Movie Review

Film Review: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014): X Hits the (2nd) Spot

Michael Fassbender Jennifer Lawrence X-men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) Film Review, a movie directed by Bryan Singer, and starring Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, and Peter Dinklage.

X-Men: Days of Future Past resorted to arguably the second most famous & beloved story in X-history. Given that X3 ruined what was arguably the most famous & beloved tale – The Dark Phoenix Saga – I suppose it was a risk worth taking. To my great relief, however, they didn’t blow it, this time around. They didn’t get it quite right, either, but neither did the first two films. Frankly, expectations had gotten so low, since the gut-to-chin combo of X3 & X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that there was much to appreciate about Days of Future Past.

A particular pet-peeve of mine: when great stories peak at the sequel, then dip (if not tank) with the third installment. The Godfather 2, X2, Spider-Man 2, Aliens, T2, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back – really, when Revenge of the Sith counts as an exception to the rule, you should be able to imagine my frustration.

That said, I couldn’t help but think back to Superman 2, and how the powers-that-be tried to erase what came after, by attempting to tack on Superman Returns to that highest point of Supes’ cinematic career….

So Days of Future Past sort of accomplished that basic idea, and let’s never speak of Superman Returns again.

While being better than the franchise low points is note worthy, Days did bring some of its own merits to the screen. Besides effectively bringing X-Men: First Class into the fold, Days managed to change the source material in a way that made sense for its cast, any number of new mythologies, and, quite frankly, the franchise bottom line. With one detail, they made the Sentinels a threat worthy of the big screen; they created a sub-plot of mutual interest to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Beast (Nicholas Hoult)), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) – forcing them together, in the past (such cooperation being a given, in the future); and paved the way for a possible shift in character focus, to one many fans had already considered the greatest (and most wasted) asset of the franchise, already.

The set-up to the stakes involved was effective enough; taking us back to the Terminator contemporary that was the original Days of Future Past. The upgrade to the future Sentinels, however, made the last stand, around the story’s time traveling champion, kind of epic. No one held back, no one died stupid, the very least I can ask for in an epic last stand.

In the past, historic events, since First Class, had left a mark on that film’s cast of characters. In a world where Mutants became subject to the draft, and Magneto demonstrated his power over man’s metal based weapons technology, the way was paved for Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) to reset the course of Human evolution. With a view to a unified Human race, in the face of Homo Sapiens being replaced, Trask was essentially a death merchant without borders. Recognizing him as such, but more intent on paying him back for his ghoulish research on Mutant subjects, Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), meant to launch her future career, as Mutant assassin & terrorist, with Trask’s murder. Mystique then became the key subject of the film, as the enabler of the future horror, and the one that prevents it by choosing a nobler path. A nobler path offered to her by Charles, Erik, and Logan; but not everyone agreed as to what constituted nobility. Still, Days managed to anchor the future of all mankind to the future of Mystique. An ambitious goal, given the nature of her powers, the effect it has had on her character, and the fact that she may be the one Mutant that elicits as much satisfaction from being bad, as she does for her strength of character.

There was a real danger of a kumbayah conclusion, for a bit. In what would have been an almost ironic twist, to Trask’s musings over Homo Sapiens coming together to stave off extinction, much of Days was spent getting the franchise heroes & villains on the same side of history. With Toad (Evan Jonigkeit) & Havoc (Lucas Till) pitching in to take on a young William Stryker (Josh Helman), to start, Magnus (I prefer Magnus when he’s showing off) taking a last stand with the future X-Men, and the balance of the film focused on reconciliation, between Erik, Charles, and Raven, Days almost succeeded. What a shame that would’ve been.

With all apologies to Xavier, Optimus Prime, and the other fictional representatives of the real word paradigm, set by the likes of Gandhi or MLK, audiences don’t flock to stories like X-men for the happy endings (although what you do with your date to the showing is your business). We come for the conflict – with conflict resolution serving as the destination to what should be a fun ride. The Matrix trilogy opted to reconcile Man & Machine, making Smith the singular fall-guy and Neo a martyr in the process, just to keep things interesting, but the end result was a cop-out.

