust, and the past is much more fun, with some exposition and some pretty cool set pieces. American Horror Story‘s Evan Peters appears as the mouthy, fast-talking Quicksilver, who’s the key to a jazzy Pentagon heist. Most fans are already obsessed with Mystique, and why shouldn’t they be? Lawrence’s mix of sexuality and power is oftentimes fun and can get weirdly emotional when the character’s in a vulnerable position. Dinklage also makes a great addition to the X-Men world, looking evil in ’70s glasses and reciting the lines with an imperiousness worthy of a Shakespearean text.

It was notable — before the legal troubles, and however that pans out, the certainty that he is at least an unparalleled creep — that this film marked the return of Bryan Singer to the director’s chair. Singer had helmed the first two X-Men proper, before leaving the franchise in the hands of Brett Ratner and Matthew Vaughn, and you can feel the difference. The CGI makes some sense, the Oscar-winning and multiply nominated actors are strong enough to make you think that there’s real emotion behind the exposition-choked dialogue, and the film is fairly entertaining until the somewhat incomprehensible finale, if not anything close to a masterpiece. Although it’s funny: the ensemble hums along until that finale, where the camera has to cut between 18 people’s points of view like a reality-show climax just to inspire any sort of feeling.

If you want to go to the drive-in, or if you crave a popcorn movie this summer, you’ll have a pretty good time at X-Men: Days of Future Past. Spend some time afterwards talking with your date about the continuity errors in the world, or Rogue’s weird cameo, or what kind of role Fan Bingbing’s Blink has in the China version. X-Men: Days of Future Past is not the soul-sucking mess that a lot of tentpoles end up being, and you leave the theater feeling fairly OK about the world. On a scale of Transformers to The Avengers, it definitely ranks closer to the latter — and that’s probably the best we can expect.