‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ Restores the Series to Its Former Glory

More than any previous X-Men film X-Men: Days of Future Past engages in deeply geeky, comic book-inspired elements.

The X-Men film series was in recovery. X-Men (Singer, 2000) had redefined comic book films by taking a serious, faithful approach to its subject matter, and its success arguably began the flood of comic book films that we have seen this century. X2: X-Men United (Singer, 2003) was a bigger success and perfected the comic book film sequel. But after this strong start, the series fell on hard times. X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006) tore down the series in a misguided attempt to conclude the trilogy, and the atrocious X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009) was the beginning and end of continuing the series through solo spin-offs.

In terms of quality, the series rebounded with the wonderful ’60s-set prequel film X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011), which introduced a talented younger cast in a soft reboot. Later, The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013) was a vast improvement for the Logan/Wolverine solo films. Unfortunately, despite their warm critical reception, these last two films had not been significant financial hits. The X-Men producers and the studio, Fox, looked for a way to maintain the return to quality, but also bring back audiences.

Matthew Vaughn, the director of X-Men: First Class, was keen to return for the sequel to build upon elements established in that film. First Class focuses on the relationship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), and their competing visions for the future of mutants. Vaughn intended to make the sequel another period piece, incorporating John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War in the same way First Class incorporated the Cuban Missile Crisis. Alternatively, there was a push, likely from the producers and studio, to bring back favourite characters or actors from the original X-Men trilogy, such as Patrick Stewart as Xavier, Ian McKellen as Erik, Halle Berry as Storm and, most of all, Hugh Jackman as Logan. Perhaps this was a way to return the series to its previous financial success, or perhaps it was inspired by the way The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) combined the casts of multiple films into a satisfying, successful whole. Regardless, to combine both concepts the filmmakers would need a story that could credibly unite the younger and older casts in one film. Thankfully, one of the greatest X-Men comic book stories of all time provided the solution.

Uncanny X-Men #141 (January 1981) entitled “Days of Future Past” and Uncanny X-Men #142 (February 1981) entitled “Mind Out of Time” tell a two-part story that would come to simply be called Days of Future Past. Conceived and drawn by John Byrne, and written by Chris Claremont, the issues depict a dystopian future where mutants are killed or held in internment camps, the worst possible outcome of the persecution they experience in the present day. Kitty Pryde’s mind is sent back in time to the body of her teenage self, who had just joined the X-Men, to prevent the incident that led to her awful future. In her younger body, Kitty leads the X-Men to stop the assassination of anti-mutant Senator Robert Kelly by the Brotherhood of Mutants led by Mystique. The story was an instant classic and often appears on lists of the greatest superhero comic book stories of all time. It introduced the concept of dystopian futures or alternate timelines to X-Men comics, which would become an enduring trope. It also handles time travel in a very clever way, minimally disrupting the past by a character inhabiting their younger body.

X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner cited Days of Future Past as a potential film as early as 2007, so it was clearly on people’s minds. The time travel element was a good way to unite the older and younger X-Men casts, with the older cast living in the dystopian future and visiting the First Class cast in the past. It also offered the filmmakers an opportunity to clean up the X-Men timeline, and perhaps wipe out some of their perceived mistakes. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg claimed his biggest mistake in the series was killing Jean Grey in his lousy adaptation of the Dark Phoenix comic book storyline in X-Men: The Last Stand, and he intended to correct that mistake. Kinberg considered introducing a time-travelling character from the comics, such as Cable or Bishop, but ultimately decided that Logan made the most sense due to his slow ageing and the popularity of the character. Kitty Pryde was incorporated into the time-travel mechanics as a nod to her role in the original story.

