27 May 2014

First Impressions: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Since 2000, X-Men movies have been all over the place. They typically retain the comic's strong sense of pulp insanity, but the original ensemble team-up varies tremendously in quality from the films generally considered good: X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men: First Class (2011); the ones considered shitty: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009); and the one considered good until its stupid ending: The Wolverine (2013). Suffice it to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) plants itself firmly in the "good X-Men movie" territory and, by and large, is spectacular. Naturally, SPOILERS abound from here on out, let's discuss this flick and its place within the film and cultural narrative of X-Men and its place among its fellow blockbusters and superhero movies.

Is it the best X-Men movie ever? It's an easy question to answer - is it better than X2? Well, scene for scene it's a nice duel, and Magneto's prison escape here probably rivals that scene in X2 (with even a nice nod to his jumpsuit), and the character work is fantastic, if not surpassing the 2003 installment. I'll leave that to you to debate, but suffice to say that considering the argument is even brought up, Days of Future Past does that good of a job. So, while we're on a high note, let's tear down the film first:

Continuity Woes
The Professor really got into the Allman Brothers.

The major issue with this film, which should chiefly arise in the minds of anal nerds, is the fast and loose handling of the X-Men film continuity. First I'll note that no one should really care about this stuff as long as it works within this particular film's context (and it does), but for a film that relies so heavily on serving as a simultaneous sequel to X2, The Wolverine, and First Class, as well as a prequel of sorts to the first three X-Men movies, there are problems.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. First Class didn't really mesh with X-Men Origins: Wolverine at all, goofing up Emma Frost severely. And don't forget the TV appearance of a  fully human Hank McCoy in X2 years after he became furry. What's most notable is that Bryan Singer actively chose to pay attention to continuity only from the "good" X-Men films listed above, which is perfectly fine if you ask me. I particularly liked how in flashbacks to Wolverine's adamantium scenes, stock footage from X2 and not X-Men Origins is shown.

There's larger issues, though, too. Like Patrick Stewart's Xavier being alive somehow (although the ending of The Last Stand strongly hinted at his unexplained resurrection). The Last Stand is largely only successful because of its concern with finality and desire to kill off as many core X-Men members as possible. This was a laughable time when we may have actually believed that only three of these movies would be made. Ha! Clearly that finality is no longer relevant, fuck it, let's erase that shit and bring everyone back. And it's nice to be back.

Getting the Band Back Together

The nature of merging the Original X-Cast with the First Class cast has warranted a few comparisons to an Avengers-style Team-Up movie, but as I said in my preview, it's really far more like a Fast & Furious movie that combines once disparate casts that have been introduced across a series of linked movies. And to be fair, the end result is more just like Wolverine teams up with the First Class blokes.

But for sure, the rapidfire cameos, even if they're sort of useless (jeez it takes forever for Storm to do something cool in this one. At least she's not claustrophobic), are welcome. Even if Kelsey Grammar's beast looks like bad Halloween make-up. But fuck that, he's there for about eight seconds, he probably didn't want to wait nine hours in a make-up chair for that. But no Alan "Nightcrawler" Cummings? That's alright, we get our teleportation fix from Fan Bingbing's Blink, who has some of the film's more awesome scenes.

I'm glad Blink is in this movie, even if she doesn't really have any lines. Not many of that pack of young, in-shape future mutants have anything to do but fight Sentinels, but that's fine. Leave the heavy character work to the established actors and just let these guys fly. In those gut-wrenching first few minutes we actually get a couple moments we've been waiting seven movies to see - an Iceman ice slide and Colossus actually do something other than stand there and serve up the occasional Fastball Special. That in itself is so rewarding.
Bingbing and Booboo!

Blink is a nice pick, even though her most famous incarnation hails from yet another dystopian X-reality, the Age of Apocalypse. She's made her rounds in Exiles, though. There's also Bishop, who has a much lessened role in than other media (note that int he afore-linked cartoon, it was Wolverine that originally was supposed to go back in time before Bishop takes his place. In the movie, Bishop had been the one going back in time until Wolverine replaces him for the big jump. And of course, in the original comic it was Kitty Pryde. So, everything's related here). Another callback, the M-scars over the mutants' faces reminiscent of the tattoos of old are a great touch. Other than that, Sunspot makes a nice appearance as does Booboo Stewart as Warbath. Fan Bingbing and Booboo Stewart. This cast is awesome.

And that's just the mutants who don't talk! They just fight something challenging until they die. A few times. It's probably the best use of these guys. All the other A-List mutants bring their A Games, even if it's a bit of a bummer to see yet another movie focusing on Wolverine. Arguably, even though we're ostensibly following his story, though, he's not really the main dude, and doesn't even really get all that many action scenes. We do get a Hugh Jackman naked ass shot, though, which is something.

J-Law makes up for that for those craving the female body, though by being virtually naked similar to Rebecca Romijn's first go at Mystique. It makes viewing pretty fun. She also imbues the part with a bridge from her innocent, kid-troublemaker in First Class to the acrobatic killing machine in the latter X-films. Part of this movie's whole premise for existing, though, is to bring her back from that nature, which really fits in to what First Class was trying to do and where this series can go.

After all, apparently the franchise's future (purportedly, X-Men: Apocalypse [2016] is following this gang over the Patrick Stewart crew). While it's a bummer that most of First Class mutants were given off-screen deaths (not like we were attached to any of those actors), or stuck in a tiny Vietnam cameo, we're perfectly fine handing the series over to them. They're more than game, at least more than people like James Marsden, who are pretty ready to move on, and frankly, they do make a better ensemble. Passing the torch here fittingly reminded me of Star Trek: Generations (1994) or something.

