Warning: The following post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for X-Men: Days of Future Past (as well as a few other X-Men movies).
If you ask an X-Men comics fan about his or her favorite storylines from the series, you are most likely to hear one of two titles (or both): The Dark Phoenix Saga, and the issues called “Days of Future Past.” Writer-producer Simon Kinberg has been at the center of adapting both of those respective runs into feature films, as co-writer of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (directed by Brett Ratner), and as the producer and the sole credited writer on X-Men: Days of Future Past, which opened this weekend.
As part of its larger story about a “cure” for mutations, The Last Stand incorporated The Dark Phoenix Saga, which saw Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) transform into the rage-filled, destructively powerful Phoenix. Over the course of the film, Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique and Ian McKellan’s Magneto lost their powers, and James Marsden’s Cyclops and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X were killed off — obliterated, really. Fans were not happy with the film, and it eventually earned a reputation as one of the most disappointing comic book adaptations of the last 15 years.
Kinberg, it appears, would agree. “There are things I regret about X-Men: The Last Stand,” he told BuzzFeed. In fact, the screenwriter saw Days of Future Past — in which the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to 1973 to prevent the horrific events of the future — as an explicit chance to right the wrongs of that earlier film. “There’s no question from me that both for the characters and for the writer, Days of Future Past was a chance to do things differently.”
But making the “Days of Future Past” arc — which is really just a two-issue stand-alone narrative — function as a feature film within the established parameters of the previous six X-Men movies and spin-offs still led Kinberg to make some noticeable changes and pointed creative decisions. Below, he explained to BuzzFeed why and how he brought “Days of Future Past” to the screen.
1. Why did Kinberg, Singer, and the rest of the filmmaking team choose to adapt “Days of Future Past”?
At first, they didn’t. Initially, Kinberg and X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn were looking to make a straight follow-up movie with the prequel film’s cast. “And then someone at the studio suggested bringing in Ian and Patrick to book-end the movie,” said Kinberg, “not having anything to do with the ‘Days of Future Past’ storyline, but just to bring them into the film. And that’s when we were like, We should do ‘Days of Future Past.’”
After Vaughn dropped out, Singer, who had produced First Class, stepped in to direct, and he and Kinberg began the tricky work of integrating the sprawling film series into the established “Days of Future Past” comic book storyline. “The challenge obviously is, when you’re adapting from a different medium, characters are slightly different from the way they were in the books,” said Kinberg. “You have to make adjustments.”
“It didn’t come from a place of wanting to make Wolverine front and center, because we could have done that without sending him back in time,” said Kinberg, who added that the film could have simply used the 1973 era Wolverine within the plot. Instead, Kinberg wanted to remain true to the “Days of Future Past” narrative, in which it’s someone’s future consciousness that is sent back in time into their past body. One problem: The Kitty Pryde of the movies wasn’t even born in 1973. “Once we made the decision that we’re gonna send someone’s consciousness back in time, given that we cast Ellen Page — and we loved Ellen Page as Kitty — we couldn’t send her back to the days of Michael Fassbender and McAvoy and Jen Lawrence; she’d be, like, negative 20 years old,” he said. “We couldn’t actually have her consciousness wake up in her body, because it would be a sperm cell.”
And that’s where the plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past had to immediately diverge from the comic. With Kitty Pryde out of the running as the one being sent back in time (and instead becoming the sender), Kinberg turned his attention to other options. “We talked about different versions: We talked about Bishop getting sent back — which you see some remnants of in the opening of the film — we talked about Cable,” he said. “And then very quickly, we got to Wolverine, because of the fact that the same actor plays him in the past and the future.”
Because Jackman’s Wolverine has a mutant healing factor and longevity, he quickly became the frontrunner. “He seemed the prime candidate to have consciousness in the same actor’s body without a ton of makeup or visual effects because he doesn’t age,” said Kinberg. “Once we started down that path — and this was separate from the comics — for me, it was the most interesting, emotionally, from a character’s standpoint, because of his relationship to the older Xavier.”
He continued, “From the beginning of working on Days of Future Past the movie, Matthew [Vaughn] and I were really interested in this film being more centered on young Charles. In a way, First Class was the origin of Magneto, and this would be the origin of Professor X, and we just thought, because of the way we left [Xavier] at the end of First Class, having lost his legs and lost Erik and lost his sister [in] Raven, that that would be an interesting character to pick up years later, and see what happened to him and then see how he gets from this hopeless place to — or at least a step closer to — the hope and beneficence of [the] Patrick Stewart [version].”
