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D: Bryan Singer / 131m

Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, Evan Peters, Omar Sy, Josh Helman, Mark Camacho

With X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) leaving a sour taste in the mouth after the glories of the first two X-Men movies, and with two subsequent Wolverine adventures proving that even a massive fan favourite doesn’t mean an automatically good movie, the future of the X-Men franchise was looking a little doubtful.  With both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen “getting on a bit”, the decision to revisit Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr in their younger days in X-Men: First Class (2011) was a positive boon for the franchise and one that revitalised what was otherwise a moribund series.  Now, with the equivalent of a spring in its step, we have a movie that both acknowledges its predecessors and forges a whole new path for its mutant protagonists.

Opening in the near future, with mutants and mankind alike being targeted for extinction by Sentinels, the world is a wasteland.  With the Sentinels able to assimilate whatever mutant powers are pitched against them, a band of mutants including Kitty Pryde (Page), Bishop (Sy) and Iceman (Ashmore) fight a rearguard action against them that sees Professor X’s pupils evade certain death through Kitty’s ability to send a person’s consciousness back in time; this allows the remaining mutants to anticipate a Sentinel attack and flee before it can happen, thus erasing that particular timeline.  With the arrival of Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Logan aka Wolverine (Jackman) and Storm (Berry), a last, desperate decision is made to send Wolverine’s consciousness back into his body in 1973, the year the Sentinels were created by industrialist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage).  Back then, Trask was assassinated by Raven aka Mystique (Lawrence), which led to her capture and the advancement of the Sentinel programme using her DNA (this enables the Sentinels to assimilate other mutants’ powers).  Logan’s mission: to unite the estranged Charles and Erik, track down Raven, and stop her from killing Trask.

Of course, it’s not easy.  Since the events of X-Men: First Class, Charles has taken to wallowing in self-pity at the loss of Raven, and has lost his powers thanks to a serum created by Hank McCoy aka Beast (Hoult) that allows him to walk.  He agrees to help for Mystique’s sake, though he is unhappy about needing Erik’s help.  With the aid of Quicksilver (Peters), they free Erik from a cell beneath the Pentagon and travel to Paris (where Raven is due to kill Trask at a conference).  Imitating a Vietnamese officer, Raven infiltrates the conference room where Trask plans to sell his Sentinel technology to the highest bidder.  He reveals a hand-held mutant detector that is triggered by Raven’s presence.  Hastily despatching the other attendees – including a young William Stryker (Helman) – Raven is stopped from shooting Trask by the arrival of Logan et al.  Erik disarms her and then turns the gun on her; aware that her DNA will make the Sentinels an unstoppable force he believes it is better for her to die than to let them become so strong.  Raven makes her escape but is wounded in the attempt.  Erik tries to follow her but is stopped by Hank who has morphed into his Beast persona.  All three are caught on film and the “mutant menace” espoused by Trask is taken up by President Nixon (Camacho) who gives the go ahead to the Sentinel programme.

At a press conference in the grounds of the White House set up to reveal the existence of the Sentinels and their purpose, Raven impersonates a Secret Service agent in order to get to Trask.  Now on his own, Erik steals back the helmet that magnifies his powers and uses them to levitate a baseball stadium; he transports it to the press conference and drops it around the White House, effectively sealing it off from the police and everyone else.  Charles is trapped under a piece of fallen scaffolding, while Logan and Hank do battle with one of the Sentinels (which are now under Erik’s control).  In the future, the Sentinels attack the mutant hideout; casualties mount up as Professor X and Magneto wonder if Logan’s mission will be successful in time.  As the future becomes ever bleaker, Erik castigates the President and his staff for their animosity towards mutants, and threatens them with a new world order, with mutants in control.  With Logan and Hank unable to stop the Sentinel, and Raven still intent on killing Trask, and Erik about to dispose of Nixon and his staff, in the future the Sentinels breach the mutant hideout and target Magneto and Professor X…

X-Men Days of Future Past - scene

Even at this late stage in the game there’s still more to the story than you’d expect.  X-Men: Days of Future Past is a triumph for all concerned, an exciting, often unpredictable addition to the X-Men saga that more than lives up to expectations but also deepens and enriches the story begun in X-Men: First Class.  With the stakes upped considerably, and the inclusion of more mutants than have been seen since The Last Stand, the movie seems, at first glance, to be overdoing it, adding too much to the mix for it to be as satisfying or rewarding as it should be (by necessity as much as expediency, some characters have more screen time than others).  But thanks to Simon Kinberg’s measured script, the movie glides smoothly along, gaining momentum, adding layer upon layer of meaning, and providing an emotional depth that is missing from most – if not all – other superhero movies.