In October 2012, Vaughn left the film to work on Kingsman: The Secret Service (Vaughn, 2015). Fox quickly hired Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films and producer of First Class, to replace Vaughn. It’s worth noting, given all of the allegations and stories that have become public about Singer in the past couple of years, that these stories were either not very well-known or were considered unsubstantiated rumours at this time. Nothing became widely publicized until lawsuits were filed against Singer in the lead-up to the release of this film (which I will discuss below). At the time, Singer was considered a great action-adventure filmmaker and his return to the director’s chair of X-Men series was celebrated.

And the resulting film should still be celebrated. X-Men: Days of Future Past is a big, bold, confident follow-up to X-Men: First Class. More than any previous X-Men film it engages in deeply geeky, comic book-inspired elements such as a dystopian future, time travel, fights unabashedly showcasing numerous mutant power-sets, and giant sentinel robots. As a result, it remains the best cinematic representation of X-Men comics. The film also bids a fond farewell to previous X-Men cast members but smartly does not lose focus on the newer cast, who get the majority of screen-time. The film even manages to make full use of Logan as a central catalyst or plot device, while not allowing him to pull focus from the rest of the cast as he did in the original trilogy. And finally, the film manages to push aside all previous X-Men films into an alternate timeline except for First Class, allowing for a much tidier continuity moving forward. That Days of Future Past manages to accomplish all of these goals while also being an intelligent, highly-entertaining adventure film is nothing short of remarkable.

The film immediately establishes its return to formula. The 20th Century Fox fanfare over the logo is mashed up with the excellent work of returning composer John Ottman, from X2. As the Fox logo fades, the ‘x’ lingers on the screen, which also occurred on the original films. The original trilogy films opened with narration from Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), as does Days of Future Past. The implication is that this is a continuation of those earlier films. Xavier’s narration describes the awful state of the world in 2023, as the film pans over the ruins of Manhattan and comes to focus on the mutant concentration camp in Central Park. We see dead bodies of mutants being dumped and fields of skulls that feel very inspired by the vision of the future in The Terminator (Cameron, 1984). The Terminator may have partly been inspired by the Days of Future Past comic, and it certainly inspired the Days of Future Past film.

Cut to a team of mutants featuring familiar X-Men, Kitty (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), and new faces, Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart) hidden in a Moscow bunker. Warpath senses that they have been found, urging Kitty and Bishop to retreat to a back room while the rest of the team fights the sentinel robots. The fight is exciting and dynamic, with the mutants unleashing their unique powers on the sentinels while the sentinels gradually adapt and kill them. Fortunately, the fight was only meant to delay the attack long enough for Kitty and Bishop to somehow make the battle never actually happen. These opening scenes demonstrate the confidence and ambition of the film from the beginning. Whereas previous X-Men films spent a lot of time establishing characters and their powers, Days of Future Past throws audiences into the middle of a dark future, then takes them through a large-scale action scene with unfamiliar characters and powers, ending when they all disappear. There’s a fine line between confusing and intriguing, and this film lands firmly on intriguing. The filmmakers have the confidence to expect viewers to keep up, and the film benefits.

Kitty’s team regroups in a Chinese mountain temple where they welcome the X-Men: Xavier, Storm (Halle Berry), Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Erik/Magneto (Ian McKellen). The following scene is heavy exposition, but it sets up the rules of the film so clearly that the rest of the action plays out with minimal interruptions. Kitty’s ability to ‘phase’ through matter has developed to allow her to phase a person’s mind through time to their younger self. She avoided the earlier battle because she sent Bishop’s mind back in time to warn the team before it happened. Xavier explains that this dystopia occurred because Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the Paris Peace Accords 50 years earlier in 1973. Trask was experimenting on mutants and developing sentinels at that time. Raven was captured, and eventually, Trask’s research allowed the government to perfect the robots to find and hunt mutants. The plan: Use Kitty to send Logan’s mind into his younger body in 1973 where he will recruit young Xavier and Erik to stop the assassination, thus avoiding the awful future. Meanwhile, the future mutants will protect Kitty and Logan from any attacks until his mission is complete. As I said, it’s a lot of exposition.

