Sunday, May 25, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

For the past fifteen years X-Men movies have been coming to the box office.  Somehow though, it seems to me that something has never quite clicked with the general public and X-Men.  Several of the movies were quite good, such as "X-Men 2"* and 2012's "X-Men: First Class", but neither of those movies were major events, they never became legends in their own right.  These days with huge blockbusters literally coming out every week, it is harder and harder to really make a pop culture statement with just a superhero film, but X-Men especially seems to have trouble.  Fox can still rely on these X-Men films as a nice predictable source of regular income, but it seems no matter what they do, X-Men never becomes the pop culture sensation of the Nolan Batman films or Marvel's Cinematic Universe.  Tragically, the entire saga, despite some very spirited performances from several great actors, everything ends up in some grand pile of forgettable entertainment.

The reasons for this are varied.  Primarily the issue is that none of these X-Men films have really ever deserved to be memorable, they've always been Fox's "good enough" franchise to do what all movies should do, make money and entertain audiences.  There have been the missteps**, such as "X-Men" and the appallingly bad "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" - which has been made 100% non-canon by this production, thankfully.  "Good enough" and "that will do" is the main artistic driver of this franchise, which is not the attitude which will bring you classics.  The real issue, I think, is that whatever charm the comic version of the X-Men have, it is not making its way onto the big screen.  There's this utterly shameless pulpy fun feel to the comics, which the films are far too self-conscious to follow up on.  There's just not enough color here, in any of them (besides notably "First Class") to actually reach the point of tasty fattening cheese which comic book fans have enjoyed for decades.

I cannot say "X-Men: Days of Future Past" completely solves that tone problem.  However, it is very good, in fact, it may be the best X-Men film of them all.  On the surface, the plot of the movie seems like a typically comic book-y storyline:  to use a form of narrative nonsense (in this case, time travel) to retcon and re-order the universe to undo the various mistakes and mulligan's Fox's incredibly messy X-Men series has piled up.  The movie has no purpose really other than to put pieces back on the board that were sacrificed too early.  (Read:  no more "X-Men 3".)  However, it manages to pull off that completely cynical space-filling movie and turn into an extremely high-quality experience.  It is a direct sequel to "X-Men: First Class", meaning the fantastic performances of Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy can be combined with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and their future counterparts, Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, making "Future Past" a kind of 'greatest hits' of X-Men actors.  You have solid emotional drama as the great patriarchs of the X-Men universe undergo a difficult emotional adolescence... while of course fighting evil government robots on wacky sets.  For the third time in a month, I have been completely wrong, and I could not be more glad for it, "X-Men: Days of Back to the Future Past" is a wonderful movie, celebrating all fifteen years of X-Men lore while doing a fine job sorting out and removing its worst parts.

In the near future, Magneto's darkest fears have come true.  The humans, striking back against the Mutant threat, have created an invincible weapon to hunt down and destroy all of their superheroic brethren, turning the world into a dark future of desolate cities and death camps, far greater than the Holocaust Magneto survived as a child.  Most of the mutant population has been wiped out, leaving only a small collection of old faces and various new comic books cameos jammed into the plot for fanservice reasons to try one final gambit to save the world.  Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has - using some sort of magical comic book logic -  gained the ability to send people's consciousness back in time.  Fortunately, only Wolverine, the most marketable of all Mutants, can be sent back to 1973 to make right what went wrong and play Kyle Reese.  So while the Future heroes fight off waves and waves of these robots, known as Sentinels, Wolverine must unite the then-mortal enemies, the young versions of Professor X and Magneto (Fassbender and McAvoy) and have them work together to save the world.