Largely this is due to the stellar cast, led by McAvoy and Fassbender, two actors who have made their roles their own.  Their adversarial friendship is expanded upon here, both characters’ sense of having been betrayed by the other adding a dangerous edge to their scenes together, adding to the tension that develops as the world heads towards oblivion.  Both actors give tremendous performances (McAvoy is superb in his opening scenes with Jackman), and the support they receive, notably from Hoult and Jackman, is equally impressive, while Dinklage (sporting a wig and a half) invests Trask with an eerie messianic quality that elevates the character from perfunctory villain to unwavering fear monger.  And then there’s Lawrence, endowing Raven/Mystique with a mix of rage, sadness and longed-for redemption that makes her the most intriguing character of all, her dual nature at odds with itself even when fiercely determined to walk her own path.  The real surprise, though, is the inclusion of Quicksilver.  Peters turns in a funny, smart, freewheeling performance that is as charming as it is a real comedic shot in the arm.  His sardonic smile and deadpan glances are perfectly pitched, and his appearance leaves you wanting more (which we’ll get in X-Men: Apocalypse).

Returning to the director’s chair following the departure of Matthew Vaughn, Singer shows a firm grasp of the material and an even firmer grasp on ensuring the human/mutant element isn’t lost amongst all the special effects and impressively mounted carnage.  Even a small scene, such as the one between Professor X and Magneto towards the end of the movie, is more affecting than you might expect, and there are numerous occasions where Singer’s pleasure at being back in the director’s chair couldn’t be more evident if he’d stopped the movie mid-scene and held up a sign saying “I loved making this movie”.  Singer is an expressive director, always willing to try something new, and his staging of the showdown at the White House shows a clear intention to avoid the usual action motifs, making the sequence that much more impressive (it’s also a clever move to reduce Logan’s involvement in the action, especially as he doesn’t have his adamantium skeleton for Erik to play around with).

The early Seventies are recreated with a fine eye for the details of the time, and there’s an astute tweaking on contemporary fashions (though it might have been fun to see Wolverine in bell bottoms), while the inclusion of footage shot as if it were news reports from the time is a clever conceit and works particularly well during Raven’s escape from the conference.  The Sentinels are appropriately scary (and make Terminator 2’s T-1000 look like a skinny prototype), there’s the by-now obligatory post-credits sequence that sets up the next instalment, and there are a number of cameos that will have fans cheering in their seats (two cameos are very welcome indeed).

There are some stumbles.  The opening ten to fifteen minutes, where the plot is established and some new characters introduced, is a bit clunky and muddled, and as mentioned before some of the cast don’t fare as well as others.  Page does little more than sit with her fingers poised either side of Jackman’s temples for most of the movie, while McKellen gets to add the odd line here and there, but it’s Berry who’s almost completely sidelined, so much so that one of the cameo turns has more lines than her.  (And on the subject of screen time, someone should give Anna Paquin’s agent a gold star; she appears for approximately ten dialogue-free seconds but is seventh billed; now that’s impressive.)  Trask’s hand-held mutant detector is a clumsy contrivance that feels like it was added at the last minute, and the movie’s coda owes a little too much to another recent sci-fi franchise reboot (but it’s a welcome development nevertheless).  All in all, though, the movie is too well constructed and executed for any of these (very minor) problems to spoil the overall presentation.

Rating: 8/10 – back on top as the best of the superhero movie franchises thanks to Singer’s return and an intelligent approach to the story (one of the comics’ most well-respected outings), X-Men: Days of Future Past is a treat for fans and non-fans alike; audacious, skilful, thought-provoking and often dazzling, the movie helps erase the debacle that was X-Men: The Last Stand, and is a better alternative universe for it.