Logan is sent back, waking up naked in bed with a young woman. The film immediately throws in ’70s flavour such as a Roberta Flack song on the radio, a lava lamp and a waterbed. Men burst in to kill Logan for sleeping with his boss’s daughter, but he dispatches them quickly and heads for Xavier’s school. Meanwhile, Trask briefs Congress on the mutant threat, which is still small and mostly unknown, but he fails to convince them of the danger. He tries to invoke the still-fresh failure in Vietnam, but it doesn’t help. The film then checks in on Raven, who is in Vietnam freeing mutant soldiers before they are sent to Trask’s lab for experimentation. Raven takes a strong, central role in the film, mirroring the comic story. The filmmakers lucked out by casting Jennifer Lawrence in First Class, as she had since won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook (O’Russell, 2012) and starred in the massively successful The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012). Lawrence had become one of the biggest stars in the world, which could only help the X-Men series.

Logan is disappointed to discover Xavier’s school is closed and in disrepair. Inside he finds Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) caring for a dishevelled, broken Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). We learn that since falling out with Erik (Michael Fassbender) and Raven, and losing the use of his legs, at the end of First Class, he also lost many of his young students to the Vietnam War. Ultimately, Xavier began using a serum developed by Hank to restore the use of his legs and suppress his telepathic powers. He has become an addict and is initially unwilling to help Logan. This is part of a long tradition of finding ways to sideline Xavier or his powers in every film. As a powerful telepath, Xavier has the ability to manipulate anyone to do what he wants, which removes much of the conflict from a story. Previous films have put him in a coma, captured him and blocked his powers, and killed him. Logan finally convinces Xavier to break Erik out of a special prison under the Pentagon in Washington, DC, where he is being held for assassinating John F. Kennedy. This brings us to the Quicksilver section of the film, a ten-minute segment where the character quickly enters and exits the film for business reasons, but still makes a huge impact.

Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver was introduced in X-Men #4 (March 1964) as a member of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants alongside his sister, Wanda/Scarlet Witch. They soon realise the error of their ways and leave Magneto. They join the Avengers in the classic Avengers #16 (May 1965), the first major roster change in the history of the team. In 1982, it’s revealed that Pietro and Wanda are Magneto’s children. And so, the characters of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are firmly rooted in both X-Men and Avengers comics. This is not a problem in the comics, where characters freely move between books, but it’s a problem in film, where Fox owns the rights to X-Men properties and Disney/Marvel own the rights to Avengers properties.

At a certain point, it was made clear that both studios had the right to use Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in their own way, and duelling Quicksilvers emerged. Evan Peters was cast in X-Men: Days of Future Past, where he would replace a planned appearance by Juggernaut for a memorable ten minutes. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was cast in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) but strategically first appeared in a mid-credits scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014), seven weeks before Days of Future Past was released. This was a lot of posturing between the two studios. That posturing would continue, and begin to harm the X-Men brand, over the next several years. It’s especially ironic, given that Disney now owns Fox, but that was not the case in 2014.

Logan suggests they recruit Peter, his friend in the future, and use his super-speed to help free Erik. Peters is great in the role, playing Peter/Quicksilver with a jittery, restless energy that one would have if one was faster than everyone else on the planet. The Pentagon heist is a fun sequence, featuring Hank using his gadgets to override security, Xavier doing a terrible job of lying to security without his powers, and Peter sneaking down to Erik’s cell to free him. The sequence culminates with the standout moment in the film. Erik and Peter escape the prison and emerge from the elevator into a kitchen area, where they meet Logan, Xavier and a group of armed guards. There’s a tense standoff, shots are fired, and then time slows to a crawl.

