“X-Men: Days of Future Past”: Back to the Future

Days of Future Past

Midway through X-Men: Days of Future Past, the seventh in a seemingly inexhaustible series of movies derived from Stan Lee’s X-Men comics, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) are under threat from a group of men with guns in a high-security prison facility embedded deep below the Pentagon. They’re flanked by Quicksilver (Evan Peters), an upstart blessed with the power of unparalleled expedience. When it becomes clear that Magneto’s metal-bending and Professor X’s mind-melting won’t be enough to stop the suits from gunning them down, Quicksilver rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.

The result is the movie’s most wonderful sequence, a dazzling and witty exploration of a superhero’s power rendered with panache and style by director Bryan Singer. Time slows down so that the only thing moving at normal human speed is Quicksilver, who trots around the room rearranging the floating objects. With a flourish, he positions the bullets away from Magneto and Professor X, balls a man’s outstretched hand into a fist and even takes a moment to taste-test some soup. When Quicksilver is done, the scene snaps like a rubber band back into place, and the action resumes.

Superhero movies need more moments like this, and fewer like this movie’s opening fifteen minutes, in which actors we like playing characters we recognize recite stilted exposition and pontificate with furrowed brows about the coming apocalypse. The X-Men are a far more diverse collection of superheroes than the rock ’em sock ’em hunks that populate Marvel’s other megafranchise, the Avengers, and it’s a pleasure to see superheroes whose powers stem from wit and ingenuity rather than brute force. The best moments in Days of Future Past come in the middle third, when the superheroes get to move the plot along while exercising their powers and asserting their worldviews.

The setup: the mutant class of X-Men are under siege from the Sentinels, robots engineered to exterminate the pesky mutant race. With the help of the phaser Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), an ambitious plan takes shape. Kitty has the power to send a person’s consciousness back into a previous moment in time. In the early 1970s, the shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) tried and failed to murder Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a scientist hellbent on exterminating the mutant race before it came to dominate over humankind. Instead of killing Trask, Mystique succeeded only in exposing her DNA to the scientist, who then used it to harvest the vengeful Sentinels, currently laying waste to the mutants. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, glowering more than ever for no discernible reason) is tasked with traveling back in time, reuniting the young Professor X with his sworn nemesis Erik Lensherr (Fassbender) and stopping Mystique from exposing herself to Trask. In no time at all (ha), Wolverine finds himself naked in a stranger’s bed with the sound of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” emanating from a nearby alarm clock. It’s 1973, and Wolverine is a man on a mission.

Wolverine

Time-travel narratives like this one invite charges of implausibility, but the movie largely sidesteps them until the final minutes. There’s real pleasure in seeing Wolverine butt heads with the younger versions of Charles, Erik and Mystique, though none of them seem as perturbed by Logan’s tale of time-travel and the oncoming end of the world as any reasonable person might. If the characters agree to Wolverine’s plan a bit too quickly, the sparks that fly once the band is back together more than make up for the plot conveniences.

This movie succeeds largely on the charm of its performers and the simplicity of its special effects. Fassbender and McAvoy are the movie’s most potent pair, cool extremism clashing with passionate reluctance. Lawrence unsurprisingly gets more to do here than she did in First Class, and she conveys her character’s tragic irony with impressive depth. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are largely on the sidelines, but their moments of sadness are even more poignant because we’ve seen them clash and evolve since Singer’s original X-Men in 2000. And Dinklage is a treat with fairly limited screen time, proving that buttoned-down sincerity can be as menacing as outrageous villainy.

Working from a script by Simon Kinberg, who redeems himself after capping the initial X-Men trilogy with the uninspired The Last Stand, Singer understands that enormous set pieces and convoluted plot twists lack heft without thematic ambition and emotional weight. Even as the X-Men are gallivanting around the world, engaging in adventures we never quite understand, they’re united by an admirable and tangible goal of protecting their species and encouraging tolerance. These movies have never shied away from allegorical references to real-life issues of civil rights, tapping into the anxieties of the culture to tell stories that end with progress but rarely perfection.

McAvoy

It’s a shame, then, that this movie ends with a climactic sequence that recalls The Dark Knight Rises visually and Back to the Future narratively. Neither comparison feels entirely earned. After a lengthy middle section that largely eschews the conventional slam-bang action sequences that have become de rigeur in Marvel movies, the final slugfest is a drag. The denouement is even more problematic – while touching and emotionally satisfying, it requires several major leaps in logic and suspensions of disbelief. Worse, it invites far more questions than it provides answers. Leaving dangling threads for a sequel is one thing, but building up an exciting climax only to leave the majority of the resolution for the future feels like a cheat.

Still, X-Men: Days of Future Past offers more traditional pleasures and fewer annoyances than movies of similar scale, and it’s undeniably an improvement over the weakest in the series (The Last Stand and the regrettable X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Its sincerity and solemnity might be cause for ridicule in less capable hands, but Singer and Kinberg have crafted the movie with such classical skill that the shortcomings are easier to forgive. At its best, I was reminded of something that’s easily forgotten in this Age of Onscreen Superheroes: superpowers are cool.

Fassbender

Other Thoughts:

*About that ending: given that the timeline in 1973 diverges significantly from what happened before modern-day Wolverine entered 1973 Wolverine’s consciousness, I find it difficult to believe that Wolverine would wake up to find that nearly everything is exactly as it was supposed to be. (Everything is probably not as it’s supposed to be, but the movie doesn’t do enough to suggest as much.) I’m not opposed to a happy ending, but this one felt obligatory. I was also bothered that the fates of Magneto and Mystique were left unresolved. I understand that sequels are in the works, but I don’t believe that a movie should sacrifice necessary story just to preserve an ongoing franchise, and I think it would have been possible to set up a sequel without ignoring the damage that this “future past” experiment might have caused.

*Ellen Page makes a strong impression with limited screentime, and her character’s injury was my biggest “Oh no!” moment of the movie. I’m tired of seeing Page as the fifth lead in good blockbusters, though (Inception too). Give that woman a lead role!

*As the cast list leaked out, I started to worry that the movie would collapse under the sheer electricity of the star wattage on display, but the script handles the wide array of characters rather deftly, and I rarely felt short-changed by the length of an actor’s onscreen appearance, aside from Page.

*The post-credits tag meant nothing to this uneducated Marvel scholar, but the Internet tells me that it’s a teaser for the next Singer movie in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse.

*Speaking of Singer, it’s worth pointing out that the director is currently in the midst of a rather disturbing series of lawsuits alleging that he sexually abused two minors in 1999. Given that the lawsuits are still in progress, it would be unfair for me to comment on allegations about which I know very little. Singer hasn’t done any interviews or press to promote the movie, but the early box-office returns suggest the scandal has not had a negative effect. I’m a bit uncomfortable with the notion that an undeniably skilled filmmaker behind one of the most popular Hollywood franchises might also be a disgusting criminal, but I avoided letting unconfirmed allegations affect my appreciation of the movie.

*Poor Anna Paquin got the short end of the stick in terms of returning franchise players, appearing only at the end alongside her character’s former boyfriend Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). I was baffled, then, to find that Paquin is billed higher than Page and Dinklage. Then again, Halle Berry is billed higher than all of them, and she utters exactly one line of dialogue in the entire movie (I counted).

*Hugh Jackman is insanely talented and quite the specimen, but he seems tired of playing this character. After seven movies (recall his brief cameo in First Class, I would be too. Never fear, though – he’ll be hosting the Tony Awards in June.

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