There's a fantastic fitness program in the Terminator Future, I see.
The ultimate blue-skinned crux of the problem comes down to Mystique, played by America's waifu, Jennifer Lawrence, reprising the role from her pre-famous "First Class" days.  Being the second-most-marketable actress, Lawrence has a greatly expanded role, now no longer just being the female of desire and conflict between Young Magneto and Young Professor X, but also being the character whose actions set off the Sentinel problem in the first place.  With Professor X now letting himself rot away to drugs and Magneto locked away in another super prison, Mystique moves without guidance from anybody, trying to kill off a nascent Sentinel program by assassinating its architect, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage in a surprisingly tiny... err... small... err... sparse role).  Of course, by killing Trask, she makes him into a martyr for the anti-mutant cause, and when she is captured, her DNA is used to create the ultimate future mutants which can adapt to any mutant's powers - again thanks to comic book logic.

It does really make for an interesting dynamic where the ultimate villain of the movie:  the Sentinels, are completely indestructible and unbeatable, as an early scene where they butcher their way through a collection of powerful Mutants shows.  The real tension comes down to not some grand action showcase - though there are plenty to be found here - but the morality of the main characters and their decisions.  When faced with the knowledge of their future, the characters react in ways that would befit what we've known of them for these past fifteen years.  Professor X has to face his own weaknesses and fears in order to become the leader that will create a positive future for the X-Men.  Magneto takes this knowledge and goes straight for the cold solutions, first to kill Mystique because of the threat she represents, and when that fails, to launch a beautiful attack upon the US government to start the Mutant-Human war on his terms, and those terms involve throwing a baseball stadium at the White House.  And Wolverine, thanks to Bryan Singer finally using him properly, has a limited supporting role as generally a mentor or sarcastic quip guy.  The acting is solid across the board so everything works here.

Jennifer Lawrence makes one man's dreams come true.
"X-Men: Days of Past Perfect" is easily the most solid of the X-Men films so far.  It manages to fix up the small problems "First Class", which were mainly a few amazingly bad special effects, but keeps that film's particular strengths, which were of course, its main team.  Fassbender continues to be amazingly intense, stealing the show with his frigid anger and brutal charisma.  Magneto gets several great monologues, including a show-stopper where he simply has to name the number of his comrades whom Trask has murdered to build his weapons program to shut up Xavier's self-righteous rant.  And the dynamic of the Past and Future and Future Past characters works so well that Wolverine is able to tap off the scene with the funniest line of the entire film.  Bryan Singer is able to get together the humor, the emotions, and thanks to a great improvement in special effects and his own ability to direct fight scenes, the action.

It the newcomers and cameos who create the most spectacular action moments for the most part.  In the future, there is one Mutant, Blink (Chinese superstar, Fan Bingbing***), who has an incredibly cool power to throw around portals in the air to deflect away villainous attacks or move her allies.  In the Past, the main new addition is a Mutant, Quicksilver**** (Evan Peters), whose powers are essentially the same as DC's The Flash, he can run insanely fast.  Quicksilver has a small role the film, basically just obliterating everything with a great old rock soundtrack and a very comical use of bullet time, and then goes home once he's done his job dazzling the audience in the greatest effects showpiece of the movie.  Also, the Sentinels themselves, especially the lizard-like future versions, make for terrifying foes, far scarier than the goofy purple giants of the comic books and 90s cartoons.  Even better, since the Future Sentinels actions can be easily overwritten by Time Magic, they are able to kill with impunity, so they can slaughter Mutants to keep up the dark mood without narrative consequence.  It helps add to the desperate tone of the film, as little hyjinks in the Seventies are contrasted with characters being devoured by soulless monsters in the Future.

Yeah... that isn't going to work...
More than any other film so far in the series, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" feels like it was written in mind for the fans above all else.  The emotional climax is not the final battle involving robots and flying sports arenas, but rather the moment after the timelines have finished their timey-whimey-ing, once we wake up back in the present and see how things have shook up.  Basically all you get is a collection of characters saying hello, this weird subtle fanservice of seeing these characters all back together again.  With a perhaps a small sticky-note on the back saying:  "Sorry about 'X-Men 3' --Signed, Bryan Singer".  This movie might be using some of the worst cheap tricks in writing, but it tells a great story along the way and really does get the franchise back on track.  Yeah, there are still plotholes, countless numbers which only keep piling up.  But for once it feels like Singer and Fox and the cast have finally found exactly what tone these movies need.  Maybe with this and the upcoming "X-Men: Apocalypse", they can finally push past merely being Fox's reliable but forgettable money machine and become something really memorable.  One can only hope.

