#1 in my ranking of the X-Men franchise.
This is probably the best the X-Men franchise is going to get, especially considering the ensemble approach most of the films take. I think there’s some unfocused storytelling going on that keeps it a hair’s breadth away from greatness, but overall this is the best balancing act the franchise ever pulled off, managing two different casts and timelines with shocking style and seeming ease. Bryan Singer really brought his A-game, making possibly his best movie here.
This franchise fits best together when you don’t think about it too hard, keeping up generalities about relationships in mind without demanding specifics. In a surprisingly bold move, the movie starts by skipping ahead into the future to give us the X-Men version of a Terminator future where mutants are chased down by Sentinels that can detect them, adapt to their powers, and easily dispatch them if caught. The opening is nearly on par with the Nightcrawler attack on the White House that opened X2 in terms of cinematically introducing the audience to the world and the threat. This is a shockingly good action scene with almost no dialogue to explain who’s what, the stakes, or the overall purpose, but it’s still amazingly good edge of your seat entertainment with a handful of very specific goals: the danger of the Sentinels, the overall world, the minor characters, and the basic power that they will use to send Wolverine back in time.
In 1973 Mystique killed a man named Bolivar Trask who was developing a mutant hunting weapon called the Sentinel. The assassination convinced the world that anti-mutant weapons were the best course of action instead of stopping development, and decades later they perfected and implemented the weapons, creating the dystopian vision the movie starts in. Professor Xavier, Magneto, Storm, and Wolverine find our minor characters led by Iceman and Kitty Pride in order to use Kitty’s power of sending a person’s consciousness into their younger self, how they were able to undo the attack that started the film. The plan would be to send Xavier back to 1973, but the length of time would be particularly difficult on the physical body, something his elderly frame couldn’t take, so they send back Wolverine, ageless and able to heal instantly. Now, all of this is explained very quickly through clunky exposition, its only saving grace being that it’s done so quickly. We don’t have a couple of ten minute long scenes to explain it, it all comes out in a couple of minutes and then we’re off. So, I can wish all day long that it was explained more elegantly, but at least it’s done quickly.
Sent back in time, Logan searches out Xavier who is taking a serum to suppress his powers and give him the ability to walk at the same time. Guarded and accompanied by Beast, who takes the same serum to suppress his new blue visage, Xavier has become jaded from his mission after the saving of the world from nuclear war at the end of First Class only led to a temporary understanding with humans and the Vietnam War robbed him of many of his teachers and students. Disillusioned, he refuses to listen to Wolverine at first, but mentioning Xavier’s childhood friend, Raven/Mystique, is enough to get him out of the house. In order to convince her, though, they decide that they need to free Magneto from his prison several hundred feet below the Pentagon. In order to do that, Wolverine points them in the direction of Peter Maximoff, a young man in 1973 that Wolverine knew as an older man in the future but is a kleptomaniac youth who can run faster than the eye can see.
The breakout is a fantastic sequence, told with energy and humor. It’s the absolute standout moment of the movie as Xavier and Beast mess with the video surveillance, Maximoff takes a guard uniform, speeds Magneto from his cell, and then takes out a room full of guards as they fire guns at the group in a kitchen with the sprinkler system on. The use of “Time in a Bottle” fits perfectly with the scene, also providing an auditory counterpoint to the action that helps sell the comedic aspects of what’s going on.
This movie does a better job of including the overall political climate than First Class did. Trask is brought into a Senate hearing early. Xavier is jaded by Vietnam. Trask goes to Paris to participate in the Paris Peace Accords where Mystique plans on assassinating him, needing to use her ability to mimic people by copying a Vietnamese general. The mutant team arrives just in time, and Magneto just has the most amazing moments. He bend a bullet’s path to shoot Raven in the leg. He uses the bullet in her leg to drag her towards him. He’s going to kill her to protect their future. I’m a broken record on this, but Michael Fassbender is the best casting choice made in the X-Men movies.
Everything comes to a head in DC where, at the same time in the future, the Sentinels have found the mutant hideout and both confrontations happen at the same “time”. Now, that’s just solid story construction right there, but it falls apart slightly on a second viewing. First of all, Magneto pulling Robert F. Kennedy Stadium up off the ground, flying it over to the White House, and plopping it around the Executive Mansion to cut off any police or military support from the ground while he uses the first generation Sentinels to provide air support is just great stuff. Xavier using his powers to plea with Raven as she gets within striking distance of Trask, who’s on stage with President Nixon, is very good. Wolverine, though, he doesn’t have a whole lot to do, and when Magneto throws him away from the scene into the Potomac River he’s done with the scene. Where this ends up mattering is how it interacts with the future segment as the mutants steadily lose ground and people to the incoming threat. It’s unclear at what point Wolverine has set the future on the right course, but it’s long before Kitty Pride breaks the connection with him. His lack of involvement in the third act where he is a lynchpin of dramatic tension undermines that really well done third act a bit.
Every character is going through different emotional arcs that aren’t really related. Xavier is learning to re-embrace his powers after being jaded. Raven is learning that violence won’t solve everything. Wolverine is learning, well, not much. The movie’s focus isn’t on these journeys and they’re done well enough on their own, all tied together through the machinations of the plot so we never feel like they’re unrelated scenes just plopped in out of nowhere, but I can wish that they were more in line with each other thematically. However, in a big spectacle driven action movie, that’s not a huge problem at all when the focus is mainly elsewhere.
Overall, this is a rousing fun time at the movies. An intelligently constructed adventure through time that uses special effects and action filmmaking tools to propel the audience the whole way through the two hour experience. This is comic book filmmaking on a grand scale, and while it may not be perfect, it’s really enjoyable.