I will give Bryan Singer credit: X-Men: Days of Future Past is not the total wreck it should be. It’s an ambitious and watchable superhero flick, with several solid performances and a small handful of sharp scenes. It is also, it must be said, earnest to a nearly overwhelming degree and so dependent on preceding films in the franchise as to be almost incomprehensible to any but X-aficionados.
The basic gist is this: In the near future, people—led by fear-mongering zealots—become increasingly suspicious of super-powered mutated humans living among them. So advanced is the paranoia that mutants and any relatives who might possess the genetic capability of passing on mutation are rounded up, confined and branded. Many of the mutants (as well as some human sympathizers) fight back, but armed with highly advanced, weaponized, specifically anti-mutant robots known as Sentinels, the humans dominate in what becomes a genocidal war.
On the very brink of extinction, a small band of mutants—familiar to fans from earlier films as the disciples of the powerful telepath Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart)—develop a plan to travel back in time to change history. More particularly, to travel back in time to prevent the murder of the man who developed the Sentinel technology in the first place. This is, on the one hand, a public-relations maneuver: The high-profile assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) was a trigger for mass fear of mutants. It is also a bit of practical strategy: During this murder, the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is captured and later experimented upon. It is her DNA that gives the Sentinels their ability to adapt to and overcome any mutant ability.
Now, here’s where it gets a bit . . . well. It turns out that due to the quirks of the available mode of time travel, there is only one man who can be sent back: the mutant known as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). One benefit of his mutation is the ability to rapidly self heal, which is required for this grueling journey. Some other parts of his mutation are that he is, essentially, like his namesake predator, 180 pounds of homicidal fury stuffed in a 10-pound bag. The Wolverine character has been the breakout star of the franchise for his insanely feral machismo. He’s a sneer and a beer and foot-long razor sharp claws. He’s pretty fun.
So, yeah, it makes sense to send this one-man strike force back to . . . find a younger version of his mentor Charles Xavier, who will then ask Mystique to, you know, please, don’t exact vengeance on a racist ideologue and thereby kick off a mutant holocaust, which will have us cowering in wreckage before an invulnerable shape-shifting android army. Please?
Fortunately, there is a fair amount of ass kicking to be done before the ask; unfortunately, depending on your tastes, this pacifist undercurrent allows a huge of amount of scene-chewy agonizing/pontificating, fairly divided up among the past and future duos of Charles (Stewart/James McAvoy) and his friend/nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen/Michael Fassbender). All the actors are quite good, but several of the scenes had me impatient and eager for Wolverine to just freakin’ kill something already!
When the action comes, it’s pretty spot on. Singer’s got this stuff down. There’s one scene in particular, featuring a newer hero in the film series, which uses both a kind of simulated slow-motion and a Jim Croce tune to elegant and humorous effect. The resolution of the film, though, nearly takes the zip out of all the more exciting scenes that proceeded. For a movie that started with the near annihilation of a species of humanity, Days of Future Past concludes in a disappointingly low-stakes kind of way.