The latest Issue of Total Film Magazine is out now with a whole section on X-Men: Days Of Future Past! Click the below link to read full article. (May contain spoilers!)
THIS ISSUE: EVERYBODY DIES!’ screams the cover line to The Uncanny X-Men, No. 142 (1981). And to prove no one’s messing about, the accompanying image is of one of Marvel’s most beloved characters being zapped to extinction by a big-ass robot. (The scene’s repeated inside with a juicy ‘YERRRRGH!’ sound effect.) The issue is the concluding chapter in the classic ‘Days Of Future Past’ arc, a short but seminal story that, 33 years on, is making the jump from page to screen. “The reason [the comic’s storyline] stands out is because it paints the world of the future as a world of defeat,” argues director Bryan Singer. “And it asks the question, ‘How do you find redemption in a world of defeat?’ Alluding to another cover shocker (issue 141), he adds: “That image of the dead – the missing mutants, the wanted mutants… our favourite characters, and you turn the page and see their graves! It immediately makes you go, ‘How did this happen?’”
Or, just as importantly, when did it happen? Pinging between eras, the original story sees the present-day X-Men racing to stop the assassination that will light the fuse on the ‘Everybody Dies’ dystopia of three decades hence (the far-flung days of, um, 2013). Like most time-travel yarns, DOFP offers a great opportunity to explore actions and their consequences, turning points and ripple effects… It’s also the perfect platform for an inter-franchise mash-up, uniting the prequel gang of X-Men: First Class (2011) with the old-schoolers Singer introduced to cinemagoers in 2000.
“I have a knack for ensembles, I guess,” shrugs Singer, all but underselling the gift for juggling vast casts he’s flaunted since 1995 breakout The Usual Suspects. Here, though, he’s marshalling more mutants than ever before – not just familiar faces but fresh ones (a gaggle of tomorrow people, including Bishop, Blink, Warpath and Sunspot). How did he know where to start? Or stop? “I wanted a full cast, but I didn’t want it to feel forced,” he explains. “We wanted to make it feel organic, not take a ‘kitchen sink’ approach but bring together characters with interesting powers.” And divergent personalities too, from the “easily irritated, like Wolverine” to the “hyper-nerdy, like Hank McCoy”. Splicing such an unlikely mix lends itself well to laughs, says Singer – but only for so long. “The movie has a lot of humour at the beginning,” he says. “Then as the stakes grow, it gets darker and darker. Darker and darker…”
So, does EVERYBODY DIE? That’s for the movie to reveal; we know at least that the Grim Reaper has been cheated on one score… “It’s one of the quirks of being in science fiction and fantasy: no one ever dies!” laughs Patrick Stewart. X-Men: Days Of Future Past marks the return of the original Professor X, whose resurrection has been foretold since not only last summer’s The Wolverine, but X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). There, he popped his clogs an hour in, only to be heard from beyond the grave at the very fag-end of the film. “A lot of people never saw that scene at the end of the credits, so they assumed I’d been killed off,” reflects Stewart. On a project as secrecy-bound as this, there’s no point nagging for specific details of the prof’s miraculous comeback – but was Stewart satisfied with the explanation? “It seemed to me perfectly logical within the X-Men universe, the Marvel universe,” he says wryly.
Another mystery in need of solving is the trailer’s money shot: Stewart in his 2023 clobber somehow nose to nose with the Charles Xavier of 1973 (James McAvoy).
“Please,” pleads the older man, mustering goosebump gravitas, “we need you to hope again…” It looks like a scene for the ages – did it feel that way on set? “Oh, indeed,” asserts Stewart. “It was the most important moment of Days Of Future Past. It was clearly something that had to be convincing, and had to pack a punch. You couldn’t just say, ‘Here they are now, face to face.’” For maximum passing-of-the-torch symbolism, shooting took place on Stewart’s last scheduled day, and McAvoy’s first. “It was a very intense few hours that we spent on set, hours I enjoyed very much,” Stewart recalls. Aside from hanging with his younger self, Professor X gets to experience another first: bagging a slice of the action. “I am no longer wearing fancy suits; I have my own leather fighting costume,” he beams (and a hoverchair, too). “In fact, that’s all I wear in the movie. We are, all of us, ‘in action’ and it was enjoyable to no longer be just a cerebral, stationary character.”