The film enters Peter’s perspective as he uses his speed to stop the guards and save his friends. The live-action elements of the scene were shot at 3,200 frames per second, rather than the typical 24. Therefore, everything is moving, just at an extremely slow-pace. Much of the sequence was rendered digitally by Rising Sun Pictures, and likely earned the film its Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. Peter listens to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” as he runs along the walls, tasting the soup, moving the arms of the guards to punch themselves or each other in the face, moving bullets by a few inches to ensure they will miss their target. And then, time speeds back up, and we quickly see the results of Peter’s mischief. It’s such a joyous, exciting, inventive scene, and it made a powerful case for Fox’s vision of Quicksilver.

Having made their point, the filmmakers then shuffle Peter out of the film. This is also the point when Logan takes a backseat. His character is really a plot device, the element that goes back in time and motivates the other characters. With Xavier and Erik reunited, the true main characters of the film return to the forefront. On a plane to Paris, they have it out. Xavier is angry that Erik left to start a potentially violent revolution, while Erik is angry that Xavier stayed on the sidelines rather than joining the fight. Xavier’s idea of mutants and humans living a peaceful coexistence and Erik’s idea that mutants must rise to claim their natural superiority traditionally keeps them at odds with each other. As the film progresses, this battle will be played out by proxy through Raven.

At the midpoint of the film, Raven uses her shape-changing ability to infiltrate a meeting between Trask and the North Vietnamese leaders during the Paris Peace Accords. She is discovered by Trask’s mutant detector, attacks everyone in the room, and points a gun at Trask. But Logan’s team arrives in time to stop her, and Logan’s mission is complete. But then all hell breaks loose. Logan sees that Trask’s assistant is a young William Stryker (Josh Helman), the man who will torture and experiment on him in the future. This sends shockwaves through his mind, causing his future self to lash out at Kitty and briefly breaking the mental connection. As Xavier tries to help him, Erik tries to kill Raven, feeling that it’s the only way to prevent the dystopian future. Raven jumps out of the window to escape, but lands in the middle of a crowd, causing a panic. Erik floats down to continue his attack, but Hank attacks him as Beast. With this very public fight at a highly publicized political conference, mutants are widely exposed to the world for the first time.

I like this sequence for the way it raises the stakes going into the second half of the film. It would have been easy to culminate the story with the assassination attempt in Paris, but this event comes in the middle. Logan had a clear mission: to stop Trask’s murder. Having done that, he created a new timeline. Mutants are public and immediately feared. Erik is on the loose, following his own agenda. Trask is still alive, and his sentinel program receives immediate approval from the United States government. This all seems to ensure an even worse future. And with the past changed, and characters scattered, it’s uncertain where it will lead or how the heroes will fix things. That uncertainty energises the second half. Injuring Kitty in the future raises the stakes, but it also reminded me how long the film spends in 1973. The 2023 storyline begins to increasingly play a role in the second half, but it takes up far less of the film than I remembered. The older cast’s roles amount to a glorified curtain call in most cases, makingDays of Future Past more of a sequel to First Class than a follow-up to the original trilogy.

Erik finds Raven and tries to convince her to keep fighting, but she is uncertain of what to do next. Erik returns to the United States to renew his fight for mutant superiority. Meanwhile, Logan, Hank and Xavier return to Xavier’s school to regroup. Logan takes on a mentor role with young Xavier, a nice reversal from previous films, to convince him to stop taking the serum and use his powers to find Raven. Xavier tries to use Cerebro, a machine that enhances his telepathy, but he cannot focus. Knowing he cannot convince Xavier alone, Logan has young Xavier reach out to old Xavier through his mind. This is a bit of a logic leap, particularly with such a well-thought-out time travel plot, but the leap is worth it to allow McAvoy and Stewart play a scene together as duelling Xaviers. Xavier the elder convinces Xavier the younger to take on others’ pain, but work through it with undying hope for the future. It works, and young Xavier uses Cerebro to reach out to Raven, asking her to give up her violent crusade and come home. With the future in the balance, everything hinges on whether Raven follows Erik or Xavier’s path.

