X-Men: Days of Future Past

May 23, 2014

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Having no insight into the financial reasons behind studios deciding what pictures to make and when, it is from a place of pure conjecture that I posit that X-Men: Days of Future Past was greenlit as a last ditch effort to save a once-beloved and now decently performing property.  Though I believe X-Men: First Class and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Wolverine were financial successes, they also didn’t quite make the splash desired.  If the re-boot/pre-boot/door-to-a-new trilogy didn’t work, then abandon those plans and just fold it into the “classic” line-up and everyone will be pleased.  The cinematic X-Men­ world isn’t as planned or cohesive as its Marvel Studios cousin, but given the number of characters involved it certainly could be something equivalent.  DOFP is an interesting creature because of this, and the fact that it’s not an overwhelming mess is praiseworthy.  Unfortunately it’s got the strange feeling of too-little-too-late, and it’s greatest virtues are it’s pleasurable but pointless fan service.  It sometimes comes across as a belated victory lap to the franchise that started the most profitable trend in Hollywood of the new century.

It’s important to keep things in perspective, though.  The franchise produced a solid first entry, and genuinely great second, and then followed it with the abysmal Last Stand and its lowest ebb, the frightfully stupid X-Men Origins: Wolverine, before the attempted reboot with First Class, which boasts a few sequences but overall is memorable for its kitschy design.  The Wolverine was the best in the series after X2, mostly because Jackman can sleepwalk a decent performance in the character of Logan and the film wisely narrowed its focus, giving it a rough, noir-ish vibe.  DOFP is notable for the return of Bryan Singer, who directed the first two entries as well as being the test case for a small director with no particular aesthetic being given a large budget and making a decent film with it.  Unfortunately, when he left the reigns were given over to Brett Ratner, perhaps Hollywood’s greatest hack, and it worked to basically undo all the good will and character work that had come previous.  DOFP is a more or less direct sequel to that film as well as First Class, and it’s probably best viewed as an extended apology for Last Stand.

In the future, the X-Men we know from the original trilogy are fighting the Sentinels – the robot killers who have the ability to take on the mutant powers of their foes and turn them against them in brutal and visually dazzling ways – in a post-apocalyptic hellscape.  The Sentinels first targeted mutants, then people who would eventually have mutants, and then those who would help them.  Never to shy away from metaphor, whether it be for discrimination against homosexuality or, more explicitly, the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, the Sentinels are the embodiment of the “First They Came For…” poem.  This is nothing new for the franchise, and one of the central issues with the film is there’s an undertone of “been there, done that” running through every plot point.  They decide to send Logan back into his body in the early 70s to get the younger Xavier (James MacAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to find the rogue Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and stop her from assassinating Trask (Peter Dinklage), who designs the Sentinels and whose murder started the development of the machines that would bring about the dire state of the world glimpsed in the opening sequence.  The bulk of the film takes place in the past, and if it has some trouble joining the two timelines, it falls to the old problem of time travel and what affects the future imbroglio that is inevitable in these sorts of pictures. It’s of no real matter, however, as this is an X-Men, and the particulars shouldn’t really bother anyone but the most hardcore of geeks.

Singer’s anti-aesthetic is actually a quite welcome return here.  His direction has always been more functional than anything, but he’s got a good ear for tone (the film nicely balances the grave significance with the lightness that characterized the first two – an antidote to the Nolan-ification of the genre) and more impressively he can keep things moving at a fleet clip without feeling like it’s rushing.  This is no small part a tribute to the screenplay (credited to Simon Kinberg, but there are numerous ‘story by’ credits so who knows) that does two very smart things: 1.) It spends virtually no time at all trying to catch anyone up if they haven’t seen the previous films and 2.) The bulk of the story is set in the 70s and it really boils down to four protagonists.  The future scenes don’t feel grafted on but other than as a catalyst for the plot they’re not that important either, and with most of the mutants introduced in First Class being dead, we’re more or less watching the survivors pick up the pieces.  Not that the arcs of Xavier or Magneto are particularly good – MacAvoy strains a little to reach the depths while still maintain an Xavier-like dignity, though Fassbender excels at being elegantly pragmatic – and Logan is more or less relegated to the role of an observer while the two leads battle over the soul (again) of Raven/Mystique.  There are good sequences scattered throughout, particularly between Xavier and Magneto on a plane, and the twist at a convention in Paris works well enough.  Action-wise it’s hardly spectacular, save for fun little interlude at the Pentagon with Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and the future shenanigans of Blink (Bingbing Fan), whose power echoes the thrilling Nightcrawler opening of X2 but really comes down to a pretty cool version of the video game Portal.

It’s all reasonably enjoyable if a bit underwhelming.  It’s a disappointment that, once again, it basically boils down to “humans have a bad reaction to the discovery of mutants, Magneto makes mutants look worse, and someone shows that mutants aren’t all bad”.  By the time the coda comes around and we’re given some (admittedly, quite sweet) fan service that boils down to stunt-casting, I got the odd feeling that this was a kind of final goodbye and maybe a bit of an apology from the old guard, despite knowing that future installments are right around the corner (one is even teased in the credits).  When the younger Xavier looks into Logan’s future, and he sees clips from the earlier installments, he feels sorry for the pain Logan has gone through.  Logan tells him that there was a lot of bad, but didn’t he see the good, too?  Yes, there was some good, and I can’t imagine a more fitting send-off for the series than the almost total erasure of The Last Stand.  Now please, know that it’s time to gracefully bow and leave the stage.

-M

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