Weekend at the Movies – X-Men – Days of Future Past
The X-Men are back, and worlds are colliding, bringing together McAvoy and Fassbender’s young mutants with Stewart and McKellen’s old. That’s right, this might be the comic-bookiest comic book movie you’ve ever seen.
In the year 2023, things are bad for mutantkind. The Sentinels, horrifying and unstoppable power-adapting robots, have killed or imprisoned not only the vast majority of the mutant population, but also those humans who might one day give birth to mutants, and those humans who dared stand alongside their mutant cousins. But the remaining X-Men have a last-ditch plan: they will send a mutant’s consciousness into the past, to inhabit their younger body with knowledge of what’s to come, to stop the Sentinel Project before it came to be, to prevent these Days of Future Past.
The Savage Take
X-Men: Days of Future Past far exceeded my expectations.
What I admire most is its straightforward plot; I appreciate that there aren’t a lot of twists and turns. As much as I love the complexity of some of the better recent comic book films (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example), the sweet simplicity of Days of Future Past was a relief. The heroes and villains have crystal clear objectives throughout. If this film had tried intrigue, it would have been trying too hard. Sometimes, a simple movie is a smart movie.
For another refreshing change of pace, the film is light on spectacle. Action sequences are lean and never gratuitous. If anything, they’re somewhat subdued. In what could have been another over-the-top action flick, their “less is more” approach really pays off.
Plus, it’s always impressive. My favorite involves a mutant who can open short-distance portals. Seeing a Sentinel throw out an attack only to have it directed back at itself with some clever thinking with portals is very satisfying.
Jennifer Lawrence continues to make Mystique feel as lethal, yet vulnerable, as she ought to be, and MIchael Fassbender’s young Magneto is one of my all-time favorite on-screen villains. Peter Dinklage steals every scene, as usual, playing Bolivar Trask, the Sentinels’ creator, and Hugh Jackman once again proves that he was born to play Wolverine.
But my standout performance was James McAvoy as the young, disillusioned Charles Xavier. McAvoy brings stunning poignancy to the role. It’s a true delight.
Light on spectacle, but always impressive.
Direct Bryan Singer manages to immerse us in the 1970s without drowning us in it. A little nostalgia is fine, but sometimes period pieces feel the need to constantly remind us what era we’re seeing. Days of Future Past establishes its period, then gets on with the story. The fact that its style reminded me of Mad Men at times speaks to how well they pulled it off.
There were some (possibly nitpicky, I’ll admit) unanswered questions that really distracted me throughout the film. Why was Kitty Pryde able to send people back in time? When did future Charles Xavier return from the dead? When did Logan get his adamantium claws back after losing them in The Wolverine?
I can buy that Xavier might get his legs back at the cost of his powers thanks to a special secret super serum, but the rest—whether or not they’re true problems with continuity—were enough to take me out of the experience.
One glaring issue is a lack of diversity among the film’s core characters. The X-Men comics are fundamentally about minorities overcoming prejudice and injustice, but the mutants we spend most of our time with in Days of Future Past are all white. I wanted to be excited about Halle Berry reprising her role as Storm, but she’s given very little to do and only a few lines, a fate she shares with the few other minority characters that appear. It’s disappointing.
Despite that, X-Men: Days of Future Past won me over, and easily makes my list of the best films of 2014 so far. I’m very excited for the sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse, which you can get a sneak peek into if you hang out till the end of the credits.
The Courteous Rejoinder
Devin Faraci over at Badass Digest remarks in his (positive, I’ll add) review of Days of Future Past that the best way to approach this film is ‘not as a comic fan.’ It’s good advice. If you follow it, I have no doubt that you’ll have a perfectly enjoyable time among the mutants, young and old. What’s more, if you can do that, you might not even want to read the rest of this review.
