X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Review: Resurrecting the Past
Most movies come with a certain amount of pressure on them – pressure to make money, pressure to earn accolades, pressure to win awards. Some even come with the pressure of needing to birth a franchise or keep one from dying. What separates the bad from the good is obvious on the screen. What separates the good from the great is not just how those films perform under pressure, but how they rise to the challenge and not only handle the pressure, but raise the stakes for the next film.
We’ve already seen what pressure can do to superhero franchises in 2014. In the negative corner is the mediocre The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film that Columbia and director Marc Webb essentially treated like the second film in the second incarnation of the franchise that it is. It doesn’t handle the pressure at all. In the positive corner is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film that, even as the second installment of the Cap franchise and ninth (!) of the Avengers franchise, is treated like something special by Disney and co-directors The Russo Brothers. That treatment ultimately propelled it (critically speaking) beyond the assumed-invincible flagship film, The Avengers.
But even Spidey 2, with its popular stars and its buzzed-about ending; and Cap 2, with the popularity (and dogma) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on its shoulders; didn’t have the kind of pressure that X-Men: Days of Future Past had on it coming into opening weekend. How would 20th Century Fox and director Bryan Singer respond to that pressure?
The year is 2023 and the world is in ruins. A program to rid the planet of mutants using an unstoppable robot army called Sentinels was launched in 1973 by defense contractor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and has long ago run amok. Not only have mutants been all but globally eliminated, so have those with DNA that predisposes them to become mutants or to give birth to mutants, as have those humans who have helped mutants avoid a dreadful fate. The moment when the end began was in 1973 when the mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murdered Trask in an effort to stop the Sentinels program. Instead, her action made her the face of “evil mutants” and Trask became a martyr. His program lived on became the devastating thing it became. Fifty years later, only a handful of mutants are alive, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their only hope of saving the future is to change the past.
Using her evolved powers, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) sends Wolverine back in time to 1973, before Mystique kills Trask. The rub is that Wolverine is not physically transporting back, only psychically; the theory is that the past and present exist simultaneously, his present psyche will inhabit his past self, and only when he “returns” to the present will his actions in the past take hold. Wolverine’s job in the past is to convince a defeated, post-X-Men: First Class Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to team up with his former friend Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and stop Mystique from stopping Trask.
As superhero films go, X-Men: Days of Future Past is very good. It manages well to combine the high-octane action and eye-popping special effects that are prerequisite for films like this, but it also includes some of the more intimate and intricate hand-to-hand combat scenes that are popular today. That action is wrapped in an intelligent plot that integrates the uniqueness of the super-powered with the geo-politics of the time (read: not just some space baddie), with a greater theme about discrimination and superiority (an X-Men hallmark). Still it finds time to present a character study, examining the actions of Xavier as a broken leader and mentor (and addict); the ends-justifies-the-means mercilessness of Magneto; their relationship with each other; and the tortured soul of Mystique, the young girl caught between those two father-figures.
Singer’s direction is well-paced. The film starts with its foot down on the pedal, offering a spectacular, gasp-inducing opening gambit, followed by an efficient telling of how things got as bad as they did, and then a quick dispatch of Wolverine to the 1970s. The rest of the film is equally as lean, with action and drama well-balanced (and some humor sprinkled in), and never did I wonder how much of the 131-minute run time had passed. I also like Newton Thomas Sigel‘s cinematography, particularly when the film is basking in the polyester glow of the ’70s.
The film isn’t without its flaws, though. It suffers from the types of continuity problems that most time-travel films suffer from, especially those with as many moving parts as this. These are felt at both the film and franchise level. There are also a lot of smaller but unknown mutants who play important roles in battles, but who you don’t know at all beyond what you see them do onscreen. I’m not looking for full backstories, but names would be nice. I was also disappointed in the Trask role and Peter Dinklage’s performance in it. The character is two-dimensional and Dinklage does nothing to improve upon it at all. He is by far the weak link of the cast, offering a stiff, unconvincing performance. Given his popularity on TV’s Game of Thrones (which I do not watch), I assume he is capable of better.
But it isn’t just the Xs and Os that make the film special; it’s also the film’s ambition, which cannot be understated. This film is being released in a post-Avengers world, where culmination is king (see DC/WB’s recent Justice League-related moves as evidence), and the X-Men franchise comes into this picture as considerably fractured. The original “modern day” team – Wolverine, Professor X, Cyclops, Storm, etc. – petered out with the third entry, only Wolverine has had any success as a stand-alone spinoff, and the First Class “prequel” was immediately hailed as the best of the entire lot, leaving the original to be forgotten. Rather than reboot the whole shebang or focus on a specific First Class sequel, Singer instead doubles-down and incorporates old and new. Granted, he mitigates some risk by keeping the focus on only the best characters from the two worlds, but his faith in incorporating anyone from the old world other than Wolverine, and his willingness to cut bait on some of the lesser characters from the new world, speaks to his confidence as a filmmaker.
Singer also has the guts to introduce a new character – Quicksilver (Evan Peters) – and give that character a role that is prominent on three fronts. First, he is critical to springing Magneto from prison. Second, he has an inside-baseball connection to Magneto. Third, his character’s ability – blinding speed – allows for a great set piece and use of slow motion that might seem contrived otherwise. (There is a fourth front that may/may not be intentional: the same character played by a different actor will appear in the next Avengers film.)
Speaking of inside baseball, there is plenty of that red meat in the film for the hardcore comic lovers to digest, yet never – never – does it alienate the uninitiated. Also, the Days of Future Past storyline is a watershed moment in the overall history of the X-Men comic book franchise, and one that is revered by many. Singer handles this deftly by leveraging the popularity of the title and adhering only to the spirit of the story; thus, he pays homage to franchise yet avoids the potential for damage that a a panel-by-panel recreation can introduce.
And all of it is done with a star-studded cast (you know your bench is deep when Lawrence is fourth billed) working along two different lines in time. Like I said … ambitious. And successful.
While there is another X-Men movie planned (as well as another solo Wolverine film), the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past leaves the door wide open – wider than you may realize if you haven’t seen the film – for limitless possibilities. And the fact that those possibilities are there are thanks to Singer’s willingness to resurrect the past (franchise) and move it towards the future.