PS:  Magneto was, is, and always will be right about everything.  Magneto 2016.

* Which for some stupid reason is officially named "X2".  Just "X2".  Not "X-Men 2" or "X-Men United" as it was often advertised as, but "X2".  So what the heck does that mean?  It's a sequel to Rodger Corman's surprisingly inspired 1963 B-science fiction film "X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes"?  Because that would be awesome.

** Is it even worth mentioning "The Wolverine"?  Does anybody remember that movie?

*** Last year Fan Bingbing was added specifically for the Chinese release of "Iron Man 3".   In a case of history reversing itself, she was Raymond Burr-ed into the movie with special scenes filmed only for the PRC release of "Iron Man 3" - scenes we in the US never got to see.  Because those extra scenes amounted to maybe five minutes, the entire thing was really just false advertising to get some Asian faces into the Chinese trailer.  Despite Ms. Bingbing being the marketable star Disney was using, she received exactly one scene where she plays a nurse, removed from the International cut because it added nothing.  Chinese viewers were not pleased by this pointless pandering, and the entire thing might have been an overreaction from Disney to compensate for Tony Stark fighting a villain called "the Mandarin".

**** Okay, was that last annotation complicated enough for you?  This will beat it.  Quicksilver, thanks to all kinds of ludicrous licensing issues, is now appearing in both Fox's X-Men franchise and in Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe.  However, because the two companies cannot agree on anything and refuse to share continuity - I have no idea how the X-Men would even work in the regular Marvel universe anyway but that is another discussion for another time - this means there are two separate versions of Quicksilver being played by two different actors.  Quicksilver A is played by Evan Peters in this, and Quicksilver B is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who you may remember as the Boring White Guy from last week's "Godzilla".  But I assume the Disney version will just be a superhero and they will not be able to use the M-word.  Marvel fans were of course pissed about this and were shitting all over "X-Men: Days of Presente Progressivo" because it represented a threat to their beloved Marvel Universe films.  Fans, no matter what the medium, are horrible bitches at heart.  Unfortunately, Evan Peters killed it in this movie, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson by all appearances has no personality of any kind, so Disney might just lose the Quicksilver Wars.

Meanwhile I had never heard of this guy until just a few weeks ago.  Who cares?


  1. I assume you didn't stick around to watch the post-credits scene definitely not borrowed from a rival movie studio that is known for them? Or did you not care enough for it to speculate?

    1. I think you're confusing the post-credits scene in this with the post-credits scene in Spider-Man 2, which was just a teaser for this movie. That made absolutely no sense, but Jennifer Lawrence looked cute in an army uniform. I don't judge movies by their post-credits scene unless it happens to be The Wolverine, when the movie is so hideously forgettable that the post-credits scene is all that's worth talking about.

      Anyway, the teaser here looks like a scene from 1994's Stargate, but even I got the reference this time. That villain there is Apocalypse, the ultimate Mutant threat, who showed up in the 90s cartoon and X-Men: Evolution, where he pretty much destroyed everybody. Looking forward to that, honestly.

    2. Wait, if you saw X-Men: Evolution, then how did you not know who Quicksilver was?

    3. I dunno. I guess I found the evil Egyptian Pharaoh more memorable than just one of the bullies? It's been like fifteen years since I watched that show, and I can't say I was exactly loyal or fanatical about it even when it was on. I think mostly I caught re-runs on Cartoon Network.

  2. "The humans, striking back against the Mutant threat, have created an invincible weapon to hunt down and destroy all of the humans." Woops.