Thankfully, Days stopped just short of redeeming everyone, and not everyone who was redeemed received a clean slate for it. In other words, the X franchise got to keep its heroes & villains at odds. You get more conflict, and you get more conflict – more conflict for everyone!

There were no real villains to the story itself, only menace. Bolivar Trask, in true Stan Lee fashion, was just another would-be savior, convinced that the ends justify the means. That effectively made him the Homo Sapien equivalent of Magneto; but without the Sentinels, he merely represented the cause of horrific effects. The Sentinels, themselves, were impressively realized in their ultimate, future incarnations. The source machines were constantly upgraded brute force soldiers, with only one – Nimrod – capable of outmatching any given Mutant. In Days, each would be a Nimrod in its own right, proving as lethal in single combat as the originals were en masse; but this was the future to be prevented. The first model Sentinels were as much a shadow of a threat as Trask. The greatest menace presented by Days was Stryker. We already know his place in X-history, and until Sabretooth/ Lady Deathstrike are redeemed, his connection to Wolverine gives him a secure position in the franchise rogue gallery. Unlike the other X-villains we’ve been introduced to, so far, he has also been proven irredeemable; so Days served to give us a glimpse of what went into the making of the Mutants’ greatest Homo Sapien threat.

With Days more about preventing a universal threat, rather than confronting it, any X-fans interested in seeing a true villain – not just an adversary – that isn’t tied directly to Wolverine, will have to wait for the next installment. Days of Future Past may have remedied some of the damage done, by X3 & Origins, but the next X-Men film will determine whether the franchise should continue, and whether it will finally get a villain worthy of all Mutants – not just Wolverine.

As for the nominees, in the category of most redeemed character, I suppose there is no getting around it – the Wolverine has to be addressed. In a lot of ways, Wolverine has become as much the cash-cow to Marvel comics, as Batman has to DC. Unlike Batman, however, Wolverine can be regulated to a specific corner of the Marvel universe – the X-verse. Nobody puts Batman in a corner. Unfortunately, Fox’s control of the X-verse makes Wolverine the default center of the universe. With Hugh Jackman having appeared in every X-film made, and Logan being the center of attention in all but one (First Class), a degree of Wolverine fatigue is to be expected.

Well, the bad news is that Logan gets the pole position, yet again; assuming the role, as the fulcrum to events, originally given to Kitty Pryde in the source material. The good news is that he makes the most of it. Jackman brought a certain self-awareness to the part; insomuch as he had become synonymous with the character, this Wolverine seemed to understand his limitations, both as a key player, and as part of the big picture. He may have been the fulcrum of the plot, but he hardly stole the show. Both the character, and the actor, took a noticeable step back; serving as blunt instrument to the key players of the past, and anvil to the future forgers of that past. Maybe it was Jackman’s way of acknowledging both his age, and the aging of the role. Maybe he, and the powers that be, wanted to acknowledge that someone else in the cast was now the ranking Hollywood name attached to the franchise….

I suppose points should be given to Charles Xavier. Rendered useless in the future, against a mindless foe, and trading his powers for the use of his legs, in the past, Xavier relied more on his own personal inner strength & charisma, than his powers. Of course Logan had to first get past his rendition of Sgt. Pepper Mutant, by way of Timothy Leary. You may have noticed that his character had always been sidelined, during the original trilogy (left comatose, in X1; trapped in an illusion, in X2; killed off, for X3), as a way of getting around the sheer supremacy of his abilities. By getting his hands dirty, this time around, not only was the need to take him off the field negated, but he was able to play the part he had always spoken of. A representation of the indomitable spirit inherent to all Humans, that must serve to foster co-existence. This Xavier worked for his living.

Magneto did justify his continued place as the franchise’s principal antagonist. Particularly representative of the Stan Lee model, of villains being heroes with a looser tolerance for collateral damage, the twin towers of McKellen & Fassbender redeemed the character as both hero & villain. Fans of the good fight got a good showing from Magneto’s future stand. Those with sympathy for the devil got the “by any means necessary” commitment that always made Erik the mirror of Charles. Frankly, they should have seen the payoff coming with the first appearance of the chess board. There were moments of heavy-handedness, however, that undercut his own efforts to control the future; so no gold prize for Magneto.

