Wednesday, June 4, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) - Strong but Flawed Sequel Never Reaches First Class

Bryan Singer's 2000 film adaptation of X-Men marked the beginning of the modern superhero movie craze. With the seventh installment in the X-Men series, Days of Future Past, Singer returns to direct for the first time since his work on X2 in 2003. Like the genre in general, the X-Men series has seen some great highs (Matthew Vaughn's First Class in 2011) and some awful lows (2006's X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) Days of Future Past combines the timeline from the first three X-Men movies with the new continuity established in First Class, selectively choosing which parts of previous movies to incorporate into its narrative, which to conveniently ignore, and which to retroactively change, while borrowing the premise of a 1981 comic arc of the same name and making some major changes. In that way, Days of Future Past is the most accurate film of all time when it comes to replicating the feeling of being a superhero comic reader.

The Legend of Wolverine: A Link to the Past

Days of Future Past begins in 2023, with the surviving mutant cast of the original X-Men trilogy and a few newcomers fighting a war for survival against the Sentinels—huge machines that have hunted down the world's mutants, mutant sympathizers, and humans with the potential to parent mutant children. This war has left the world bleak, hopeless, and mostly dead, leading to a final desperate gamble by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Ellen Page is endearing but underused as Kitty Pryde, who reveals she has the ability to send someone's mind back in time into their younger body. The surviving X-Men, teamed up with Ian McKellen's Magneto, choose the slow-aging, fast-healing Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as their emissary to the past, hoping to stop this war before it begins in 1973.

The film cuts back to this opening timeline a few times, but for the most part it's concerned with the events of the past. Wolverine's future brain wakes up in his younger body with a mission: Find the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and prevent her from assassinating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the scientist who first proposed the Sentinels project and whose death had prompted a massive push in anti-mutant developments. Wolverine seeks out a younger, more broken Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) in the ruins of his former School for Gifted Youngsters; in the years since First Class, Xavier had watched his students taken one by one, either as young men enlisted to serve and die in Vietnam or as victims of experiments by Trask Industries.

Heavier spoilers for Days of Future Past and the other X-Men films follow.

Times a Changin' - Angst, optimism from First Class flipped on their heads
The hope and optimism of the 1962 Charles Xavier we met in First Class is gone, replaced by a man suffering from physical and mental trauma who closes himself off to deal with his pain, mirroring America's cultural upheaval in the years following the Kennedy assassination. Xavier's only friend left is Beast/Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who cares for him in his ruined mansion. McCoy has spent years developing a serum to suppress mutant powers, allowing Xavier to turn off his telepathic abilities and shut out the world. For some reason, this also allows him to walk again after suffering a spinal injury in First Class. There's no way to reconcile why that would work, but you've just got to roll with it, and it works fine within the story as a blunt metaphor for addiction and isolation.

Xavier, shown suffering almost as a heroin addict, desperately needs this suppressant even if it removes the ability that makes him so special. McCoy, who uses the drug to stay in human form, acts as an enabler here. While there's clearly no way addiction to this drug will end well for either of them, McCoy maintains the supply—not out of any malicious intent, orders, or even pity, but out of a genuine love for his friend. These two men hiding out in a ruined hovel sharing drugs isn't a pretty picture, but it's a well intentioned, if misguided, act of love.

On the other side of the mutant political spectrum, we find Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) sitting deep in an underground prison for suspected involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy ten years earlier, an event whose details are only partly cleared up as the story progresses, depending on how willing we as an audience are to trust Magneto's word. Personally, I accept his explanation that he was framed, as Magneto, though ruthless and manipulative, isn't shown to be a man who lies to your face.

Wolverine works to free Magneto from prison, hoping that Xavier and Magneto together can convince Mystique not to assassinate Trask. To do so, he recruits Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a newcomer to the film series with super speed who steals the show. Peters does a wonderful job with this character, portraying him as an aloof, cocky teenager who mostly uses his powers to screw around and have fun. Quicksilver's a refreshing look at a teenager discovering his powers/hitting his puberty metaphor: This is a guy who is confident in himself, who absolutely loves the new things he can do with his body. In a rare twist, there's no angst or suffering involved in his flamboyant displays of power, aside from occasionally getting hassled by the cops and making his mom, who worries about him but shows no resentment, frustrated. Quicksilver has a great time, and his big action set piece is probably the best in the franchise.

Mistakes with Mystique

Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique is the plot's lynchpin, but unfortunately its weak link. I say this as both a big fan of Lawrence and of the Mystique character as she was written in First Class; in that film, we saw a character with a great deal of emotional range and a strong arc about self discovery and acceptance. Here, we're basically given a Terminator. The focus on Mystique shifts from personal drama and social subtext in First Class to a kung fu superstar assassin. Her shift reads as an emotional suppression much like Xavier's, shifting herself into a weapon aimed at Trask and stopping his mutant experiments—but the fact is, her character is flat and boring, and this is exactly the way she was written and portrayed in the first three X-Men films. Lawrence does the best anyone could with the material, but frankly, every time Singer has portrayed Mystique on screen she's been uninteresting going back to Rebecca Romijn in the original films), capturing none of the energy that Matthew Vaughn showed when he directed First Class.

