X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Movie Review – Bryan Singer’s Semi-Triumphant Return
As Uncle Ben, the creator (real or invented in a marketing department somewhere) of pre-cooked rice once said, “With great power comes great…” Apologies. Wrong superhero franchise, wrong superhero universe. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of all the superhero franchises and how they relate – if they relate at all – to each other, specifically on the Marvel side of the superhero universe. The “great power” line, however, applies not just to Spider-Man – amazing or otherwise – but to all of Marvel’s superheroes (and DC’s too), including the X-Men and the X-Men franchise they headlined fourteen years ago. Arguably the (re)start of superheroes as commercially viable on a blockbuster scale, the X-Men represented (and still represent) every outcast, marginalized group (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). One size did (and does) fit all, but with that marginalization came division, division between two sides of the peaceful coexistence/war between humans and mutants scale.
Through an initial trilogy, a soft reboot three years ago, minus, more or less, two standalone spinoffs starring Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the core conflict set Professor Charles Xavier / Professor X (Patrick Stewart / James McAvoy) against his one-time friend turned enemy (turned ally turned foe again) Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen / Michael Fassbender). Each film has advanced the core argument through verbal and physical conflict, often with humans in the middle or as instigators/perpetuators of a larger war between the species. If nothing else, audiences haven’t tired of that conflict, repeated with minor variation from the original X-Men fourteen years ago to the latest entry, X-Men: Days of Future Past, a loose (operative word being “loose”) adaptation of the seminal 1981 comic-book story written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne.
Making a welcome, if belated, return to the X-Men franchise, Bryan Singer’s (Jack the Giant Killer, Valkyrie, Superman Returns, The Usual Suspects) adaptation – courtesy of screenwriter Simon Kinberg’s take on Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic comic-book story (The Uncanny X-Men, #141-142) – of the Claremont/Byrne storyline opens in a familiar post-apocalyptic future where machines, Sentinels, not Terminators (or SkyNet), have warred unrelentingly against mutants and their human collaborators for several decades, leaving behind a perpetually dark wasteland. No longer enemies, Professor X and Magneto lead a losing struggle against Sentinels capable of adapting their attacks to the strengths and weaknesses of their mutant opponents. They’ve managed to survive thanks to Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) ability to send her consciousness back into the recent past to warn them of the Sentinels attack. Singer and Kinberg illustrate Kitty’s ability via a narrative feint (most mutants perish spectacularly in an attack) only to hit the reset button almost immediately. That feint also sets time travel rules into motion: Time isn’t immutable, but changeable (cf., Terminator 2: Judgment Day).
All that limited time travel, however, buys the survivors a few extra days, not weeks or months. Professor X somehow surmises that since time travel can change the past and thus alter the future, sending a member of the X-Men to the distant past (e.g., 50 years) to prevent the birth of the Sentinel program will prevent the war and save mutantkind. Given Wolverine’s near immortality and healing powers, his consciousness is sent back in time to 1973, offering, if nothing else, a perfectly legitimate excuse for the X-Men to walk around in groovy ‘70s attire. Before they can stop the Sentinel program, Wolverine has to first convince an angry, bitter, substance-abusing Xavier and later an unchanged, immovable Magneto, to set aside their differences (again) to defeat a common threat. As usual, that’s easier said than done.
With Magneto in maximum-security lockdown (the less said about the how and why, the better, but it’s a major misstep), X-Men: Days of Future Past segues into the prison-break sub-genre. Wolverine and Professor X add Quicksilver (Evan Peters) briefly to the team. The Marvel’s answer to DC’s Flash character (he can run really, really fast), Quicksilver’s proto-punk attitude/styling adds a welcome dose of levity to the dour X-Men universe. Quicksilver also participates in a remarkably inventive set piece/action scene unmatched by anything (and everything) that follows in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Unfortunately, Quicksilver doesn’t remain with the team once Magneto rejoins Professor X, Wolverine, and Hank / Beast (Nicholas Hoult), to track down a gone-rogue, revenge-seeking Raven / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a mutant-hating scientist and the inventor of the Sentinel program.
Setting X-Men: Days of Future Past in the early 1970s allows Singer and Kinberg to once again insert the X-Men (and their associated metaphors) into real-world events (X-Men: First Class revolved around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis), this time the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War between the United States and North Vietnam. Given how the Peace Accords have faded into relative obscurity and their place in history (ending a war, not beginning one), it’s an odd choice, but it gives Singer the opportunity to change locales and add visual interest, much needed given the narrative wheel-spinning that occupies the better part of X-Men: Days of Future Past’s middle third. Given the relative scale of the ’73 conflict – eschewing the epic for the personal – maybe it’s a deliberate choice, but it still feels short of the eye-catching spectacle moviegoers have come to expect – justifiably or not – from big-screen superheroes.
Whatever the rationale, there’s rarely a sense of X-Men: Days of Future Past building from scene to scene or set piece to set piece (few and far between, it should be added), of narrative stakes increasing, of the risks to our favorite characters becoming insurmountable in the 1973 scenes. The opposite predictably occurs in the post-apocalyptic future (the Sentinels are always a narrative need away), but those scenes take up less than a one-fourth of X-Men: Days of Future Past’s running time. Trask makes for a solid secondary villain, but not a primary one, leaving Magneto to once again take up the slack as his plan for handling the Sentinel threat predictably diverges from Professor X’s. Minus an uprooted, floating sports stadium, Singer keeps the climactic face-off thankfully free of the massive carnage that’s characterized recent entries in the superhero genre, placing a Platoon-inspired conflict between Professor X (Elias) and Magneto (Barnes) over Mystique’s soul at the center.
Despite the future/past setting(s), new and old(er) X-Men, and the introduction of comic-book fan-favorite antagonists like the Sentinels, X-Men: Days of Future Past rarely reaches the storytelling heights of the series’ more memorable entries, X-Men and X2: X-Men United (both directed by Singer). On the plus side, X-Men: Days of Future Past effectively functions as a hard franchise reboot (as opposed to X-Men: First Class’ soft one), undoing much of the damage caused by Brett Ratner’s woeful entry, X-Men: The Last Stand and setting the course for more open-ended possibilities for future entries, including another fan-favorite comic-book storyline, Age of Apocalypse, that will form the basis for the next entry in the series.