The ’70s climax occurs when United States President Richard Nixon unveils Trask’s original sentinel robots on the White House lawn. Simultaneously (in a timey-wimey sort of way), the future sentinels find the temple stronghold and attack. The mutant-hunting sentinel robots first appeared in X-Men #14 (November 1965), and have been a staple of the comics ever since. It’s a thrill to finally see them depicted on film, and the ’70s sentinels match the look of the comics. The future sentinels are more sleek, feminine and scaly, representing the use of Raven’s shapeshifting DNA to improve the design and allow them to adapt and counter any mutant’s powers.

Erik goes full supervillain. He infiltrates the sentinel facility and takes control of the robots by inserting metal into them. He later lifts a baseball stadium from its foundation and floats it over to the White House, dropping it around the building to prevent outside attacks. He plans to kill the President to make a statement about the rise of mutants in the world. Raven is also present, posing as a secret service agent to allow her to kill Trask at the ceremony. Xavier, Hank and Logan arrive to stop Raven. In the future, hordes of sentinels attack the stronghold. The X-Men hold them back as long as they can, but are killed one-by-one. As Erik calls for mutants to rise up in the past, mutants being mowed down in the future. As Xavier tries to stop Erik in the past, their older selves say a fond final goodbye, lamenting the years wasted with fighting. I appreciate the thematic juxtapositions in these scenes. There are also great moments in the future scenes for Storm, Iceman and Magneto to flex their powers a final time.

Erik impales Logan on rebar from the stadium and sends him flying into the Potomac River, sidelining him from the rest of the climax. Again, this film is about Erik and Xavier, with Raven caught between them. Erik tears the Presidential bunker out of the White House and prepares to kill Nixon. Nixon emerges to negotiate but then shoots Erik. It was Raven in disguise, and she turns to kill Trask. Xavier makes one final appeal for her to turn away from violence. After some hesitation, she relents and leaves. Xavier also allows Erik to escape. Despite this, history is altered for the better. Erik tried to kill the President, but Raven stopped it, proving that mutants are not all bad. The sentinel program is cancelled, and Trask is ruined.

Logan wakes up in the future, but he is comfortably sleeping in Xavier’s school. The school is running well, everyone seems happy and unaware of the dystopia they avoided. Hank is alive and played by Kelsey Grammer (returning from X-Men: The Last Stand). Rogue (Anna Paquin) appears briefly, as do Iceman and Storm. Most shocking of all, however, are Jean (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden), two casualties of The Last Stand brought back to life in the new timeline. The Grammer, Marsden and Janssen cameos were kept secret until release, and it was a great pleasure to see them all one last time. Logan finds Xavier and makes it clear that he just returned from the past. Logan remembers nothing that occurred after he flew into the Potomac, and Xavier needs to catch him up.

And on that happy, optimistic note, the film ends. Also ended is a whole X-Men timeline. The events of X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine and the dystopian future of Days of Future Past all still occurred, but in an alternate timeline. Logan is now the only character who remembers them. So, without completely discounting those films, they no longer matter to continuity moving forward. This is similar to the way Star Trek (Abrams, 2009) managed to reboot the series and wipe away over-complicated continuity by simply branching into a different timeline. Fans can enjoy the reboot without feeling that the previous stories have been completely erased. In the X-Men series, only X-Men: First Class and the ’70s portions of Days of Future Past remained in the current timeline, allowing the filmmakers to continue making films featuring the younger cast without the weight of continuity hanging over them. X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016) and Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019) would do just that.

Resetting the continuity was an impressive feat but it was really just a bonus, a perk. What is more impressive, and more important, was that the filmmakers made an excellent film. X-Men: Days of Future Past fully engages with the geekiest, most comic book aspects of X-Men comics and does them justice, perhaps for the first time. This is the best representation of X-Men comics on film thus far. They also managed to create a satisfying sequel to X-Men: First Class, advancing the characters of Xavier, Erik, Raven and Hank from that film. At the same time, they included a curtain call for the likes of Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Anna Paquin (who had most of her scenes cut), James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Daniel Cudmore and Kelsey Grammer, all familiar faces from the first three X-Men films that audiences were happy to see return one last time. With so many goals to accomplish, so many people to please, this film could have been a mess. But the filmmakers held the focus where it needed to be, they did not let the previous cast, or Hugh Jackman, overwhelm the First Class cast, and that is why the film succeeds as a narrative.

