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Film Review – X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014; Directed by Bryan Singer)

Marvel Studios’ comic-book superhero movie blockbusters have basically proceeded in three parallel streams, at least since their box office ascendance became unchallengeable around the middle of the last decade. The mostly self-contained Spider-man films, the Avengers stable comprising Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and others, and the X-Men series. Perhaps at some point, the necessary corporate-crossover rights will line up and all of these characters will appear in some big screen über-epic in which they band together to fight alien invaders or trans-dimensional flying sharks or Xenu or whatever. But until this happens, causing teenage boys of all ages to spontaneously combust in a mass wave of joyous, orgasmic aspirational-transferential enlightenment, comics fans will have to be satisfied with the sort of proscribed channels of graphic narrative adaptations offered to them by Hollywood.

The Avengers, even if I steadfastly resisted liking the actual movie, demonstrated boldly how Marvel’s patient multi-film build-up could work, and how well it could function artistically and commercially. On its way to amassing more profit than the Southern slave system (exaggerrated and insensitive analogy, sorry, but apt enough consider the dominant themes of the X-property in question), The Avengers combined multiple established comics-film characters believably and, most important to comics nerds, within a mostly unbroken frame of continuity. But as comics writers discovered long ago, continuity is inherently limiting to long-term serialized storytelling. You do something once for dramatic effect or to create conflict or to explore what events might do to a character and you’re stuck with it for the rest of that linear story thread. Hence the innovation of retroactive continuity (or retcon), allowing slates to be wiped clean, Etch-A-Sketches to be shaken blank, narrative conditions to return to a given point where new story threads and departed characters can begin again.

If The Avengers took the comics stand-by “compiled super-team of heroes” concept to the cinema, then X-Men: Days of Future Past is Marvel’s most prominent attempt to bring retcon into the film conversation. It functions as not only entertaining spectacle (though it is most certainly that) but as a strong continuation/sundering of previously-established narrative and character development in this particular slice of the Marvel Universe. It’s serious but not too serious, not tackling themes and ideological undercurrents as big and as resonant as the series reboot X-Men: First Class did but not subjecting those themes to the blithely superior simplifications that Matthew Vaughn’s otherwise solid entry did either. Like the X-Men themselves, it is greater than the sum of its quirky, freakish individual parts. Also like them, it means well even if it does not always do the right thing.

One of retcon’s most useful narrative conceits is time travel. It’s how JJ Abrams got away with re-jigging Star Trek for a hipper ironic age, and it’s how returning X-director Bryan Singer (working from a story by Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Simon Kinberg and a script by Kinberg) reconciles his contemporaneously-set X-Men films (as well as the mixed-bag trilogy-closer directed by Brett Ratner) with those characters’ pasts in First Class, which left off after a mutant-affected outcome to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Days of Future Past, it’s well into the (near-)future of the 21st Century (2020 or so), and the situation on Earth is grim. New York City is largely a ruin, with a sickly-glowing mass-internment camp in Central Park the only sign of surviving civilization. Human distrust of mutants finally seems to have reached a pitch fever-like enough for the normals to unleash sophisticated and deadly robot drones called Sentinels to hunt down and destroy anything with mutant DNA. Unfortunately, their targets also expanded to include humans who might breed mutants, which is pretty much everyone, so, yeah, matters are fairly apocalyptically dire.

Only the mutants who have trained intensely and weaponized their special abilities cling to a tenuous freedom on the run from the Sentinels. The surviving X-Men factions stay a step or two ahead of their relentless pursuers either by buzzing around in a jet or by a more ingenious method with major plot implications: Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her phasing powers to send the consciousness of Bishop (Omar Sy) back a few days before the fatal Sentinel attack on their hiding spot occurs in order to warn their past selves in time to escape it.

Tiring of this cycle of futile fighting and barely less futile flight (recognizable X-People are killed off willy-nilly in these swiftly-retconned realities, because what else is a dark-mirror alternate universe for, really?), the group hatches a desperate plan to end the Sentinel threat with Kitty’s powers at its centre. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart in a floating chair) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) ask Kitty if she could manage to send someone’s consciousness back not a few days or weeks or months but decades; to 1973, to be precise. It was in that year that the Sentinel program was fast-tracked to apocalyptic inevitability by the actions of Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who killed the program’s designer, the remarkably comic-book-named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), at the summit in Paris that led to the end of the Vietnam War. Meant to avenge her fellow mutants that Trask has cruelly experimented on, Mystique’s assassination of Trask gave the program’s genocidal aims broad-based public support and her subsequent capture allowed the Sentinels to assume their deadly function to absorb and utilize the powers of other mutants, the scientific basis of which is her shape-shifting DNA. Got all that? It all has to unhappen or else giant robots will kill us all.

