Effin’ Magnetos—How Do They Work?

X-Men Days of Future Past is maximalist Hollywood filmmaking at its best.

Nicholas Hoult as Beast and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Nicholas Hoult as Beast and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Photo-illustration by Slate. Photos by Alan Markfield/Marvel and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

If the various Marvel movie superheroes all went to high school together—please, development executives, do not run with this idea—the Avengers would provide both the jocks (Thor, Captain America) and the nerds (Iron Man, the Hulk—well, I guess the Hulk/Bruce Banner is more of a jock/nerd hybrid). The X-Men would be the outsider kids—goths maybe, or drama people, smart semi-dropouts who smoked cigarettes and other things out by the temporary buildings. There’s something about the members of this rebel mutant subculture that instantly marks them as grittier, sexier, and more grown-up than their comparatively wholesome Avenging brethren.

The glamor of the most recent incarnation of the franchise, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, is difficult to separate from the luxuriant excess of its cast. Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Peter Dinklage—the credits overflow with an almost comical abundance of bona fide movie stars, hugely charismatic performers currently riding waves of critical and popular acclaim. And everywhere you look, even in small parts, there’s an A-list actor flexing her superpowers: Halle Berry as the weather-controlling Storm, Ellen Page as the consciousness-altering Kitty Pryde, Anna Paquin as the appearing-only-in-a-cameo Rogue.

Days of Future Past lays on the abundance visually and technologically as well. Shot in deep, crisp 3-D, with loads of super slow motion battles and shape-shifting transformations, it’s maximalist Hollywood filmmaking at its best, the kind of extravagant production that, like a Wagner opera, can sweep you up in a sense of mythic grandeur even as you struggle to follow what’s going on.

Adapted by Simon Kinberg from a 1981 comic series of the same title (with a story by Kinberg, Jane Goldman, and X-Men: First Class’ Matthew Vaughn), Days of Future Past tells a story in two timeframes that run simultaneously throughout the film. In an unspecified but not too distant future, Earth will have been laid waste by wars waged against the stigmatized mutant population. Putting their heads together, mutant elder statesmen Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Ian McKellen), contrive a plan to send their colleague Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), back in time to 1973. There he must find a way to stop the Nixon administration from successfully developing the Sentinel program, a high-tech anti-mutant initiative involving gigantic robots that can target and destroy mutants from the air.

Once back in the ’70s—where he wakes up, amusingly, in an earth-toned room next to a naked stranger, with Roberta Flack warbling on the clock radio—Wolverine sets out to locate and mobilize the past versions of Magneto and Professor X, played, respectively, by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. These two once-dear friends have fallen out for a variety of reasons, including their shared love for Raven (Jennifer Lawrence)—who when she turns blue and scaly and fierce is known as Mystique, a master shape-shifter who can assume any face or voice instantly.  

Together with the werewolf-like Beast (Nicholas Hoult), the three men team up to stop Mystique from carrying out her plan to kill Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the anti-mutant scientist behind the Sentinel program. If she kills him and is captured (as happened in the version of history Wolverine is being sent from), they know a series of events will be set off that will one day put an end to the entire mutant race.

This summary is getting lengthy, and I haven’t yet gotten to Quicksilver (River Phoenix look- and sound-alike Evan Peters), a saucy teenage mutant whose specialty is moving at such supersonic speeds that he can play puckish tricks on his fellow X-ers. In the movie’s best comic action set piece, Quicksilver speeds up in order to change the outcome of a gunfight in, of all places, the kitchen of the Pentagon.* As Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays on the soundtrack, Quicksilver bounds casually around the room, adjusting the angle of bullets in midflight and setting up pranks (e.g., a cop’s fist is poised to strike his own face). It’s a thoroughly silly but immensely satisfying burst of visual and conceptual whimsy, not to mention a whiz-bang piece of special-effects staging—a scene that, at the screening I attended, earned a spontaneous round of applause for its sheer virtuosity.

It’s awkward to talk about the sexual politics of X-Men: Days of Future Past while its director is being sued for alleged sexual transgressions with underage men. (Singer has denied the charges, and filed to dismiss the first of these lawsuits on Wednesday.) But even if I had never heard a word about Singer’s legal troubles, this film would strike me primarily as a fable about the torments and pleasures of being an outsider in a world that hasn’t yet come around to embracing difference. It isn’t even quite right to say that the movie functions as an allegory about gay culture or gay rights—it’s more of a full-on gay romance, with every other relationship taking a backseat to the stormy lifelong bond that links the destinies of Erik and Charles (civilian names seem suitable here, since they spend relatively little time helmeted up in full Magneto/Professor X regalia). The men’s love for the dangerous and unpredictable Mystique—who was raised alongside Charles as a kind of adopted sister—seems sublimated to the point of abstraction in comparison with the immediate physical connection the two of them share. For example, since we last saw him, the hypersensitive mind reader Charles has become a heavy drinker and IV-drug user, a cynical wastrel addicted to a concoction that affords him the temporary use of his legs despite his body’s structural weakness. It’s only when Erik intervenes, locking eyes with his friend in a you-can-do-this-goddamn-it stare down, that Charles is able to put down the needle, accept his physical limitations and move forward as a paraplegic, secure in the knowledge that he will one day age gracefully into Patrick Stewart (a happy fate indeed).

These are the moments I’ll remember most from X-Men: Days of Future Past: not the monster robot battles or dazzling scale-to-flesh transformations, but the intimate exchanges between flawed and fragile characters who experience their genetic difference and rejection by society as a source of both pride and shame. A lot of the praise for this unusual degree of complexity goes to the cast, all of whom—especially Jackman, McAvoy, and Fassbender—throw themselves into their occasionally absurd roles without a hint of smirking or slumming, yet somehow also without the somber self-seriousness of, say, Christopher Nolan heroes. But some of the credit must go to Singer, too. He’s created a big swirling mess of a movie that nonetheless makes sense where it matters—in its relationships, its characters, and its heart.

Correction, May 22, 2014: This review originally identified the location of this gunfight as being in the kitchen of the Nixon White House. (Return.)