The X-Men #141, published with a cover date of January, 1981, contained a story entitled “Days of Future Past.” There was nothing on the front cover, iconic as it became, that indicated there was a momentous tale to be found inside. It was just another comic book story, a modest two-parter concluded one month later (the series now officially renamed The Uncanny X-Men in the indicia) in “Mind Out of Time!” The lack of overt intent to transform the continuity landscape and rattle the reader with stunning revelations are undoubtedly major reasons the time-travel tale looms large in the history of Marvel’s merry mutants, probably second only to the Dark Phoenix saga in importance and fan veneration. While there are countless impediments to bringing the originally story faithfully to the screen, the element that involves blipping between two radically different eras clearly presented a irresistible opportunity for a movie studio that has an early days version of the X-Men franchise underway, along with the modern-day take that could use a revival after laying dormant for almost a decade (not counting claw-scraped spin-offs). Add to that the lucrative allure of pulling together different franchises, and there’s no mystery as to why the filmmakers would pull these particular issues out of the longbox.
X-Men: Days of Future Past shares a title with the story originally plotted out by John Byrne (co-credited to both artist Byrne and scripter Chris Claremont, but by most accounts, the plot was almost entirely Byrne’s) but not much else. The conceit of sending someone’s psyche back in time to temporarily take up residence in their younger body to ultimately alter history remains, as does an overarching concern about towering robotic mutant-hunters called Sentinels. Other than that, it’s easier to tick off the differences–it’s Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) rather than Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) making the journey, the cast of characters is otherwise largely different, the eras in which it takes place have been shifted–until the film seems to have no more connection to the Marvel Comics publication from which it sprung than it does to, say, My Dinner with Andre. Fidelity to source material is hardly the best criterion for judging this sort of film, but the general disinterest in exploring what precisely made the first telling resonant does call into question if this act of cinematic creativity has much purpose beyond putting all the favorite toys in the same box, shaking it up, and seeing what happens.
What happens is a lot of chaos, and woe be to those who try to figure it out. There are plot holes abounding and such an overstuffed legion of new and returning characters that Halle Berry’s Storm has maybe a half-dozen lines and Anna Paquin’s Rogue is basically an extra (the latter situation at least has an explanation). There are admittedly times when the overwhelming pile-up of stuff makes the film entertaining, like some sort of star-packed old Hollywood epic with superheroes taking the place of soldiers or Biblical figures. Director Bryan Singer, who presided over the first two X-Men films, took the project over from X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn, and he’s agreeably adept with the major set pieces. In particular, the battle sequences which include a mutant with teleporting powers named Blink (Bingbing Fan) are terrifically inventive, complicated in their orchestration but logical enough to be consistently clear. Then again, I know absolutely nothing about Blink except for her powers, a situation that’s true for a number of characters in the film. More damning is that the complaint of hollowness isn’t that far off the mark for supposedly major figures, such as Kitty and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). Even the character with the clearest, most emotional arc, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy or Patrick Stewart, depending on the when of it), is more a vehicle to deliver necessary plot points than a interesting person.
Screenwriter Simon Kinberg has been open about his aspirations to use Days of Future Past to rectify or at least implicitly apology for the storytelling mistakes of X-Men: The Last Stand, which ineffectively melded two different storylines plucked straight from the spinner rack. There’s plenty of evidence of a fan trying to make good and service the mythos but little sense of a skilled, serious creator with a mission of addressing the challenges of a narrative. Some part of the film work–Michael Fassbender is once again charismatically menacing as the young Magneto, and the introduction of the speedster Quicksilver (played with an abundance of personality by Evan Peters) is so strong that Joss Whedon could reasonably be fretting about how to make his version of the same character in Avengers 2 just as memorable–but there’s so much messily packed into its two-plus hours that the good begins to feel like the natural outcome of the law of averages rather than any genuine accomplishment of the filmmakers. If its namesake comic book story was something of an accidental classic, X-Men: Days of Future Past offers proof that trying too hard and doing too much bind together to pave a route towards a far less satisfying work.