To those with just a casual interest in the “X-Men” franchise, the reason for the creative direction of “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” opening Friday, might seem fairly transparent. In this latest installment — the series’ fifth, not including Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine spinoffs — mutant characters from the initial 2000-06 X-trilogy are thrown into the same dystopian time-travel storyline with the group featured in the 2011 prequel/soft relaunch, “X-Men: First Class.” It’s a shrewd device for leveraging the drawing power and fan cred of two casts at once. You’ve got returning longtimers like Jackman, Halle Berry (Storm), Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier), and Ian McKellen (Magneto), plus newer, of-the-moment additions like Jennifer Lawrence (cobalt-skinned Mystique — in “American Hustle” fashions!) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto’s younger counterpart).
It’s a heaping helping of more, more, more from a franchise whose break-even grosses on “First Class” were certainly somewhat less than 20th Century Fox was eyeing. Clearly, Fox, which produces “X-Men” under license from Marvel, is eager to keep pace in the interconnecting mega-franchise race that Marvel and Disney started with “The Avengers.”
But just as last summer’s “The Wolverine” actually had a prominent comic-book basis for its paradigm-shifting plot — specifically, dispatching Jackman’s mutant hero to Japan — “Days of Future Past” is also something other than a gimmicky curveball from calculating producers. A comics arc by the same title was published by Marvel back in 1980 in “Uncanny X-Men”
#141-142 — a storyline considered among the most seminal in the characters’ 50-year publication history. (It typically ranks behind only “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” the epic of psychic corruption and redemptive sacrifice loosely adapted in 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.”)
The “Future Past” comics were written by Chris Claremont and drawn and co-plotted by John Byrne, the two creators arguably most responsible for setting the X-Men on the road to eventual marquee status. The duo produced their temporally sprawling tale in the space of just two short issues, and almost directly on the heels of their “Dark Phoenix” triumph. It was a reflection of humbler, pre-synergized times in the comics business. The thinking was to keep stories briskly coming, so that even if a particular idea fell flat, it wouldn’t spell cancellation. Still, this one boasted an ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet creative swagger that was unmistakable.
A good few years before “The Terminator” delivered its glimpse of the coming apocalypse — and sent us reaching for the aspirin bottle with its protagonists’ trippy paradoxical bid to circumvent fate — “Future Past” put the X-Men through a similar nightmare. Flashing forward, without warning, to then-distant 2013, the story imagines that fear and hatred of mutants have led to their extermination or internment — the mythology’s freighted intolerance allegory pushed to its inevitable endgame. The mutants’ persecutors are giant, sentient robots called Sentinels — uncontrollable machines that are targeting humanity next.
Still scratching out an existence amid the rubble, the graying X-Men band together to send Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page’s “Last Stand” newbie) back to 1980 through a mind-swap with her younger self. Her mission is to prevent Mystique and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants from pulling off a political assassination that leads to the Sentinels’ rise. Tantalizingly, the full, timeline-altering implications weren’t completely spelled out by the creators — although one effect was that subsequent “X-Men” talents felt free to introduce potential realities of their own. (At least a couple of resulting characters also pop up onscreen.)
The movie reworks the details, but the bones of Claremont and Byrne’s story are recognizable. As ever in the screen franchise, Jackman is the star, with Wolverine getting the call to go tripping back in time to 1973. (Page’s character is still said to play an important role, in a nod to the source material.) In keeping with the screen saga’s fondness for incorporating real history — “First Class” tied in both the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis — the comics’ fictional sociopolitical elements are intermingled with the JFK assassination (see sidebar) and Nixon-era dirty tricks.
You do wonder just how skillfully the movie will navigate territory that’s so narratively involved, particularly when continuity cops busted the expanded franchise for a biggie just last year. “The Wolverine” hinged on the tortured hero mulling a procedure to reverse his virtual immortality — seemingly ignoring a key “Last Stand” plot thread about a “cure” for mutation (read: orientation) that Wolverine and others rejected. Who can say how, or if, the filmmakers will reconcile their post-apocalyptic landscape or Sentinel designs with those fleetingly seen in “Last Stand,” as part of a training simulation in the X-Men’s so-called Danger Room? (Even director Brett Ratner, a last-minute emergency hire for that installment, understood the classic standing of “Future Past” — and felt compelled to squeeze in a reference in case it was, indeed, the X-Men’s last stand.)
The cast and crew of “Future Past” will do very well if they manage something as enduring as Byrne’s evocative Part 1 cover. One comics website catalogs no fewer than 30 different cover homages to Byrne’s original, which grimly depicts Wolverine and Kitty with their backs against the wall. Tellingly, it’s a wall plastered with a tattered wanted poster listing X-Men as “apprehended” or “slain.” Byrne’s inker, Terry Austin, delivered an even bleaker illustration on the front of Part 2, showing Wolverine getting fried by a Sentinel blast over the no-lie cover line, “This issue: Everybody dies!” A potent teaser for a potent tale. Don’t expect Fox to go quite that far, though. Not when they’ve gone to such lengths to assemble their cast, and not when they’ve got a mega-franchise to build.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.