The fifth X-Men film (or seventh, if you count the two Wolverines), “Days of Future Past” combines the old-but-newer mutants from the first three movies with the younger-but-older “First Class” crowd. It also sees Bryan Singer, who essentially established the new age of superhero movies with 2000's “X-Men” and 2003's “X2,” back in the franchise's director's chair.
Last month, Singer opted out of promoting the biggest X movie yet after Michael Egan accused the director of sexually abusing him in 1999. The duty of spokesman was transferred to writer-producer Simon Kinberg, arguably an equal creative force in this particular Marvel Comics universe contractually controlled by 20th Century Fox.
“My experience of ‘The X-Men' is a funny thing,” admits Kinberg, 40, who co-wrote the third film in the franchise (the Brett Ratner-directed “The Last Stand”), produced “First Class” for director Matthew Vaughn, and started working on “Days of Future Past” with Vaughn, who then left to direct another project, paving the way for producer Singer to step back in.
That's the simple version of that story. If you want to hear something decidedly more complicated, try “Days of Future Past's” plot.
In the near future, a war between mutants and the multipowered robot Sentinels has just about destroyed the world. The few remaining mutant fugitives — who include Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) — hit on a desperate, last-ditch scheme to have Pryde time-shift the near-immortal Wolverine's consciousness back into his 1973 body.
His mission there is to organize the scattered “First Class” crew into preventing shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from committing the act that leads to the deployment of the mutant-hunting Sentinels. Easier said than done; the younger version of X-leader Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is in deep depression and on a drug that suppresses his formidable telepathic powers, while younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is in an inescapable cell deep beneath the Pentagon.
And that's just a very simplified version of that story.
“I would never write another time-travel movie unless, y'know, my family was held hostage,” jokes Kinberg, who loosely based his script (with input from Vaughn and Jane Goldman) on a Chris Claremont-John Byrne comics storyline from 1981. “Bryan acted as a sort of science-logic police, he needed it to make a sort of bulletproof sense, even though time travel, obviously, doesn't exist. But we hopefully created our own hard rules that audiences will understand and believe.”
Equally difficult, but perhaps more rewarding, was fleshing out the story and its key characters. Kinberg has great fun messing around with the historical moment when the Paris Peace Accords were signed to end the Vietnam War. It also does a sterling job of defining Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine and Mystique's psychological states and motivations, and having those things drive the slam-bang super action.
“We've got all of these Oscar-level, serious actors in the film,” Kinberg notes. “We were very lucky to get people like Michael Fassbender and Jen Lawrence for ‘First Class,' before their careers really took off. And partly because I love the characters in the books and partly because I have to show up on set and face Michael, Jennifer, Hugh Jackman, Ellen Page — all of these actors who are used to getting good material — I have to give them emotional, dramatic things to play or they're not going to be very happy.”
Stage-trained Scottish actor McAvoy was certainly pleased with what he read.
“Charles is kind of like a cornered, damaged animal, really, at the beginning of the movie,” McAvoy explains. “He's as far away from Charles as we're used to seeing him as you can get. So he's got a big distance to cover to get back to that Captain of the Enterprise persona, that kind of authoritative, wise, selfless, empathetic figure.
“Unless he can do that, unless he can heal himself and take responsibility for himself, they won't ultimately win the day in the movie. It's quite nice that the big, action, epic struggles in the movie are reflected within the personal struggles of somebody as well. That was really fun for me to do.”
At least a dozen other mutants from the comic books — some new to film, some returning from previous movies — also appear in “Days of Future Past.” A few, like Quicksilver (Evan Peters), get some great stuff to do. Others are little more than Sentinel fodder.
“The biggest challenge was writing a movie for four or five main characters and eight to 10 major characters,” Kinberg admits. “Giving them all emotional stories and arcs in the film that are coherent and also dovetail in and out of one another and do it all within about two hours' time.
“That meant we had to lose things. Some of the new characters in the future — Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Bishop (Omar Sy) and Sunspot (Adan Canto) — are more action figures than emotionally fleshed-out. They have much deeper mythologies in the comics that we only scratched the surface of in this film, but potentially down the line in other movies we can go deeper with those characters, too.”
Kinberg is already set to write and produce the next X movie, “Apocalypse,” which he says will be a period piece focused on the “First Class” generation. (Channing Tatum was recently cast as the popular character Gambit.)
Singer is slated to direct again. Kinberg wouldn't comment on his colleague's legal situation, but notes that from the positive critical and fan response so far, it hasn't seemed to impact “Days of Future Past's” prospects.
“Bryan brings an amazing attention and sensitivity to these characters and, I think, a real connection to what it means to be a little bit of an outsider,” Kinberg observes. “That was the core of the X-Men in the comics; I think that's something Bryan is fascinated by, and he very actively wants to explore that dramatically.”
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