The latest X-Men film is a spectacular affair, a high-budget and frequently hilarious reassertion of the franchise after the dreadful X3: The Last Stand and Wolverine movies. It features all the most popular members of the group kicking ass in glorious action sequences that might be some of the best you’ll see this year and even makes room for a few fantastic new mutants. The narrative is good, if a little exposition-heavy upfront, and the pace is great. So it’s a real shame that, even with all these perfect elements, the film’s story makes such a dull thud. The problem isn’t that it’s badly told, it’s just that there’s not been any attempt to evolve the narrative threads that have been present since the first X-men film from 2000. It’s the same old story; a fight between Professor X’s peaceful integration and Magneto’s warlike assertion of mutant superiority, and after the fourth time it has lost its surprise and effect.
It hooks from the get-go, though. “The future”, we’re told in foreboding Patrick Stewart tones, “is a dangerous place”. There’s a great deal that the audience has to quickly digest; in the 1970’s, Mystique’s assassination of a scientist named Bolivar Trask fast-tracked the development of his mutant-killing robots (Sentinels) and now the world is strewn with the bodies of not just mutants but of the humans that dared to protect them. It’s a world of skeletal buildings and roads of skulls, not that different from The Terminator‘s flash-forwards, and it’s clear that the remaining mutants are no match for the Sentinel onslaught. The robots’ ability to shift form – a trick stolen from a captured Mystique – means that they can absorb whatever the X-Men can throw at them. The only defence they have is through Kitty Pryde’s time…projection…ability…which is something she apparently has now.
When the Sentinels attack, she can send a mutant buddy back in time a few days to warn the group, who then moves before the attack even happens. When Professor X and Magneto roll up to ask if she can send the Prof back to 1973 to stop the Trask assassination, and therefore stop the Sentinels from ever being made, she reveals that it would shred a mind apart to travel over that distance. However, if the mind could heal itself, then it could work…and so it becomes a Wolverine movie. The good news is that this isn’t miserable Logan, but a return to the no-nonsense, quick-talking character that works so well. The main chunk of the film then follows Logan as he tracks down the younger selves to deliver the warning from the future. Stop Mystique, stop the Sentinels, and the future will never happen.
The first third of the movie gleefully revels in its own fun. Old man Logan interacting with the younger, snarkier versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr never gets old, and his self-positioning into a father role for them hits all the right marks. Mystique is similarly successful, played with great focus by Jennifer Lawrence as she works through her own agenda of vengeance and anger. The steps they all go through as they try and find her show the characters at their weakest, either through imprisonment or self-pity, and it’s a real pleasure to compare them to the older, established versions waiting for them in the future. This vitality is emphasised by the fantastic action scenes that give us a great chance to enjoy new mutant Blink’s fighting with portals and Quicksilver’s manipulation of time and causality. In fact, the scene where he helps the main group avoid a quick death at the hands of Pentagon guards is one of the greatest pieces of cinema I’ve seen in ages. Quicksilver might even end up being your favourite part of the whole movie. He’s that good, and it’s going to be very interesting to compare him to Marvel’s version in Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
But it soon falls back into the old themes. As soon as there’s an opportunity, Magneto is up to his old tricks and once again sparring with Xavier over whether the humans should be appeased or ignored (violently). His moment of action feels entirely forced, though, his chosen course of action actually not making much sense when the group was so close to its moment of success. Maybe that’s the picture they’re trying to paint of the younger man – impulsive and stubborn – but it feels ham-fisted nonetheless. Luckily, Michael Fassbender’s skill as an actor still makes Magneto sympathetic in a small way. James McAvoy’s Xavier is more successful, showing himself as a much more interesting and troubled character than that in X-Men: First Class. However, the nagging feeling of story fatigue really takes the shine off the last third, and I would hope that future X-Men films might be brave enough to branch away from this reoccurring thread. There’s some fair sized plot holes, too. Don’t look to hard into the technicalities of how the time travel is meant to work.
However, even with this, the film is a great ride. Bryan Singer is totally on form with directing duties, with action scenes are almost balletic in their choreography, and interpersonal dialogues are patient and meaningful. There’s humour and pathos in equal measure and (once again, mind) an exploration of the responsibilities of being human. It’s a great film to see in the cinema and one that’ll stay with you once you leave your seat, the next era of X-Men films lining up into the (new) future during a final audacious sweeping sequence. And that’s a great thing; if Warner can remember the lessons from X3: The Last Stand and start exploring the dozens of X-Men stories from the years of comics, then more mutant mayhem of this quality can only be a good thing.