This is my biggest issue with Days of Future Past: The story is effective, there are plenty of strong character moments with Xavier and Magneto, and there are some great, creative action scenes with Quicksilver and future mutant Blink (Fan Bingbing, playing a mutant with the ability to create portals, leading to some fun puzzle-heavy action scenes) but overall, the film lacks the energy and rhythm that made First Class so effective. Future Past is not an overly long movie, and it has little down time, but it still feels haphazard in its pacing and in some of its choices (you don't introduce a character as good as Quicksilver and send him home halfway through a story). The cuts back to the future are, for the most part, more jarring than anything else, and not enough time is given to quiet moments between characters; there's nothing here as good as First Class's Xavier tapping into Magneto's mind and helping him find strength through love, though young and old Xavier tapping into Wolverine's mind simultaneously in two timelines and using his body as a form of psychic telephone wire comes pretty close.

Like every X-Men film, this one's filled with supporting characters who don't get many, if any, lines and serve only to pop up in brief action scenes. We get brief glimpses of new and former heroes, but outside of the main players, none have much personality. Blink, with her portal abilities, is the most visually interesting, but we learn nothing about her as a person. Aside from Hank McCoy, the only returning First Class student is Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) who gets a brief but unnecessary action scene in Vietnam that doesn't carry nearly as much weight as it should. The rest of the First Class crew, both students and Magneto's followers, are killed off screen in the most unceremonious deaths the series has seen. Not all of these were interesting characters in the last movie, but this is still a really cheap way to write them out and add emotional baggage to Magneto and Mystique's grudge with Trask without actually earning it.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair

Bolivar Trask himself is a subtle but fascinating character, and I enjoyed the fact that although he's the driving force of all the horror that occurs in the future, he isn't a villainous figure. He's at the same time a brilliant scientist who speaks mostly about his cause and little about himself and a highly egotistical man, shown in a brief shot we get of a painting in his office showing Trask, framed in a saintly light, holding out in offering an artificial leg to a child in a wheelchair. He isn't outwardly driven by ego, but this painting and his ultimate plan says it all: Trask doesn't actually hate the mutant race, and doesn't seem to really believe the fear mongering he helps spread, but is instead a pragmatic opportunist, hoping to use the fear of a mutant uprising to unite the world.

Days of Future Past's Trask serves as an analogue of Watchmen's Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias. Both are among the most intelligent minds of their time, and both seek to better the future of a world on the brink of war by uniting it against an existential threat. In the original Watchmen comics, Veidt attempts to unite the world by unleashing a telepathic monstrosity, killing millions and convincing the world of an outward, alien threat. Nations and races would unite to prepare for any future invasion, leaving behind the old conflicts and creating a new brotherhood of man. He is a humanitarian known for his generosity and brilliance, but is willing to sacrifice countless lives to further what he sees as an ultimately peaceful ambition. Trask does the same; murdering mutants via the Sentinels is not something he takes pleasure in, but he sees it as a way to unite the nations of the world under a common banner against a new species that threatens the very existence of the human race.

Whether Veidt's plan works or not is left ambiguous, though it's reasonable to assume it wouldn't result in a lasting peace. The true horror of Trask's vision is that we actually get to see the end result of his plan, fifty years in the future. As far as we know, the world's nations are united, but at the cost of a world worth living in. We're shown murder, concentration camps, and mass graves. In a technical sense, the human race is now safe from being supplanted by the mutants, but at a price not worth paying. Trask's legacy is a legacy of ruin. Here, the film takes a stand against any kind of "ends justify the means" philosophy, a philosophy shared by Magneto as well. Magneto is right when he says that humans will fear, hate, and hunt the mutant race, but his solutions are no better than Trask's, and as the Magneto of 2023's life draws to its end, he realizes how wrong it was to waste years fighting Xavier for supremacy as their world lays in ruin. Ultimately, the future is saved not by force but by convincing Mystique to see the good in humanity, even in its darker moments.

Style standoff: Singer vs. Vaughn

Visually, this film looks massively better than either of Singer's previous X-Men films, and far better than The Last Stand or Origins. It's well shot, the action is well framed and easy to follow, and Quicksilver's movement is perfect. Overall, though, it lacks the bright palette that made Vaughn's First Class feel so alive and lacks its quick, playful editing (shown at its best in that film with Xavier and Magneto's student recruitment campaign.) Aside from the incredibly good Quicksilver action scene, there's no single shot that looks as good as Mystique and McCoy flirting while sharing a needle (becoming a common trope between McCoy and the people he loves) or Magneto putting a coin through Shaw's head (a horrific, perfect scene) or the corny but endearing multipanel shots during the training montage. There's a very good shot of a crowd at the White House cheering the first activation of the Sentinels that feels like a commentary on America's drone warfare policy today, but I don't feel like the film took this far enough. Future Past's directing is way more conventional and probably better from a craft point of view, but safer and less interesting from shot to shot. The corny yellow and blue costumes in First Class may have been hokey, but they gave it a style of its own.

The film's score is fine, but nothing standout. As with its visuals, it lacks the garish but endearing punch First Class had. The blaring Bond-esque horns that pop up a few times in First Class are sorely missed here. Its best moment, once again, takes me back to the same moment I've mentioned a few times: Quicksilver's big action scene is accompanied by Jim Croce's Time in a Bottle, making an already fantastic scene even better. I honestly felt that this scene was perfect in every way, as clever action, as comedy, and as an audio-visual experience, and it's the top moment in the film.

Final Thoughts

Days of Future Past is a solid film and a fitting send off to the original X-Men films that have since been surpassed by First Class. It was great seeing all these old characters again, even if some of them had their roles severely cut down. Even with the same script, I feel this could have been a stronger film had Vaughn stayed on as director. Pretty much all of my issues come down to direction here, which wasn't perfect in First Class but felt more exciting. This film is stuffed with some of my absolute favorite actors, so it's a shame that it's merely very good and not great, but I still recommend it to anyone who's seen the other films. If you haven't, this would probably be the worst entry point into the series.

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