That honor clearly goes to Mystique. While some in the audience found her oddly overrated, in the first film, by the second, she had earned her bones among uninitiated fans. Through what was retroactively her rematch with Stryker, the first real questions about Wolverine’s stature, in the franchise, began; and her ousting, in the third felt like one of the harder blows delivered to fans of the series. Although she played a central role in First Class (elevated into a triangle with Charles & Erik), with Days, Mystique got the kind of attention she deserved.

I could be cynical about it, and cite the rise of Jennifer Lawrence as having something to do with it. She may be the most bankable talent in the cast, at the moment, and this could have all been a promotion meant to secure her continued participation in the franchise. Even if that were the case, I’d say the plan played out nicely. Fans calling for the spotlighting of her character got what they wanted, fans wary of Wolverine fatigue may have appreciated the shift in character focus, and the adjustments fit together in a way that worked for the film. Lawrence may not cut the same serpent-like form as Rebecca Romjin, but she did bring considerably more depth to the role. While her turn in First Class did not endear her to every fan, here, she managed a balance. The insecurities that defined her role in First Class was mitigated by a drive for revenge, and the need to be free of both Erik & Charles’ influence; the limits to the increased (and still impressive) physicality of the role mitigated by her previous internal conflict, and the fact that she was still mostly an amateur (her fighting ability does come naturally).

In the end, Mystique was redeemed in much the same way Magneto was; but she deserves more credit. Unlike Magnus, who had a good word put in for him by his future self, Mystique got to keep her bad girl cred, even as she was mistakenly hailed as otherwise. Sympathizers can take heart that everyone owes her gratitude; the bad-ass aficionados can take pride in her not wussing out, in the process. She may even have a new role to play in Wolverine’s history; but before fears of Wolverine fatigue start rearing up, again, ask yourself: who better to help shape the future of the X franchise than a shape-shifter? If your answer is: the biggest, baddest shape-shifter of them all, then you may share my raised expectations for what comes next.

Ellen Page has also come up in the World, and her character, Kitty Pryde, was the original center piece of the story; but while those two factors guaranteed Kitty’s place in the Days film, the reset to Logan left her in a role that seemed oddly reminiscent of Page’s ingenue from Inception. I could be alone on that one. Among all the supporting future characters, however, I must say that Blink (Bingbing Fan) deserved as much an MVP award, tactically, as Kitty did, strategically. Certainly Magnus, Storm (Halle Berry), and Bishop (Omar Sy) were heavy hitters, Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Sunspot (Edan Canto) acquitted themselves well, and Warpath (Booboo Stewart) was essential, but no one mastered the battlefield – and its combatants – like Blink did (this would be where I say I’m now a Fan of Bingbing… but I’m not going to). The demonstration of her powers reminded me of that first look at Nightcrawler in action – further tying Days to X2; but the real highlight of Days was a shot across the bow to any plans DC might have for the Flash.

Pietro Maximoff (Evan Peters) positively stole the show, even if he did just quickly run in & out of the story. I suppose an effect of this kind was intended for Gambit, back in Origins, but between Pietro’s exhausting pace (Aspergers to the Nth), and the gorgeously operatic demonstration of his powers – from his perspective – a little of Maximoff went a long way. I remember some concerns being raised about Peters looking too dull-eyed for the part, and y’know, he kinda did. Seemed pitch perfect to me. How long would you last, being forced to do everything in super slow motion, before all the life drained out of you? The point where his eyes sparked to life, at the mention of a cut-loose challenge, not only spoke well of the characterization, but also the character’s initial draw to Magneto’s way of seeing things (there was also an aside to lineage, but that gets left on the table – along with the other Maximoff cameo).

Peter Dinklage continues to be the little man that casts the biggest shadow. His portrayal of Bolivar Trask brought a familiar self-consciousness & restrained contempt, but from a different angle. Trask was not being looked down upon because of his physical stature, but because he was the smartest kid in the room. In the tradition of Poindexter & McNamara, Dinklage seemed to anchor the portrayal on the notion of the nerd still having to twist arms in a room full of jocks. I can only imagine that there must be some sort of love-hate sentiment, towards Dinklage, in the Little Person community. He is undoubtedly the Hollywood face of that community, but also the guy that will take any role he wants away from other Little Person applicants. Tell me, if there were to be an Alpha Flight film, who would be the first person you’d imagine playing Puck? How about if Oberon shows up somewhere in the DC joint cinematic universe? It is to his credit, but he could overtake Chris Evans, as Mr. Comic Book Character, by cornering the diminutive character market.

Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen brought all the grace and gravitas, to their roles, as can be expected of elder statesmen of the stage at the final curtain call. While only Xavier enjoyed face time with his younger self, the elder Magneto still managed to play off of his. Even as Days assured us that the character of Magneto will remain a villain, for the franchise’s new future, McKellen’s version reminded us why Xavier was no fool for never having lost faith in Erik. As for their younger selves, McAvoy seemed better suited to the burnt-out believer (and Days‘ tripper) than his previous turn as the earnest dreamer. There is a fury behind his eyes that just made First Class Xavier seem uncomfortable in his own skin, but not this one. Fassbender managed to take the Mckellen Magneto’s dramatic flair and turn it into a real sense of personal style. The retrieval of his signature helmet seemed to pay tribute to one of McKellen’s finest moments (the X2 breakout scene), but damned if he didn’t cut the most stylish figure since Jack Nicholson‘s Joker.

I suppose something should be said about the resolution to Days, as it did go to great lengths to prove just how restorative the film was to the mythology established by the first two X-films. As it seemed to pose the question of what the World according to Wolverine now looks like, and Mystique’s role in shaping it, I’d rather not think about it as what may be in store for X-Men. The future of a stand-alone Wolverine franchise, maybe (fix Sabretooth & Deathstrike, already), but not X-Men, and certainly not after the best installment since X2.

Best since is still not perfect, however. Of the many problems I noted, there were a few that went beyond simply offending my fan-boy sensibilities. As with First Class, the past events of Days were tied to a historically specific event (the Vietnam war, this time around). So how old was Toad by the time of the original X-Men, and will there be any effort to link Alex (Havoc) & Scott Summers (because, again, the age thing)? The powers-that-be cited future Kitty’s age as deal breaker, regarding sending her back to her 70s self; they should have put more thought into the relative ages of the franchise’s other established players. There was also the matter of Quicksilver’s age, relative to his upcoming Avengers role; but I guess that’s not Fox’s problem. In the future, Kitty was injured, affecting her role in the story, but not in a way someone like, say, a doting Iceman couldn’t help with. I couldn’t help but notice that young Stryker was missing the southern accent of the two previous, older incarnations. I did not appreciate the killing off of key characters that could not be undone by the plot. Losing the made up members of Erik’s original crew was one thing (although one loss, in particular, leaves the origin of Nightcrawler in question, again), but they wrote off key members of the X-verse with just a mention. Such a waste.

Anybody else thought Days‘ Nixon looked more like NJ Governor Chris Christie? Still better than the guy in the Point Break mask for Watchmen.

At some point, Xavier’s baldness needs to be explained… or his younger head of hair (“Long, beautiful hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen….”); but that’s more of a curiosity, than a concern.

X-Men: Days of Future Past may have been just the thing to wash away the gagging taste, and bitter after-taste, that was X3. Unfortunately that was not enough. Days may have stabilized the ailing franchise (making The Wolverine the one that got it to the hospital, I guess), but it may be too soon to know if it will ever walk again. A reboot trilogy, from First Class to Apocalypse, that harkens back to X1 & 2, while cleaning up the rest? I’d buy that for a dollar. However, that would mean we are technically at the second installment. Is this where the reboot peaks, or will the complete franchise be redeemed by what comes next? At least Bryan Singer has earned the right to get a second shot at a third chapter (welcome back, Singer. As long as no one mentions you running off with Cyclops to film you-know-what, it’ll be a nice reunion). However the next film reflects on this one, X-Men: Days of Future Past drawing parallels to X2 is one for the win column, I’d say.

8/10

 

About the author

Sam Joseph

Sam is an Avid consumer/observer of Geek culture, and collector of Fanboy media from earliest memory. Armchair sociologist and futurist. Honest critic with satirical if not absurdist­­ wit with some experience in comics/ animation production.

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