[Review] - X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Courtesy of 20th Century FOX

Time travel is that nifty little narrative device that allows for the possibility that mistakes of the past might be changed into something better. And that is exactly how it is used in X-Men: Days of Future Past. I'm not talking about the sending back of Wolverine to put right what once went wrong, I'm talking about Bryan Singer's return to the original modern superhero movie franchise, and sorting out the last ten years of X-Men films not made by his hand. Because in that time, there have been some missteps. Big ones. And Singer, who sees a return to form here that has not been present in his films since he left the franchise all those years ago, has put to good use the opportunity to bring meaning and message back to the mutants.

If Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-Men to explore the heady issues of the civil right movement in the 60s, then their original purpose has never been more faithfully adapted. Yes, it isn't perfect. The flaws remind the viewer of the similar weaknesses in X2, which mostly fall at the feet of over extending the plot in unnecessary directions, over complicating the plot for the sake of set pieces, and the ever present problem of Magneto. But the successes, as they did with X2, overpower the flaws, pin them to the ground and twist their arm until they say uncle.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that don't want your future.

The story is well known: Singer left the franchise (which birthed the modern superhero film genre) he had established to usher in a new generation of disappointing Superman films. When he left it, two thirds of the way through a trilogy, FOX had no idea what to do with their mutant money-makers. So, they promptly set about killing the franchise, then resurrecting it, then killing it again. In retrospect, it shouldn't have been a surprise that Wolverine has been at the centre of the franchise since the start. So, Singer's return is the chance for him to undo some of that damage. And right from the start, it is clear that the franchise has a direction that it hasn't had in ten years. There is purpose at work here, there is intent. There is genuine affection for the characters.

But the most amazing result of Singer's return is that, for the first time, Wolverine is a secondary character. Hugh Jackman has appeared in every X-Men movie, and only First Class didn't feature him in a starring role. And every film that he has appeared in as Wolverine has been about Wolverine. Despite the fact that X-Men is an ensemble piece, the focus has always been on the Canadian brawler (one of the many reasons people assumed Avengers wouldn't work is that X-Men had never truly been a "team" film). This film takes tentative steps in the direction of being a team piece, with the primaries all having a role of some significance. But what is more incredible is, despite having Hugh Jackman front and centre, the action is entirely focused on Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy. Suddenly, the story of the X-Men is the story of their leader, their father figure, instead of their dodgy adopted brother.

The big selling point for this film was that everyone is in it. And that is true, everyone is in it. Everyone who hadn't been negatively received in any of the previous films. And this is where Singer begins his revisionist manipulations. The elements from the previous films that worked are given grace; those that didn't are either avoided or dismissed (adios, majority of the cast of First Class). Singer isn't as concerned about establishing a focused continuity between the films as he is telling the best story he can, working with the elements he can. He behaves like a filmmaker rather than an organ grinder. And as a filmmaker, he found a way to have his cake and eat it to (writer Simon Kinberg is also making up for his own previous failures in the franchise). So, the whole gang is back together for what really boils down the the most expensive advertising campaign ever. The stars of the original trilogy are here, putting in their cameos. They are little more than set dressing, made to nag on the nostalgia gland and fill in the empty spaces in the posters. With the exception of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart (who are given clever equal billing) and Ellen Page, none of the originals contribute to the plot. They are there to make the world seem larger, and damned if it isn't successful (though, ten years on, I still miss Nightcrawler).

The opening moments waste no time giving us an information dump to catch the audience up and explain how things are going to go down. So much exposition is forced on us in the first ten or so minutes, it makes the film seem as though it was the second film in a series, and we missed the first. A considerable amount of time has passed since The Wolverine, and the world has fallen apart. Shape shifting Sentinels have wiped clean the filth of humanity, Mutant and Sapien alike. For a series that literally began in the midst of a Holocaust, it is a bleak reminder of how far hate can take things, with the right tools. We get our info dump, then it's back in time for our bulging self healing hero to wake in a time he has no memory of, and is forced to get the band back together, and remove the tools from the hands of those that would use them for ill.

