"Days Of Future Past" Fails To Restore X-Men To Former Glory

It’s been 11 years since the last – and arguably only – memorable X-Men film, “X2: X-Men United,” with 20th Century Fox slowly but determinedly frittering the franchise away. They’ve done it through bad Wolverine spin-offs, an uninspired prequel featuring a spectacularly hammy Kevin Bacon as its villain, and a Brett Ratner-helmed pic that was initially met with indifference, only to blossom into full-blown hate in the years since. Director Bryan Singer’s career has followed a similarly underwhelming post-“X2” trajectory, the passage of time suggesting that Bryan Singer and X-Men are far better together than they are apart. It seems only natural that the two would re-unite for “Days Of Future Past,” an amalgamation of the series to date.

Singer has been given the unenviable task of tying Matthew Vaughn’s 60s-set “First Class” to the present day X-Men films via time travel, all the while undoing much of Ratner’s “The Last Stand.” Unsurprisingly, the set-up is exceptionally convoluted, with a group of mutants from the future sending the ageless Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in his seventh portrayal of the hairy superhero) back in time to stop scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from creating an army of sentient robots that go on to wipe out much of the world’s mutant population.

Most of the film’s pleasures come in the form of seeing Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy reprise Professor X in different eras, and to a lesser extent, Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender returning as Magneto, an iconic comic book character that should have more to do in a film that ostensibly hinges on his actions. The rest of the cast is filled out by a plethora of X-Men regulars, from the original’s Halle Berry to “First Class” standouts Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult. Even Ellen Page returns as Kitty Pryde for her first Ratner-free “X-Men” experience.

The only notable newcomer is Evan Peters as Quicksilver, a mutant with the power of supersonic speed. He’s featured in one action sequence that uses slow motion to stunning – and humorous – effect, and then inexplicably shunned for the rest of the film. A little more of the character’s levity – not to mention his show-stopping superpower – would have gone a long way in a relatively dour film. His absence is only compounded when Singer cuts back to him during the pic’s climax, for no other reason than to remind us that the character was, at one point, in the movie.

Singer and writer Simon Kinberg do well in juggling the vast array of mutants – a problem that’s sunk a few of the series’ past entries – but the cast is so large that the size of certain roles is bound to irritate die-hard fans. Mystique (Lawrence), for example, has been promoted to lead because of the actress’ newfound stardom, while Rogue (Anna Paquin) has been demoted to blink-or-you’ll-miss-her status. A handful of late game cameos are a welcome treat for fans, but they frame the entire venture as an unnecessarily complicated way of circling back to the series’ starting line. It took seven films to get here? Moreover, the scene in question is lifted wholesale from “Back To The Future,” one of the X-Men awkwardly filling Marty McFly’s Nikes.

Even more frustrating is Wolverine’s increasing passiveness, a trend that began in his first origin film and has only grown since. He’s been reduced to an observer here, mostly stripped of charisma (of which Jackman has plenty), and exists only as a bridge between past and present. Fox’s vision for the character remains one of the biggest missed opportunities in the history of comic books on film, and it seems unlikely at this point that Jackman will ever get to play him in all his glory. The only thing endearing about the character is the actor’s commitment to him, which shouldn’t go unnoticed.

The film’s action setpieces are as passable as the film they’re in, ultimately begging one question – will “Days Of Future Past” be embraced just because it’s not loudly terrible like many of its predecessors? Probably. The project reeks of competency, its swirling, nonsensical narrative somehow staying firmly on the rails, its cast uniformly invested in the material. If the picture’s blandness is the price to pay for its adequacy, audiences have no real reason to complain, but it’s sorely lacking in the kind of fireworks innate to Marvel Studios’ ongoing cinematic universe. “Days Of Future Past” is the series’ best in over a decade, clearing a low bar that it has no real desire to raise. It doesn’t so much revive the franchise as it confirms that it’s still breathing. Barely.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: May 23, 2014
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language)