But that frenetic, scattered focus is true of all of the film, and it kills the character-based intrigue that was such a blessing in the movie's predecessor, X-Men:First Class. First Class's foremost strength was the way it stepped back from the constant action that had characterized the series' weaker entries, letting the sincerely human aspects of the story shine through.
Professor Xavier wasn't always a platitude-spewing old man, but actually started out even more cocky and aimless then the students he would later train; similarly, Erik, now calling himself Magneto, was given space to be something other than a metaphor for terrorism—Ian McKellen's performance as Magneto always having been excellent but too iconoclastic to ever make the character feel truly human. And both these performances were brought to life by their actors—to be brief, there just wasn't enough good to say about both McAvoy and Fassbender in First Class.
However, in the incessant (if unclear) plot progression demanded by Days of Future Past, character subtlety is traded for caricatures. The Professor is now an addict to a drug that mutes his powers but gives him back control of his paralyzed legs (drugs that are in both delivery and effect identical to heroin, but which are also very much Not Heroin). This happens not because of any well-examined out reason (briefly: "He missed a girl"), but because the movie needs a moment where he rejects his drugs in order to serve the Greater Good.
My problem isn't that this sounds bad on paper—as I write it out, I get excited about how interesting that idea is—but that it's executed poorly. Squishing three minutes of moralizing and forced character development in between long action sets will never replace the time investment of really getting to know characters—something I'd thought was clear from First Class, making Days of Future Past seem like a real step backwards.
For example: there's a moment when Xavier in the past and Xavier in the future manage to establish a tentative telepathic link, and young Xavier outlines to his older counterpart the exact contours of his problem. As a mind reader, he feels everyone's pain, as real as his own, all the time, and has no idea how to handle it.
Yes, I thought as I watched. We're an hour and a half in, this has got to be where it gets good. This will be the part I say good things about at the end of the review.
But instead, Old Xavier says that all he has to do is be open to the pain of others, accepting it into himself, that it makes him stronger because it helps him understand others—or something—because he's afraid of his own pain—it's not ever as clear as you'd want it to be, and even as delivered by Patrick Stewart, it's still cliche-riddled, incoherent enough to be laughable. Never mind the fact that what Young Xavier is being asked to do is a literally messianic task. It's such an insincere moment that it clues you in, as a viewer—The writers don't care, so why should I? And by the next scene, Xavier's anxiety is forgotten, and he's back to reading minds like a pro (because, of course, the plot demands it).