Mired by two thoroughly uninventive parallel storylines, separated by some 50 years, X-Men: Days of Future Past only conveys the awesome strangeness of its characters and their universe when director Bryan Singer breaks away from the perpetual build-up of the film’s unwieldy plot. When Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to 1973 to unite young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) by their older selves (Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart), he relies on Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), a.k.a. Quicksilver, to stage a prison break out of the Pentagon. It’s the first step in bringing the mutant leaders together, but the entire sequence feels as if it’s lifted from an entirely different, far more fun and engaging film. Peters evokes the wise-ass bravado befitting a teenager who can run so fast he might as well be teleporting, and his scenes radiate with a vivid understanding of a unique personality. Here, Singer encapsulates the sense of super powers as honed expressive talents that’s at the heart of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s source material, but few of the filmmaker’s remaining spectacles are steeped so thoughtfully in the attitude and wit of the characters who set them in motion.
When Magneto climactically uproots Washington D.C.’s RFK Stadium, working to ensure the success of an assassination plot enacted by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Singer gets the enormity of the act and wrenching sound of the destruction right, but he loses the historical underpinnings of the mutant leader’s rage long before that. From the minute Wolverine travels back in time, the director shows an inability to coincide the polar-opposite tones of a groovy yet troubled past and a grim future (2023, approximately) ruled over by mutant-annihilating Sentinels, near indestructible robots that can adapt to battle any super power. When the Sentinels slaughter mutants, Singer takes his time detailing the suffering and death of his noble heroes. Working from a script by Simon Kinberg, who also penned the wretched X-Men: The Last Stand, the director hurriedly escalate the stakes at the zero hour, and the emotional toggle feels manipulative and awkward in the wake of all of the cheeky ’70s nostalgia, not the least of which being an extended Sanford & Son clip and rumors of a powerful mutant’s role in the JFK assassination.
Kinberg’s script goes onto shallowly parallel the mounting war over mutant rights with Vietnam, a point clearly drawn by Peter Dinklage’s Trask, the architect of the Sentinels. When McAvoy’s Charles shoots up with a compound that allows him to walk, the filmmakers treat the use of the treatment as if he were part of the crew from The Panic in Needle Park. If there are flashes of clever authenticity (such as a set piece soundtracked to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”), the production, costumes, and set design still don’t root the story in the tumult and pop culture of the time period as much as they serve as an occasionally effective distraction from the immense amount of expository bullshitting going on from scene to scene.
Ultimately, the time-traveling conceit feels like a shameless ploy to further expand the franchise’s narrative universe, while also indulging a more recent nostalgia for Singer’s original X-Men films and the beloved cast that brought them to life. Here, the entire cast is hemmed in by the dialogue, which vacillates between shrill, oft-reiterated platitudes about fate and long stretches of dull backstory. Indeed, for whatever rush Singer is able convey visually, the story feels constantly stalled by all of the melodramatic, emotionally vacuous speechifying.
The filmmakers prove astonishingly adept at turning Kirby and Lee’s original creations into utterly run-of-the-mill characters, defined by plain, indistinct philosophies and utilized largely as vague necessities of a convoluted plot. The reason that the show-off scenes, such as Beast’s (Nicholas Hoult) abbreviated face-off with Wolverine and Magneto’s moonlit dismantling of a train line, stick out is because they exhibit a clear sense of something remarkable happening, of wondrous creatures at work on impossible tasks in a hushed but ever-growing society. When these extraordinary beings speak to each other, however, all sense of this alternative world, aesthetically and otherwise, fades into a mash of cultural signatures and sentimental nonsense that render these tales of the bracingly unique into something entirely usual.