Superheroes and alternate history go hand in hand; just look at Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen,” which had America victorious in the Vietnam War, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein murdered before they could expose Watergate, and Richard Nixon elected to a fifth term in office all thanks to the existence of caped crusaders.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” (released May 23) plays around with the Paris Peace Accords and “Tricky Dick” Nixon in the very same way, placing superhuman characters in the thick of actual events for one of the greatest time travel romps since “Back To The Future” and what could be the greatest cinematic experience of the summer.
Based on Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s 1981 comic book storyline of the same name (the fourth X-Men film to be inspired by Claremont’s work), The movie is a sequel to the original “X-Men” trilogy, Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” and the two “Wolverine” spin-offs, reuniting their ensemble casts while solving most of the large pile of blaring continuity issues between them. Having started the entire franchise back in 2000, Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) returned as director once Vaughn dropped out to pursue another comic book adaptation, “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”
“Days of Future Past” begins in a bleak “Terminator”-esque future where menacing robots known as Sentinels hunt down and terminate mutants ,as well as any human who has the genetic capacity to produce a mutant child. As a small group of remaining X-Men faces certain annihilation, Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat (Ellen Page) sends the immortal Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so he can stop the Sentinel program from ever coming to fruition.
Stepping into the role for the seventh time, Hugh Jackman is gruff, yet lovable as the Adamantium-clawed, self-healing, cigar-smoking mutant who is tasked with recruiting the help of young Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto). This proves difficult as Charles has become a shaggy and hopeless man due to the closing of his school, while Erik, a Holocaust survivor tired of enough discrimination for one lifetime, has been imprisoned beneath the Pentagon for assassinating John F. Kennedy. He is accused of using his powers to bend one of Oswald’s bullets (a clever parallel to the “Magic Bullet” theory in our universe).
James McAvoy (Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Lehnsherr) reprise their roles from “First Class” and exceed the work done by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen over the course of the franchise. They really understand what makes these wounded characters tick, the pain and darkness lurking just beneath the surface that determine either redemption or monstrousness.
Since most of the plot takes place in the 1970s, Singer not only constructs a satisfying superhero film, but an accurate period piece to boot. From grainy Super 8 footage, to clothing, to television shows playing in the background, there’s a nostalgic appeal that can only be conveyed by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk or Quincy Jones’ theme to “Sanford & Son.”
While there aren’t many songs from the big-haired, vinyl era, the ones featured are perfect; hits by Roberta Flack and Jim Croce are used sparingly to subtly remind us where we are. Musical saturation and some of its cliches were avoided like “Fortunate Son” in scenes involving ‘Nam. Forget “American Hustle,” this is the best ‘70s movie you’ll see all year!
Like “Captain America: The Winter Solider” did, this “X-Men” outing pays homage to some of the great political thrillers of the ‘70s (e.g., “All The President’s Men,” “Three Days of the Condor”). Conspiracy plays an important role in the movie’s plot with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence is perfect as the sexy flower power, shape-shifting mutant freedom fighter) doing some The Washington Post-like snooping into Bolivar Trask, the creator of the Sentinels who likes to do some pretty heinous genetic research on mutants. Trask is played by a calculating Peter Dinklage, disguised behind thick, era-appropriate glasses and facial hair.
At just over two hours, the movie feels longer than it is, but never drags on. Despite its massive scope, Simon Kinberg’s screenplay is just the right mix of action, sci-fi mumbo jumbo and character development. It’s chock full of familiar faces (and new ones), smart dialogue, inspiring speeches and breathtaking set pieces like a sports stadium being lowered onto the White House lawn or a hilarious slo-mo prison break with the speedy Quicksilver (newcomer Evan Peters) that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “movie magic.” There’s even a foreboding look at the 2016 sequel, “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
It’s no coincidence that the movie is set in the ‘70s (or released Memorial Day weekend for that matter). It tackles a pretty turbulent era when the U.S. finally lost a war and Americans lost faith in their own government. It was also during this time that different demographics fought hard for equal rights. The plight of the mutants who hid due to discrimination and suffered xenophobia is a metaphor for African Americans, homosexuals and women who have all made huge leaps forward in their respective crusades for equality during the decade. Unlike most Marvel features, “Days of Future Past” is more mature and resonates superhero escapism. Like Cerebro, it’ll broaden your horizons and blow your mind in equal doses.