The payoff, Kinberg said, is one that is uniquely suited to a film about the theoretical possibility of time travel, allowing for a space time loop that advances the characters themselves. “Once we talked about bringing Wolverine back in time, I knew what was going to be intriguing about that was that the character, Wolverine, who had been essentially saved and mentored by Professor Xavier, was going to use those same lessons to save and mentor the young Xavier. The irony of that felt really rich to me, and I’ve never seen that dynamic in a time travel movie before.”
X-Men: Days of Future Past shows Kitty — who has the power of intangibility, allowing her to phase through solid objects — suddenly manifesting the ability to project a person’s consciousness back through time. For Kinberg, the answer to the quandary of how to get Wolverine’s consciousness to 1973 lay in Grant Morrison’s seminal run on New X-Men, in which several mutants suddenly gained secondary mutations. “There’s sort of secondary powers that a lot of mutants have, so that gave us a little bit of a feeling of license to expand a character’s powers,” he said. “Given that we saw her phasing with other characters before, we felt like there was a hopefully natural leap that we would make, that in the same way that we’d seen her phase people through space, she could phase someone through time.”
Kinberg was clear that he wanted to honor the original “Days of Future Past” storyline in Uncanny X-Men and have Kitty connected to the consciousness shift somehow, which is why she ended up as the sender. “In terms of the physics of it, Bryan Singer is obsessed with the logic and the physics of these things, that, you know, defy the laws of physics. So, we did talk to people a lot, ranging from professors of theoretical physics to … James Cameron,” said Kinberg. “We talked to a lot of people about time travel, about different theories of time travel, about different theories of astral-projection, and that’s, I guess, how and why we felt like we could take the leap with the power.”
“Well, we do start the movie with a concentration camp in the middle of Manhattan,” said Kinberg about the film’s opening sequence, which depicts a dystopian New York City under the thumb of the Sentinels. “That first scene, the first image of the movie, is the camp in Central Park, which was important to us, and I hope sets the tone that that is the world of the future if they don’t change it. So the truth is, we don’t have that many scenes that take place in the future. We have the opening scene that sets it up, and then very quickly they’re in the monastery and Logan’s being sent back in time, and we’re really just cutting to them in the monastery. We wanted to create a hideout for them, which is not totally dissimilar from some of the imagery in the original books, even though the location’s different. It’s a little bit of the subway tunnels, but we wanted to create that world. It was a location that felt exciting and visually interesting, and retained some of the desperation of locations in the books.”
In the comic, the target of Mystique’s plot — which in turn allows for the Sentinels to take over North America — is Senator Kelly. In the film, the target is the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who becomes the locus point for the action. “Because of what Bryan had done in X1 and 2 with Senator Kelly, it made it hard for Senator Kelly to be the target of the plot in the past,” said Kinberg, who added that Kelly’s age in 1973 would have made it difficult for him to have been a believable U.S. senator.
Additionally, the timeframe had to be quite narrow because of the actors’ real ages. “‘73 was about as far forward as we could push that time period given that First Class took place 10 years earlier, and it’s only been a few years since we shot that film. So, as much as we can say mutants don’t age quite the same as humans, anything past 10 years, you start to say, Jennifer Lawrence is supposed to be in her mid- to late-thirties.”
The Senator Kelly-Bolivar Trask swap is one of the biggest changes at play here. But another significant departure from the comic is the fact that Mystique — the straight-up villain within the comic version of the story — is amped up significantly in the film. The stakes are upped for her character as well, due to her dynamics with Xavier and Magneto, respectively her childhood friend (as Raven) and the man who appealed to her more villainous tendencies (as Mystique). “The characters as they evolved in the movies — the original movies as our ‘future’ and First Class as our ‘past’ — they’re slightly different,” said Kinberg. “There [are] details and nuances of character that are slightly different, and so, as much as a lot of the impulse of our movie was to correct some of the things that we’ve gotten wrong in the previous films, people also feel very connected to those characters now. The dynamic between Charles and Raven may be slightly different than the dynamic between Raven and Charles in the comic, but those are choices that were made and honored.”