But there were difficulties. The dispute between Fox and Disney over Marvel characters extended beyond Quicksilver. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), as well as Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, put a strain on Marvel’s relationship with Fox. Clearly, Marvel wanted to reacquire the film rights to the X-Men, and clearly, Fox had no intention of giving them up. With the two parties at an impasse, the publishing of X-Men comics was affected. In the ’90s, when X-Men comics were arguably at the height of their popularity, Marvel published around 9-12 X-Men-related issues per month. Over time, Marvel increased the number of books they published each month, and the X-Men titles increased proportionally. At their peak, 2009-2013, Marvel published 25-35 X-Men-related titles each month. And then, in 2014, the year Days of Future Past was released, that number dropped significantly.

Over the next few years, Marvel published up to 17 X-Men-related books per month, with most of them related to popular solo characters such as Wolverine or Deadpool. Marvel Comics outwardly claimed to be supporting the X-Men, and even hired Brian Michael Bendis, the creative force behind the Avengers revival a decade earlier, to write two X-Men titles. But their cancelling of other X-books was telling. There were no comic book tie-ins to coincide with the release of Days of Future Past. The Inhumans, another large group of Marvel characters with a variety of powers, began to take on greater prominence in the comics, almost as if to fill the void left by X-Men. As Marvel editor Tom Brevoort said on his Tumblr page in July 2014, “If you had two things, and on one you earned 100% of the revenues from the efforts that you put into making it, and the other you earned a much smaller percentage for the same amount of time and effort, you’d be more likely to concentrate more heavily on the first, wouldn’t you?”

Also, as the release of Days of Future Past approached, two separate lawsuits were filed against director Bryan Singer alleging sexual abuse. As a result, Singer dropped out of the promotional tour for the film. The lawsuits were dismissed later that summer, but more allegations kept popping up. Despite this, Fox seemed happy with his work on this film and immediately secured him to direct the sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse. Things would get worse with Singer, but I will discuss that in my forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse article.

To end on a more positive note, not only was Days of Future Past well-received by critics and audiences but the plan to restore the X-Men to box office glory succeeded. The film made $234 million in North America, a 55% increase in ticket sales over First Class, and the ninth-biggest film of the year. Worldwide was even better, with $748 million, which is still the record for an X-Men team film and made it the sixth-biggest film of the year worldwide. Much of that success is due to China, which the film actively courted with a setting in China and casting Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing in a small role. The film made $116 million in China, whereas First Class did not even have a Chinese release. The recovery of the X-Men series seemed complete, and the future seemed bright. The next X-Men team film would try to capitalise on this success but before then the X-Men producers would spin off a little character named Deadpool into his own film.

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Stan Lee Cameo Corner: No Stan Lee here, making it 20 cameos in 33 films.

Credits Scene(s):

Clearly feeling confident after this film, the filmmakers use the post-credits scene to introduce their next big villain: Apocalypse. In Ancient Egypt, a blue-skinned man telekinetically builds the pyramids as his followers chant “En Sabah Nur” and his four horsemen look on.

First Appearances:

  • Evan Peters makes a splashy debut as Peter/Quicksilver. He will return in X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix
  • Josh Helman was set to play Juggernaut before Quicksilver replaced that character. Helman instead played William Stryker, the third actor to do so, but he returns to the role in X-Men: Apocalypse.
  • Peter Dinklage would later appear as a different character in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018)

Next Time: Marvel Studios proves their supremacy by turning an obscure cosmic team into a household name with Guardians of the Galaxy.