Every X-Men movie up until First Class was really a Wolverine film in disguise. The main arc of the film always belonged to Logan, and his role as protagonist was never in question. Once the series began to reboot itself with First Class, the tone and direction changed sharply. Gone was the metallic and somewhat darker aesthetic cultivated in the previous films, and in came a fresh and lighter take on the material. Having the backdrop of the sixties helped bolster that mood, making First Class the most fun entry in the franchise. Still, First Class couldn't escape the need for a definitive protagonist, and since it was born out of the ashes of a planned Magneto prequel, it was that character who took on the bulk of the film's arc. This didn't make it bad at all, but it did undermine a bit of the feeling that we were finally going to get the team-family vibe that the other films hadn't focused on.
Enter X-Men: Days of Future Past, which isn't just a great comic book action film, but also finally nails down the ensemble nature of the X-Men universe and the feeling of family and togetherness that these characters are about. I've seen a lot of people label this a Wolverine film, and that's just not the case. An argument could be made that it's Xavier who is the protagonist this time around, and while it'd be hard to refute, there's still so much screen time and focus given to all the major players that no one feels like they are stealing the show. DOFP makes use of its large cast extremely well, and I hope such a balancing act continues in future installments.
One welcome constant that carries over from First Class are the performances by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier and Magneto, respectively. They know just the right way to play comic book characters: grounded but not afraid to embrace the inherent silliness when it's appropriate. Each time Xavier puts his fingers to his temple to use his mind powers, or Magneto uses grand hand motions to direct his magnetic influence, you can sense the fun the actors are having without having to sacrifice their investment in the characters. These two are proving to be great bookends to the collection of stories and characters this universe has to offer. And Hugh Jackman is so comfortable and personally established as Logan at this point that he never feels like he's phoning it in. He just knows exactly how that character would react to any given situation and performs accordingly. While I don't want him to be the centerpiece of the franchise, DOFP proves he can be just as memorable when he's a little off to the side.
Not everyone is as enthused though. Jennifer Lawrence has a big role as the catalyst to a doomed future, and maybe it's due to the serious nature of the part she plays in the plot, but she doesn't seems as energetic as she did in First Class. She still kicks lots of ass and delivers the dramatic stuff well, but her emotional barometer throughout the film is fairly unchanged. Peter Dinklage as inventor Bolivar Trask feels equally static, but that has more to do with the script than his performance. He doesn't fit into a typical villain mold (the film doesn't really have a villain since the threat is the annihilation the unfeeling robotic Sentinels are going to unleash in the future) and feels like a living MacGuffin for the most part. He does have one good scene where he talks about not hating mutants, but admiring them. If the character had more moments like that, he would've felt like more than just a plot device.
The film also doesn't make as great a use out of its seventies backdrop as First Class did with the sixties. Besides a handful of music cues and historic characters, the movie looks and feels somewhat modern. While that probably seems like a minor complaint, it just feels important since First Class made it work so well within the story (the Cuban missile crisis) and the setting, and because the next film is planning to do the same thing by taking place in the eighties. I think director Bryan Singer will go as overboard with that era as Matthew Vaughn did with the sixties, making DOFP's decade feel a little underused.
But, what really matters in these films is the action, and this film does gangbusters in that department. Every sequence feels appropriately scaled, so the previous set-piece doesn't feel larger or more exciting than the last. The bit with Quicksilver in the Pentagon is definitely a huge highlight, and they smartly leave him out of the rest of the picture so we get just the right amount of him. The final showdown during the unveiling of the Sentinels is enthralling without having to resort to the "destruction porn" aesthetic so many films of this genre have succumbed to. One thing I enjoyed but was kind of shocked by was how brutal the future timeline's action scenes were. Characters are dismembered, impaled, disintegrated and even ripped in half with no real cutaways. They've got to be some of the most vicious deaths that I've seen in a PG-13 comic book film.
I guess now is a good time to talk about the time travel aspect of the movie. Time travel is always a convoluted and endlessly nitpickable plot device (unless you happen to be Primer). What matters is that the conceit of time travel never become a crutch for the film it's used in. DOFP's time travel makes just enough sense that it never derails the actual spine of the film. Since this film was an actual real-world attempt to change the course of the franchise's continuity so that more stories could be freely told, it succeeds in that mission without taking the plot or pacing of the film down.
And someone at Fox is obviously taking notes from The Avengers. Not only does DOFP feel similarly paced to that film, but the post-credits stinger is so influenced by the Thanos one in Avengers that it felt sort of easy. While losers like me will know who the character we see is, most people will be left scratching their heads,hopefully enticed by it but probably just more confused.
While I still personally enjoy the breezy tone and uncomplicated framework of First Class more, Days of Future Past has got to be the best X-Men movie yet. It's the most accomplished use of the gallery of characters yet (even if there are still some X-Men that haven't gotten their proper due onscreen yet), it's tightly paced with some excellent action beats and features lead performances that give weight to the cartoonish concept of the whole enterprise. Fox has answered back to Disney/Marvel's cinematic universe in a strong way. If the next entry is as good or even better than this, the X-Men franchise can once again be a major player in the ongoing adventures of superheroes in cinema.