Note: There are spoilers throughout for not only X-Men: Days of Future Past but also Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
One of the problems with the comic book industry—at least in its mainstream, superhero-focused iteration—is that the histories of the characters are so convoluted, so mired in rewrites and revisions, that new fans have trouble parachuting into a series. That is why, every decade or so, Marvel and DC ritually cleanse the continuity, condemning characters and storylines and, occasionally, entire universes to nonexistence.
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Now, after a decade and a half of superhero films—after five Spider-Man films and two different versions of the hero; after seven X-Men films; after nine Marvel Cinematic Universe films—we are beginning to see the same problems emerge. If X-Men: Days of Future Past has an enduring legacy, it will be its introduction to the masses of the art of retconning.
"Retcon" is derived from "retroactive" and "continuity." It is a tool comic book writers have employed for generations to add complications to a character’s back-story or to eliminate the cosmos. We’ve already seen a modest example of retconning once this summer in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when it was revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. has, since its founding, been secretly run by the Nazi offshoot Hydra. Retconning is frequently used to bring sequels into existence and undo damage done by a previous creator.
Which brings us to X-Men: Days of Future Past. The X-Men series has been in a weird place since 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. That film essentially salted the earth from which our mutants had sprung: Director Brett Ratner casually wasted two of the greatest storylines from the comic books and set about murdering virtually every character in the series. By the time he was done, Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Cyclops (James Marsden) were dead, while Magneto (Ian McKellen), Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), and Rogue (Anna Paquin) had been stripped of their powers. The only character left standing that anyone cared about was Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), hence his pair of standalone films.
To fix this, something drastic needed to be done. So Bryan Singer (who produced) and Matthew Vaughn (who directed) looked to the past, bringing us a prequel in the form of X-Men: First Class. A past timeline firmly established, Singer and Vaughn could now do what they had wanted to do all along: retcon The Last Stand out of existence once and for all.
Days of Future Past opens in the future. We’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where mutants are hunted down like vermin by shape-shifting robots that can mimic their powers. These "sentinels" have not only virtually eliminated mutant-kind, they are also waging war on mankind, herding people into pens for destruction. Professor X, who has magically come back to life after literally being disintegrated in The Last Stand, and Magneto, who has magically regained his powers, team up with one of the few remaining bands of mutants and send Wolverine’s consciousness into his past self in order to stop the sentinels from ever being designed in the first place.
It turns out that the technology used to create the sentinels was derived from the DNA of Mystique (the younger version of whom is played by Jennifer Lawrence). In the dystopian future from which Wolverine has traveled, Mystique murdered a diminutive scientist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), and was captured, horribly experimented upon, and presumably killed, given that Trask says elsewhere in the film that to truly learn the secret of her powers he would need her brain tissue and spinal fluid.*
To succeed in his goal, Wolverine will need to convince Professor X (the younger version of whom is played by James McAvoy) and Magneto (the younger version of whom is played by Michael Fassbender) to set aside their differences and convince her to spare Trask’s life. This is no easy task, given that Trask vivisected Mystique and Magneto’s former allies.
Wolverine is also hampered by the mental state of Professor X, who has spiraled into depression and addiction after his students were drafted into the army, and the fact that Magneto is being held prisoner under the Pentagon for (allegedly) assassinating John F. Kennedy. To break him out, Wolverine calls on a friendly fiend for speed, Quicksilver (Evan Peters).
Given the number of narrative balls in the air and the competing timelines, Singer and writer Simon Kinberg do a masterful job of shepherding the audience along. Despite the profusion of ultra-comic-booky tropes, the movie is never overwhelming.
And Singer continues to demonstrate an impressive aptitude for mutant-enhanced combat sequences. The battles between the beleaguered band of X-Men and the unstoppable sentinels in the future are gripping and expertly choreographed, as is Quicksilver’s jaunt through the Pentagon. Singer even manages to use 3D well, employing different depths of field when the teleporting mutant Blink (Bingbing Fan) uses her powers against the sentinel onslaught.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is, on its own, a fine film, funny in all the right places, impressively acted, and rousing in its action. But as a component of a cinematic universe it throws everything else into chaos. It casually disregards the events of The Last Stand and does an extremely poor job of integrating the post-credits sequence in The Wolverine into the proceedings. Needless to say, Wolverine is successful in his effort, and the dystopian future fails to come to pass. But this success obliterates from existence every film in the franchise except for First Class. Singer and Vaughn haven’t just retconned The Last Stand out of existence: They’ve also eliminated X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and The Wolverine.
Comic book films used to have an advantage over comic books when it came to casual fans. With X-Men: Days of Future Past, the advantage has been greatly reduced—and may have even disappeared.
*For my own sanity, I’m just going to ignore the whole bucket of continuity issues this represents, given that Mystique is an integral—in many ways the integral—part of the first four X-Men films.