There are some spectacular character moments, here, though. Both Fassbender and McKellan's Magneto gear up simultaneously (fifty years separated) and really show what Magneto can do, but Fassbender's really proves why he's one of the most dangerous mutants. Airlifting a baseball stadium, taking over sentinels and nearly offing the president is the way to be. McKellan's metal control seems to be a little rusty with age, though, and he gets scrap-stabbed.

The character work between Magneto and Professor X continues to develop, even if their relationship was already the driving force of First Class. Instead, this movie refreshes by treating us to an entirely different Xavier, who is beaten, depressed, and powerless, literally and metaphorically. After being the team's anchor in so many stories, he's in need of guidance, and the way the film plays with his need, reluctance, guilt, and even a sustained joy over the Magneto team-up is fantastic.

Weird Stuff
You got to give Magneto credit at least for consistently
wearing costumes that don't look horrible on screen.

The best stunt that Days of Future Past does its continually cheap narrative mistakes that do not impact the enjoyment of the film at all. Why the hell does Kitty Pryde suddenly have unexplained consciousness-time traveling powers? Because the plot needs it, and the film is content to leave it at that, without making some explanation that would be bogus anyway. And wait, if time passes normally in the future as well as the past, damn, did Kitty have to keep charging Wolverine's brain for like, a few days? Damn, girl. The little power-suppressing serum Beast and Xavier take works the same way - it's essentially nothing more than a plot device because we can't have a furry monster and a dude in a wheelchair running around doing what their chracters needed to do.

The film gives a pay-off, though. Xavier's powers come with him coping with using them, and Days of Future Past deals with the burden of being a telepath more than even First Class did. He's only able to once again read minds and become the teacher again once he's able to forgive himself and his own significant sins. Beast functions in a similar way - once he can get over his shame, which has always been a hurdle of this incarnation of the character, he's able to grow and help the cause physically and intellectually.

Quicksilver is the same thing. He's an instrument of plot that allows them to spring Magneto. What makes it palatable is both his incredibly fun personality and the awesome visual potential of his powers on screen. It's an easy distraction from his shallow script function. I'm not saying that all these gripes are necessarily negative, quite to the contrary, the film has such a positive feel for itself (astounding, considering the future it depicts), that it's tougher to get bogged down by these issues like a lesser made movie tends to elicit. And Quicksilver is totally Magneto's son, that was a great reference to the characters' history. Now, what the hell is The Avengers: Age of Voltron (2015) going to do with him?

And Wolverine WOULD make a great history teacher. If his brain's intact. That metal drowning scene also brought up two important ideas: 1) it visually resembled Magneto sucking out his adamantium in "Fatal Attractions" (ironically reversing the metal flow), and 2) Damn that's a plausible way for him to die, right? We actually feared for Wolverine for a second, holy shit.

Themes and Legacy

I suppose we should spend some time talking about the thematic merit of the actual movie, although I might say that it's a little light in delivering big, world-changing message, political, social, or otherwise. It finds its way more thoroughly being about the human (or mutant) capacity for change, thorughly examining the nature of redemption and whether or not we're premeditated to take action because of our inherent character.
This is all you need, really.

See, an underrated part of this film is that the future didn't change by just merely stopping Mystique's one assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, who I haven't really even mentioned yet, as evil not in the sense that he's mean, grandiose, or a mad scientist, but just in his clear-headed matter-of-fact determination that mutants should be cleansed without more thought than an exterminator thinks of rats), but by stopping her intention. It does a nice job of opening up this concept. The future isn't doomed by Mystique killing Trask, it's doomed by the majority population (humans) developing a fear and mistrust of mutants, which can happen from any hateful mutant action - killing the President, stealing Robots, anything. It's a concept that Mystique refuses to understand until it happens on a very personal level (her character has become a sort of bargaining chip wavered between Xavier and Magneto, until the end when she rejects the influence and mentorship of  both of them).

Magneto understands this concept, but he also rejects a peaceful alternative, instead opting to turn the tables against humans entirely. This is also flawed, though, namely because as the future states, the robots can't really tell the difference when the mutant gene exists in the DNA of humans but isn't expressed until a few generations down the line. The point is, don't be an asshole, because those people you hate could be your kids some day.

Lastly, those future scenes really were incredible. The production design of the entire movie is phenomenal, giving us a bleak future accented by hyper neons and genuinely thrilling action scenes. The 1973 scenes are imbued with funk and period action that matches First Class for its 1960s work. I love the idea of the X-Mansion becoming an old haunted house, with Hank McCoy's Renfield as a practical werewolf serving Xavier's despondent and hermited Dracula. There are a lot of problems with this movie, but it's almost all forgivable by both the excellent character work, but also by just how fun it all is.

I've long considered X2 one of the Best Superhero films, but Days of Future Past may surpass it. With that and The Winter Soldier (2014) both being incredible entries into the Superhero canon, it's possible that we're very far from exhausting the possibilities of the genre. With all the perceived pop culture fatigue that comes with big brash entries into the genre that are more focused on setting up sequels than telling a good story, perhaps articles like this at The Atlantic are right in that we need more variations to push the limits of the genre rather than less to hinder development. We'll just have to see about Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

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