With six previous entries in the franchise, the X-Men series of films has had its ups and downs and enjoyed different levels of quality, but has displayed a remarkable staying power with its various options of which direction to take things in. Bryan Singer got the franchise off to a strong start, and with a bigger budget and more confidence managed to build on that with a very impressive sequel, before a third film suffered from changing personnel and a Wolverine spinoff didn’t quite work. The 60s-set prequel First Class got things firmly back on track, and while another Wolverine solo outing had mixed responses, the retro concept has been revisited again here with a story set mainly in the 70s, combined with a dabble of futuristic dystopia, and with Singer back helming the franchise he started.

Something that the series nailed with its better instalments is the general feel of the comic books upon which they’re based. That’s a fairly nebulous term, but it’s crucially important. The X-Men comics have endured for 50 years with good reason – as well as being serious enough to incorporate powerful metaphors about the real world they hold a mirror up to (there’s a pre-credits sequence with Holocaust imagery here that makes a nod to the very first film’s opening scene), they’ve never lost their sense of fun. They’re not cold, boring lectures about responsibility and ethics, but they’re not shallow, empty spectacle either. They seem to nestle comfortably between the sombre and serious tone that the Batman franchise provides, and the anti-cynical, soulful and wholeheartedly sincere worldview that Superman represents (well, until the most recent film anyway). They try to provide something for everyone, and often succeed (as they do here).

What really hits home with this particular sequel/prequel/sidequel/whatever is an epic sense of scale. A third of the film is set in a bleak, heavily sci-fi dystopian future, while the rest finds a sense of the mythic in re-writing American history from the 60s and 70s. As a result, the events carry significant heft and weight; we feel like we’re watching something important even as a blue-skinned creature fights another giant robot. This is all amplified by the exigencies of the narrative allowing for both “sets” of X-Men actors to be featured – the “old” characters such as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) are folded together by a storyline that dares to be complex but never quite tips over into being overcomplicated. Of course, it has the common sense to give its most popular character – Wolverine – centre stage and allow him to feature in both timelines.

So we’re left with a feeling of a torch being passed from one generation to the next, which provides yet another effective emotional undercurrent to proceedings. By the end, as characters perish and it makes an attempt to go for the jugular, it ends up being surprisingly moving. This isn’t a villain-of-the-week instalment of a lazy franchise – there isn’t even really a clearly-defined villain character at all – it’s completely about clashes of ideology, like the very best X-Men stories are. Combined with its ambitious scope, and a surprisingly deep and existential plot which isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve, this utterly embraces its comic book storytelling roots, and is a smart reminder of how satisfying the genre can be.

Having the brains and balls to be highly anti-cynical10
A clever, character-driven story and a script that its writers properly thought about9
Going for the epic and actually achieving that for once9
A sense of subtext, a sense of history, and a sense of humour9
All the scenes involving newcomer Quicksilver10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • I can't remember a scene where they talk to each other
9Overall Score

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