But while the older Charles is putting tomorrow’s world to rights, his ’70s counterpart is in a bad way. The idealistic, clean-cut eager beaver we saw in the ’60s-set First Class? Gone. “At the end of that movie he was still a preppy guy who thinks he might be able to turn his mansion into a school,” Singer explains. “But then over the next decade, everything goes terribly wrong.” The result is “the most radical, different” incarnation of Charles we’ve seen to date. In fact, there’s some role reversal going on with him and bad boy Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who’s sent back from 2023 to enlist Charles in saving the future of mutantkind.
“Quite annoyed,” is how James McAvoy sums up Charles’ reaction to the hairy time-traveller. “They’re this dysfunctional trio who’ve been stuck together” – the third wheel being Nicholas Hoult’s Hank, aka X-Man Beast – “and there’s a lot of resistance coming from me. You see Logan in a really unfamiliar role, in that he’s the one reaching out and trying to be all Zen Buddhist master, telling the others to get their heads clear. While I’m the one behaving more like Logan, saying, ‘I don’t buy this shit, let me get back to my beer!’” Naturally, Wolvie isn’t in the mood for any nonsense, leading to “lots of fisticuffs” with Hank, “which is cool, because Nick is probably the only person on that set who looks like he could take it to Hugh Jackman!” laughs McAvoy.
For the Scottish actor, X-Men: DOFP is as much about “the battle for [Charles’] soul” as it is about fixing the future. “He’s still on his way to who he will become, but he’s not there yet,” he says. Though the backstory of his baldness won’t be revealed in this film (“I think we’re saving that for a later date!”), he does pilot a wheelchair. Some of the time at least. (“It becomes a choice,” says Singer, cryptically.) From the sounds of things, McAvoy found it easier on two feet. “That chair was a death trap!” he chuckles, recalling run-ins with cameras, doors and people’s ankles. “There’s a difference between a wheelchair designed to actually enable or improve people’s lives, and one designed to look fucking cool and groovy…”
Wherever there’s Professor X, Magneto can never be far away. And that goes for both time frames in DOPF, with Ian McKellen joining off-screen BFF Stewart in the 2023 scenes and Michael Fassbender reprising his First Class role as the young Erik Lehnsherr. Alas, it doesn’t look as if the two masters of magnetism will be comparing notes on screen. “That would’ve been great,” sighs Fassbender. “But we have that with Charles, so it might have been a bit much if we’d done the same with the two Magnetos!”
The actors didn’t even get the chance to hook up on set thanks to their out-of-sync schedules. The only communication they had was the “nice note” McKellen left for Fassbender in his trailer. They finally met at last year’s Comic-Con, where virtually the full cast squeezed on stage for a spectacular group photo-op. “He’s a legend,” says Fassbender of McKellen. “It was a real privilege to meet him – for someone who can be such a ferocious actor, he’s such a warm, charming person.” The admiration’s mutual. “I thought [Michael] was terrific in First Class,” smiles McKellen, more kindly Gandalf than pitiless Erik. “He was his own Magneto, which fitted the story and the part he’s there to play. I just wish I’d looked like that when I was younger…”
Fassbender’s Erik is even more his own man in DOPF, following what the actor describes as a “singular journey”: “He’s lost a lot of his mutant compatriots; when we pick up with him he’s in prison, but when he gets out, rather than gather an army, he works more on his own.” First Class saw Erik sizing up whether to work with or against humanity. Here, he’s made his mind up… “If he had any doubts before, now he’s very single-minded and self-justified in his opinion of human beings,” says Fassbender. “He wants their destruction, basically…”
“We have hope for Erik that he’ll choose the right path,” adds Singer, “but that doesn’t happen. He becomes a terrible fly in the ointment of the mission.” Complicating things further is his relationship with Charles. Friends? Enemies? Frenemies? “There’s anger on both sides, but still so much love as well,” muses McAvoy, evoking the ideological rift that soured First Class’ pivotal bromance (Erik deflecting a bullet into Charles’ spine didn’t exactly help). “They’re two people who really, really understand each other, and I think one of the themes here is people who are alone and looking for someone that can give them a community, can understand them.”