For fun! To explain why Magneto had not been up to many shenanigans after the end of X-Men: First Class, Kinberg placed him in prison for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “Personally, I just really like the idea of explaining the curving [i.e. ‘magic’] bullet with a character that can move metal,” said Kinberg with a chuckle. “And then, as that subplot fleshed out, it seemed more interesting that in fact Erik hadn’t killed JFK, but had been trying to stop it. And that was the explanation for a bullet that curves. And from there, the question was, Why would he try to stop it? Why would he try to save JFK? And then it just seemed interesting if the answer was, JFK was a mutant. Given the mystery of his life and the power of that family and the mysterious deaths in that family, it just, it didn’t seem totally outrageous that in a world of mutants, he may have been one.”
One of the biggest complicating factors to making Days of Future Past was somehow bringing Magneto back to fighting strength, and Prof. X back to life. Kinberg was at pains to make clear that he and Singer knew this was not a simple problem to solve. “We talked about that a lot,” he said. In both cases, the very end of The Last Stand did provide at least a storytelling starting point for Kinberg and Singer, especially with regard to Magneto.
“There is a scene before the credits where Magneto’s playing chess, and you see that he can just make the chess piece move, so there’s a hint that he’s starting to regain his powers,” said Kinberg. “The leap from there was that cure from The Last Stand didn’t work exactly the way they thought it would, and so we just leaped forward however many years, and he’s got his powers back.” Simple enough.
Prof. X, however, was a much trickier puzzle. The Last Stand hinted that Prof. X’s consciousness had been transplanted into another man’s comatose body, but that still didn’t resolve how that body came to look exactly like Patrick Stewart’s by the time the character appeared in the end-credits teaser for 2013’s The Wolverine. “We tried at some point in Days of Future Past having some dialogue about how he was brought back together,” said Kinberg. “It was using other mutant powers to reconstitute him. [But] we just didn’t end up putting it in the movie that had enough explanations and exposition already in it.” In other words, they just wanted Prof. X back, damnit.
“There’s no question for me that, as the co-writer of Last Stand, as the writer of [Days of Future Past], there are things I regret about X-Men: The Last Stand that I felt this movie could correct,” said Kinberg. “It’s a unique and weird opportunity to be able to go back and revise, in a way, decisions you made a decade ago. And actually, weirdly, that was something I tapped into a bit in terms of the actual story and emotion of the overall Days of Future Past, because obviously, these guys are going back in time to tell their younger selves not to make mistakes they know they’re going to make. So if anything, it’s like I went back in time and had that chance — if you could do it over again, knowing then what you do now, would you? And I would — I would do things differently. I mean, I would do things differently on every movie I’ve worked on, but certainly there are specific things. There were choices made at the time, or forced at the time, that I wish we had done differently, and this movie allowed us to do that.”
Kinberg is quick to add that there are parts of The Last Stand that he “really likes,” and that at least one major death in the film was “out of our control”: Scott Summers (James Marsden). “Ironically, James Marsden was only available to us for a very limited amount of time on The Last Stand because he was off with Bryan [Singer] in Superman Returns. And so, the way he gets dispatched in The Last Stand is in some ways because we only had him for a couple of days. But yeah, there’s no question from me that both for the characters and for the writer, Days of Future Past was a chance to do things differently.”
9. Will we ever get to see more of Rogue other than the single shot of her in Days of Future Past?
Ah, Rogue. The character, played by Anna Paquin, was meant to have a decent-sized role in Days of Future Past, with Magneto and Prof. X sent on a mission to rescue her from captivity. “That was something that wasn’t really inspired by the comics,” said Kinberg. “It was something that was really my own fault. I wanted to have one final mission for Ian and Patrick, for old Magneto and Xavier. It was a pretty significant subplot, and when you watched the movie with the subplot in it, it [played] as it was written, which was as a detour. In a movie that has as many plot lines and characters to follow in two time periods as we have, we couldn’t afford any detours, so we cut it out of the movie.”
That led Singer to declare in December that Rogue wasn’t in the film at all, but ultimately they were able to squeeze in a single shot of the character in the rebooted future (barely justifying Paquin’s rather jarring solo title card in the end credits). But fear not — the Rogue rescue sequence will almost certainly make its way to fans. “From what I understand, it will be seen on Blu-ray, DVD, or whatever technology exists in a year, and I think people will love it,” said Kinberg. “It’s a really great sequence. It’s as good as anything in the movie, it just didn’t fit into the movie.”
Of all the changes and omissions between the comic books and the film, this is the one that stings the most for Kinberg. “The thing we really tried to get into the movie and we never could, in a way that felt cool, was the wanted poster,” he said. “That’s probably my biggest regret, that we never figured out a way to really properly get that in the film, because it’s so iconic. I have such emotional associations with that image,” he said, sighing. “But you can’t get everything.”