You cannot serve two masters. That’s what the old adage says, but comic book movies have mostly been able to prove it wrong over the last decade. Consider the complexity of their challenge: Each movie must do service to the legions of dedicated fan boys who comprise the genre’s base and are all too willing to gripe when a film strays too far from its source material (consider how loudly they griped when Superman violated his core ethics by killing General Zod in Man of Steel). But they also must appeal to a worldwide mainstream audience who knows and cares little about what has come before.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a textbook example of how a film can crumble by trying to serve too many masters. The script travails multiple continents, dozens of superhero characters, and two distinct time periods (neither one of which is 2014). Oh, and it also functions as a sequel to two separate films – X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class – both of which you will need to have seen to have any sense of what’s going on. It’s a film as unwieldy and undecipherable as its title, and as much as fanboys will be delighted by its service to them, the rest of us will be left wondering why we felt so little about such a big story.
As we enter the story, Professor X (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) have put aside their bickering to defend themselves from the Sentinels, machines that were designed by government scientists to hunt and kill mutants. But these mutants are losing the war, so they send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to convince young X (James McAvoy) and young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to team up to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing a scientist (Peter Dinklage) and setting off a chain of events that will lead to war in the future.
Combining the two strains of X-Men films and this massive stable of characters into a plot that even approaches coherence is a serious narrative achievement – but it doesn’t make a great film. At its core, Days of Future Past is an admirably complex work of fan fiction, and it will only satisfy the most dedicated fans of the X-Men comics (seeing all the films will help, but it’s not enough).
For the rest of us, it’s more than a little frustrating trying to follow the plot through time, space, and the eye-popping parade of celebrities. A further hindrance is the film’s excellent use of 3D, which is pretty much standard for summer blockbusters these days. Days of Future Past may represent its most impressive achievement yet – the 3D is seamlessly integrated into the visual landscape, and it really makes the action sequences pop. But its constant use will also put your brain into a near catatonic state, which doesn’t help when you are trying to decipher just what the heck is going on. This is a film with a lot on its mind, but its strict adherence to this summer blockbuster form keeps most of its big ideas at bay.
What’s most frustrating of all is that there are a few moments when Days of Future Past transcends both of its masters and creates something singular and memorable. Consider the mutant named Quicksilver, a goofy teenager with a gift for speed. Early in the film, the other mutants call on him to help them break into the Pentagon, which leads to one of the best sequences in recent blockbuster history. The staging of the short scene – in which Quicksilver essentially stops some bullets in mid-air to the soundtrack of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” – is full of mirth, humor, and empathy, but what really makes it work is the character. Quicksilver is not a sullen, self-serious superhero on an epic mission; he’s just a regular teenager with a special talent. He is the only character – mutant or human – who is remotely relatable, and it’s telling that the filmmakers have little use for him for the rest of the film.
The rest of the actors try their best (just as in First Class, McAvoy’s charismatic turn is a stand-out), and director Bryan Singer stages the action sequences as coherently as can be done. No, the real fault of Days of Future Past lies in a script that tries to do too much – to include too many characters, to blend too many worlds, and, ultimately, to serve too many masters. The passion of comic book fans has introduced the world to a fantastic stable of characters, but maybe it’s time now to let the rest of us play with them for a while.