Another apparent lost soul is shape-changer Raven Darkholme, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). In the comic-book DOFP, Mystique’s the one who pulls the trigger on what Singer evocatively calls “the shitshow”. History looks set to repeat itself in the movie, with a militant Mystique hitting the revenge trail. “Unfortunately, her mission is one of those rocks that plunges into the river of time that creates the most devastating of ripples,” Singer says. With J-Law’s stock having risen so meteorically since First Class – from The Hunger Games to the Oscars – it’s no surprise she’s a central presence. Lawrence lamented her relative lack of fight-time on First Class (“I trained for like two hours a day for five months, so when I turned up and it was like, ‘Here’s your stunt double, there’s your trailer’, I was a bit ‘Grrr!’” she laughs). Seems like the balance has been redressed on DOFP, Singer marvelling at her intense focus during action scenes. “She’d be back and forth between the wires and the monitors, checking her positions, not just doing what she was told but being very meticulous about it,” he remembers. Lawrence also proved herself a multi-linguist, performing one scene in French and another entirely in Vietnamese.
The times may be a-changin’, but one thing’s the same in X-Men: DOFP: Wolverine at the eye of the storm. Uniquely, both 2023 Logan and ’70s Logan (whose body plays host to his time-warping older consciousness) are played by Hugh Jackman. “There’s a lot of make-up there mate, a lot of make-up!” he chuckles, revelling in his seventh go-around as the flawed, clawed hero. “For the older version they just woke me up and put me on film, and for the younger version I was a good hour in the make-up trailer.” The future Wolvie has a few grey hairs (no Just For Mutants in 2023, apparently), indicating that though his ageing process may be super-slow, he’s not ageless.
The X-movies have seen Wolverine progress, as Jackman puts it, from “reluctant hero to reluctant leader”, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the man with the plan here. “It’s not as organised as that,” reveals Jackman. “Because the threat to the mutants is so massive from the get-go. So it’s not so much ‘Who’s in charge?’, or ‘Who’s part of the group?’; it’s more about the sheer necessity of banding together. It’s more about survival.” Reassuringly, time hasn’t mellowed Logan. “Even if he’s physically the right person to go back because of his healing ability, emotionally he’s the last person you want to send back in this situation! It’s a great conflict he has throughout the movie.”
And the massive threat he refers to? It’s those big-ass robots, otherwise known as the Sentinels – murderous mutant-hunting mechanoids who’ve been a comics mainstay since the mid ’60s. Various models will stalk the screen, their godfather a military boffin called Bolivar Trask, played by franchise newcomer Peter Dinklage. The Game Of Thrones star loved the comics (“I was always a fan”); he loved the cast (“the first day was terribly nerve-racking”); but most of all? He loved the ’70s grooming. “I couldn’t avoid the three-piece suits and, most importantly, the moustache,” he admits. “I miss it. The moustache. It made me want to start a personal line of colognes…” (“Just for the record,” adds Singer, “His hair is real!”)
