It’s a miracle that the superhero genre hasn’t killed itself already. With so many movies coming out every year, there are always cries that “this will be the year the bubble bursts”, that audiences will finally get fed up with the never-ending flow of repetitive, mindless, and convoluted films. But against all odds, despite the cynicism surrounding the genre, the bubble refuses to burst.
Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, the seventh X-Men movie in fourteen years, is probably the best-made case for long-term superhero sagas as more than just cash-printing devices. Singer takes one of the most unwieldy, convoluted film franchises ever and somehow ties it together so tightly you’d almost think they had planned it all from the beginning. At the same time, it stands out on its own as an immensely exciting, insanely creative blend of science fiction, historical intrigue, and traditional superhero action.
There’s no denying that the superhero trend has become one of the most successful in history, but it’s also probably the most confusing. For example, in 2003 there was a Hulk movie with Eric Bana. In 2008, there was another Hulk movie with Edward Norton. That one is officially a part of the same universe as Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, but in 2012’s The Avengers, Edward Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo. Meanwhile, in 2002 we got the first Spider-Man movie. In 2012, we got the first Spider-Man movie…again. Batman was Christian Bale, and only a few years later he’s Ben Affleck, but Ben Affleck is now in the same universe as Superman…
What’s going on?! Well, it’s a combination of things: every company who owns the rights to any superhero is trying to tie their characters into a multi-film universe, hoping to follow in Disney’s billion dollar footsteps. Then, there’s the fear of deviating from the characters as they were in the comics, either because they are afraid of angering OG nerds, or they are just too lazy to think of something new. So, instead of actually evolving the superhero formula, we get constant reboots, and origin story after origin story.
But let’s back up to a time before blockbusters meant confusing, ten-part epic stories spanning decades. Before 2008’s Iron Man, before 2003’s The Hulk before 2002’s Spider-Man. In the beginning, there was 2000’s X-Men. It starred Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Anna Paquin, and plenty of others. The movie is the indisputable starting point of the modern superhero movie, with an eclectic cast of charismatic characters, CGI super powers, and spectacle-laden set pieces.
A few years later, X2: X-Men United (a movie I hadn’t seen until a couple of weeks ago), pretty much wrote the book on how to make a superhero sequel which is bigger and (supposedly) better. It’s safe to say that the type of comic-inspired storytelling Bryan Singer employed with those two movies echoes throughout every major Hollywood superhero movie since (except maybe Nolan’s two final Batman movies, which are in a class of their own).
But if the pioneering series perfectly demonstrated how to successfully launch a superhero franchise, it also perfectly demonstrated all of the worst trends of the genre. I loved X-Men: The Last Stand when I saw it in theaters back when I was in 8th grade, but the general legacy of the movie is to show what happens when a series eventually forgets its emotional core and replaces it with sillier action and more convoluted narratives (to happen again in Spider-Man 3). Then there’s 2008’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and last year’s The Wolverine, two movies which reveal Hollywood’s fear of exploring new areas and instead cashing in on what they know will sell: shirtless Hugh Jackman with claws.
And in 2011, more than ten years after the series began, we got a prequel, which in its own rights could have been viewed as a reboot, promising to inject the series with a sense of freshness thanks to its younger cast. What many did not expect was that X-Men: First Class wouldn’t be a cynical retread but a genuinely great movie which perfectly mixed period-piece aesthetics and spy drama within traditional superhero DNA.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is the most ambitious superhero movie I’ve ever seen. Whereas The Avengers was engineered from day one to become the juggernaut it is, Bryan Singer had to clean up what had become a mess of a franchise, tie together multiple desperate characters, timelines, and story arcs, all while making a movie that stands on its own. And not only does the movie do all of this, it does so in a way that is creatively daring, feeling like no other movie while remaining thematically familiar.
The film starts in the future, in what fans of Community would call ‘the darkest timeline’ — everything has gone terribly wrong for both the heroes and villains. This is an awesome starting point because we finally get to see what was always the greatest fear of the franchise come to fruition, with mutants being hunted and systematically killed (with the Holocaust imagery smartly harkening back to the original film’s first scene). This movie’s opening resembles straight science fiction, with floating carrier ships depositing killer robots to hunt the mutant resistance atop some sort of mountaintop monastery.
The action that occurs in this opening is some of the coolest I’ve ever seen, and not only does it promise that you’re in for a good time, but it lets you know from the start that you’re going to need to suspend your disbelief. And you definitely have to do so, as the setup of the film makes little to no sense.
Ellen Page’s mutant character somehow gains the power to send Wolverine’s mind into his former body to find younger versions of Xavier and Magneto and change the future. Never mind the fact that Xavier exploded and Magneto lost his powers in the third movie. None of that matters, because when you have already seen killer robots attacking mutants in a dystopian future world, logic is already kind of thrown out the window. Instead, what the time travel allows for is the combination of the original storyline and characters with the newer cast from First Class, all held together by the most popular character, Wolverine.
Oftentimes, large casts cause most of the characters to be marginalized, but the most impressive thing the movie does on a writing level is give many of the returning characters, even relatively minor ones, their own moments to shine. The big problem though, is that the new characters, especially Peter Dinklage’s bad guy, are never explored enough. We never really know why Dinklage feels the way he does towards mutants. Faulty logic is one thing in a film like this, but to actively not explain important motivations is not appreciated.
If the historical elements are not quite as good as they were in First Class, Days of Future Past still does a good job of situating the mutant universe within America’s past. Tonally, it’s dark and funny at the same time, finding a perfect middle ground between the too-serious Man of Steel and the too-goofy Iron Man 3. Meanwhile, the action scenes are flashy, well choreographed, and in one sequence absolutely hilarious. Only at the finale do things go off the rails, going from cartoonishly goofy to simply nonsensical.
But the movie’s greatest strength is that it has fourteen years of emotional involvement with the characters to draw on. The stakes aren’t high simply because the movie tells us they are — we have seen these characters in multiple other movies over the years, and as they all face their darkest moments, anyone who has seen any of them (and most people have) will naturally sense the gravity of the movie. And the ending has its cake and eats it too; it opens the door for plenty more films down the line, while simultaneously drawing everything that came before to a satisfying close.
Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is my favorite superhero movie since First Class, which in turn was my favorite superhero movie since The Dark Knight. This is how you pay off a superhero franchise, not by holding out for more money but by actually giving audiences what they have been waiting over a decade for. If more superhero franchises take lessons from this film instead of from The Avengers-related movies, I’d be happy to see the superhero bubble continue to grow without bursting.
Score: 4 out of 5