For one thing, I’m going to get a little spoilery. For another, I’m going to get a little curmudgeonly. I will say this: I didn’t dislike Days of Future Past, per se. I even agree that it’s among the best of the X-Men films to-date. And yet, something about it rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe I’m too much of a comic fan, but no matter how I look at the film, no matter how sufficiently good it was, I can’t help but think that it could have been so much better.
Compared to most X-Men films, known for their large casts of mutant misfits, this one has a surprisingly small ensemble. Really, it’s the story of three: Charles Xavier, Raven/Mystique, and Eric/Magneto, with Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine in supporting roles. It’s a compelling story, about duty and justice and loyalty and love, the story of three bosom friends pulled apart by their beliefs.
Unfortunately, everything and everyone else in the movie is completely tertiary, and feels it. Mystique rescues a handful of mutants from quarantine in Vietnam, but they all pass out of the story before we even know their names (or get more than a tiny taste of their powers). Likewise, the new mutants introduced in the bad future get to have a few flashy fight scenes, but amount to little more than pretty lights.
It could have been so much better.
Even the mutants we know, like Storm, the elder Xavier and Magneto, and Kitty Pryde, serve little more purpose than a callback to days of movie past, and a reminder that there are high stakes at play in the 1970s.
Take Quicksilver, in my mind the film’s most egregiously wasted element. Peter (not Pietro, comic book fans) Maximoff (Evan Peters) is a means to an end. With his super speed, he can break Magneto out of the secret prison buried deep beneath the Pentagon. He shows up, gets more laughs in his minutes on screen than the rest of the film combined, not to mention the hands-down most fun (if nonsensical) action sequence in the whole movie, and then he goes home.
Why is he in this movie? His only motivation to save Magneto is—and this is outright stated— the sheer thrill of breaking someone out of the Pentagon. Yes, Wolverine will know him sometime in the future, and therefore knows to look for him in the past, but otherwise he has no connection to or investment in any other character or the overall plot. Why not make Magneto’s rescuer someone who mattered?
For me, it’s this arbitrariness that damns the film. The characters who appear seem to do so at the whim of the creators, but not at the will of the story. Quicksilver isn’t the only one, but his is the easiest to attack without veering into dangerously nitpicky territory. That said…
Arbitrariness damns the film.
Why give Kitty Pryde the ability to send people back in time, when Xavier would not only be a more established choice for consciousness-bending, but would also simplify one of films weirdest sequences, when young Xavier leaps across Wolverine’s memories(?) into the future, and somehow has a chat with his older self, in an out-of-another-person’s-body experience?
Why make Mystique’s genetic code the key to developing Sentinels that can absorb and adapt to any mutant power when that’s… not what her powers do at all? (Mystique takes on appearances, but explicitly not powers. There’s another mutant who does that; her name is Rogue, and she was in the first three X-Men movies.)
There are, of course, plausible answers to both those questions, as well as to Quicksilver and the entire involvement of the older/future cast. The problem is, I find all of them* discomforting. They speak of a kind of (anti-)creative oversight that values franchise appeal over story integrity. In the end, they make me wish for what might have been.
Still, you could do a lot worse than what we got.
*Include Kitty Pryde because it’s a callback to the original comics, in which Kitty was the time-traveler, not Wolverine; make Mystique the focal point because people like a naked blue girl and Jennifer Lawrence is blowing up right now; bring Quicksilver in because Marvel is putting Quicksilver in their movies, and screw them; include the older cast for nostalgia’s sake, and to aid in the transition of the reboot.
Where Do We Go From Here?
S: I’m going to do something a little different this week and recommend revisiting the 90s-era X-Men: The Animated Series. It’s what got me into the X-Men in the first place and is just plain awesome.
C: This might seem a little out of left field, but go watch Kung Fu Panda. Not only is it a film I personally love, but it’s a textbook example of how to write a script with multiple protagonists whose motivations and actions are interwoven at all times and come together in one shared-stakes grand finale. Put the X-Men together with a script like that, and I’d be in heaven.