Not everyone embraced the throwback fashions. “I’m not crazy about flairs,” winces Fassbender. “Although James was…” (“He’s got this whole Born On The Fourth Of July thing going,” according to Singer.) The actor did have a hand in refining Magneto’s look, however. “I have to credit Michael for helping me redesign the helmet,” confesses Singer. “I had a sort of smooth design, but Michael said, ‘You know, I feel it should be made from all this metal smashed together,’ so it now has more textures and striations.” Long-time X-viewers will recall the importance of Magneto’s big shiny helmet: not just for show, it’s a handy barrier to mind-meddling attacks. “You’ll notice I’m not wearing it in my section of the film,” notes McKellen. “I’ll leave you to work out if that’s significant…”
So many questions to answer. So many super-beings to keep tabs on. (Also in the mix: Storm, Colossus, Iceman, Quicksilver, Havok, Toad…) Was the script a head-spinner? “You read it and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is AMBITIOUS!’” gasps Ellen Page, saluting the work of Singer and credited screenwriter Simon Kinberg (X-Men: The Last Stand, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes). Reprising her role from The Last Stand – where she memorably branded Vinnie Jones’ Juggernaut a “dickhead” – Page is an “edgier, more confident” Kitty Pryde in DOFP. Unlike the comics’ Kitty, she doesn’t get to time travel: “I facilitate it, which involves doing a lot of sitting behind Hugh!” Still, she relished her part in what she considers, in spite of all its mind-boggling layers, “a beautiful story about how people evolve, how people work through their fears and demons to become their full, best selves.”
“It’s a more serious film than First Class, and I like that,” says James McAvoy. “There was nothing wrong with First Class, but it had more of a light-hearted nature,” he adds, conjuring that movie’s swinging submarines ’n’ suspenders spy-caper trimmings. “Bryan’s done a great job of marrying the different strands of the saga. I think it would have been hard for him to just come in and do what he did with the old movies.”
In a way, though, it’s precisely what Singer did with ‘the old movies’ that fans will be craving from DOFP, which finds him at the helm for the first time since series high-point X2 (2003). The director’s uncanny feel for character interaction essentially birthed the super-team genre. Quite simply, no X-Men, no Avengers Assemble. Singer will admit that the expectations generated by Joss Whedon’s $1.5bn mega-hit do weigh on his mind. “Comparisons to that do concern me, because this is a very different thing,” he argues. “The Avengers was riding on the monster hit of Iron Man, and characters who are ubiquitously familiar. My mother knows who the Hulk is, but she has no idea who Magneto is, or Wolverine for that matter!”
He goes on to note that where other comic-book franchises regularly break the half-billion mark, no X-movie to date has hit that magic milestone (The Last Stand sits closest, at $460m). “Does this film have the potential to break out of that? Yeah. I believe it does,” he states, highlighting the powerhouse cast, the broad scope, the science-fiction elements, the political aspects (“It’s post-Vietnam… Nixon’s a character!”)… Test screenings, meanwhile, have flagged up the movie’s female appeal. “Women have responded well to the film – more so than I’ve ever seen in any X-Men film I’ve been involved in. I think it’s down to the emotional core of the McAvoy character’s journey, or his relationship with Raven… I’m not saying women are more emotional than men, but a female audience might invest this idea of, if you knew then what you knew now, would you change history? What would you do with your regrets? But I don’t know, I’m just guessing!”
While Singer will admit to “terrible anxiety” about opening weekend, he’s also “extremely happy with the film… it plays really big!” And though at time of talking there’s still work to be done (“three days of additional photography, and a way to go on the visual effects… they’ll soon be coming in like a tidal wave”), he’s steaming ahead with the next X-movie, Apocalypse. With that film being tagged a straight First Class sequel, does that mean the future really is screwed for the old guard? Singer promises “some tragedy”. Will our ears be filled with the sound of ‘YERRRRGH!’? “There’s so much dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, I can tell you that,” offers Jackman. “It’s going to be a smorgasbord of delight for fans. The great thing about time-travel movies is that you can really tie things up in a smart way. I think people are going to be surprised at how much things are resolved… though I’m not just meaning how many people are going to die off, if that’s what you’re referring to!”
X-Men: Days Of Future Past opens on May 22.