In my review of First Class, I noted that there was a sever impatience at work in that film, that the interests of progressing towards a more established status quo exerted far more influence over the narrative than it should have, and that prevented the film from being truly great. This film manages to ease back some of the impatience of the last. The X-Men of the past are not a united front, nor is Magneto's Brotherhood a fully formed and operational organization. In fact, things are more derelict than ever. Xavier can walk again, at the price of his abilities (the film really glosses over the fact that it has no idea what it is talking about when it comes to biological science - "the serum effects my DNA" is a groan worthy line I'm willing to overlook in the name of progression). Magneto is alone, held captive by the government for the assassination of JFK, and mutants are not widely known (the events of First Class have been written off as some kind of urban legend). The centre piece of this discord is the ever present ideological differences between Xavier and Magneto: discussion vs action.

And this is where the flaws start to come into play. The sheer number of characters means we never get to know anyone beyond the core, established group. Xavier and Mystique get the entirety of the character development, because Wolverine is as fully formed as he can get (he takes on the role Xavier played for him in the original film), and Magneto continues to be the greatest weakness the series has going for it. I love Magneto, and McKellen and Fassbender play him with majesty. He is an integral part of the story, the necessary yang to Charles' yin. But they have no idea what to do with him. Every film (save the first, where he is the only villain) in which his character arc plays out the same way: he and Charles face a common threat, they come together, they stop the threat, then Magneto takes things too far, and any positive progress made in the name of Mutant-kind is eliminated when Magneto attempts to wipe out humanity. It is an endearing (in that, it is long lasting rather than appealing) character flaw that he cannot see that Xavier's method works. If they had used their mutants powers to save the president here from the man-made threat, then they would bask in goodwill. Instead, he drops a football stadium on the Rose Garden.

A common complaint I, and many others have, is that every superhero movie (or action movie in general) has to end with a fist fight. It is dull and repetitive and cheapens everything that came before it. Singer, uniquely, found a way to make his grand climax a discussion, have it be tense and riveting, and decisive. Yes, punches were thrown, but it was less a brawl then it was an exchange of ideas. Rather than a war, it was a summit, and it is fitting that it should happen in a franchise where the good guys fight on the side of peaceful resolution and coexistence. More films need to take Singer's example and find a more interesting way to finish up their narratives.

The film's biggest strength is also it's biggest weakness: Quick Silver. Despite his goofy ass costume (which makes sense in context, and doesn't look as bad in action as it did in those early promotional images), he is the most fun character in the film, and the centerpiece for the film's best sequence. It's no Nightcrawler in the White House, but it is close. Singer proves he can still put together a unique and amazing action sequence, second to none, but fails to stick the landing. Quicksilver is discarded as soon as the sequence is over, despite his abilities being presumably useful at other points in the film (at least Nightcrawler got to stick around for the whole movie). Which is the problem I most had with the film. If the characters names don't begin with M, X or W, the film has no idea what to do with them. Poor Beast is turned into a pseudo-Hulk, filling the role of Mr. Spock. Trask is never developed as an antagonist to a level in which I actually become interested in him as a threat (probably because I never consider him one), and Stryker is there basically because he was there before. Nixon is a more developed character than any of the film's villains.

In the end, all the wrong directions of the franchise were put right. Singer managed to salvage his legacy, and the legacy of the franchise, by sending all the elements he personally didn't care for, and sent them to a farm upstate. Jean is alive, Cyclops is still a jerk, Kelsey Grammer is still Beast, and Captian Picard finally got his floating chair. Meanwhile, the stinger set up the fact that, while the future might be the bright and shining example of comic perfection we've wanted from day one, in the past there are still plenty of villains worth giving a freshly motivated Xavier trouble as he moves ever closer to establishing his real first class. I just hope that Singer is able to stick around and see it through this time.

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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