Grandfather paradox time, then, but who to send back on this most vital and confusing of missions? Xavier volunteers, as he stands the best chance to convince her to abandon her plan of revenge, his personal connection to childhood friend Raven being the strongest. Unfortunately, his body is not, and so Wolverine is drafted to have his mind sent back into his rippling, self-healing, non-aging bod of 50 years ago to prevent their grim present from happening. Not the most personally persuasive team member, Logan may seem like a poor match for the task; indeed, it was Kitty herself who went on this mission through time in the original comics storyline. But Hollywood must need have its roguish anti-hero male protagonists, and Jackman’s gruff but droll Wolverine has been a much more developed and consistently bankable character on the big screen, so he has to be the obvious choice.

Put under and teleported into his younger, pre-adamantium-skeleton body in a Matrix or Inception kind of way while his future body is guarded from imminent Sentinel attack in a remote Chinese monastery, Logan dons some 1970s lapels and embarks on a “putting-the-team-back-together” sort of quest. Unlikely to convince a younger Mystique who’s never met him to listen to his message, he seeks out the two younger men she might well listen to, since they are smitten with her: Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The former is indeed former, as in no longer a professor. His school for mutants youths collapsed after the Cuban business, Raven left his fold for Magneto’s fledgling Brotherhood of Mutants, and even his telepathic powers have deserted him as a result of his addiction to a serum that restores his ability to walk after the spinal injury suffered at the end of First Class. Only Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) has not deserted him, keeping up his serum supply and nursing a common heartbreak: Hank too had some puppy love feelings for Raven, and his attempt to cure her of her mutation afflicted him with the blue-skinned Beast mutation that is his secret shame.

The lunatic is on the… wall?

Logan does get Xavier and McCoy on board, and they form a classic 1970s-vintage caper team to get Magneto on board as well. Turns out old Erik Lehnsherr simply cannot stay out of trouble: he’s been imprisoned in a super-high-security non-metallic cell beneath the Pentagon since bending the bullet that killed JFK in Dallas in 1963 (he tells Xavier that he was trying to save Kennedy, who was a mutant himself). Enlisting the aid of a mischievous, super-fast juvenile delinquent mutant named Peter Maximoff (the future Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters), they engineer a jailbreak, though Peter does most of the work. One of the film’s most delightful sequences follows him as he zips about a subterranean kitchen, impishly re-arranging the guards, bullets, and airborne knives that seem suspended in time relative to his blazing speed.

Lehnsherr takes some convincing to join the quest, mostly on board Xavier’s private jet (a good quarter of the movie seems to be set there), but he agrees to cooperate for the greater good of mutantdom (though the terms of his cooperation, as always, are entirely his own). The motley foursome of Logan, Xavier, Lehnsherr, and McCoy quite publically fail to prevent the Paris Peace Accords from becoming an incident that is non-beneficial to mutants, however. Trask survives Mystique’s attempt on his life, but his Sentinel Program is fast-tracked anyway by an alarmed President Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho; Nixon impersonations in bad makeup are a comic-book movie trope by now). McCoy, monitoring the post-Paris news on a sprawling piece of self-engineered machinery that monitors “all three networks, and PBS” (an episode of the original Star Trek series plays pointedly behind him, though NBC had cancelled it by the 1970s) speculates that timelines cannot be changed, and that their actions may only be ripples in an ever-flowing current leading to a deep reservoir of disaster.

Quantum physics won’t stop them from trying to change the future, however. Xavier rouses himself from his drugged torpor and uses his long-dormant telepathic abilities to track both Mystique and Magneto to Washington, D.C. where these less-compromising mutants plan separately to crash the launch of the Sentinel program. Mystique still just wants Trask dead, but Magneto’s plan is much grander. Without giving too much away, it involves hijacked prototype Sentinels, the bunker beneath the White House, and the movie’s most spectacular set-piece: moving RFK Stadium to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Okay, that probably did give too much away, but to properly discuss this movie, spoilers are a necessity. Raven is convinced by Xavier to turn away from her assassination of Trask at the latest possible moment, which simultaneously wipes out the dire future reality and saves the remaining X-Men from the Sentinels about to finish them. It also quite head-spinningly restores the contemporary X-timeline of the first film trilogy to a new re-set beginning, where not only the X-Folks killed by Sentinels but also those who perished in The Last Stand are alive and well in Xavier’s school.

All of this timeline jiggery-pokery has considerable consequences for future X-Men movies as well as retconsequences for previous ones, as Darren Franich lays out at EW.com. It essentially means that most of the key developments of The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (as well as a few of those in the other X-films) are either undone or prevented from ever happening. Few fans of the material will shed a tear at the retcon memory wipe of those two middling, ill-loved films, but this demonstrates a previously-unappreciated ability of retcon: to erase the narrative implications of critically and commercially inferior onscreen efforts (ask poor Ang Lee about that).

Behold, humans. These are the consequences of voting Republican!

Behold, humans. These are the consequences of voting Republican!

Days of Future Past is hardly artistically inferior, indeed quite the opposite. Its action and spectacle outstrips any of the series’ previous high-water-mark sequences, the characters’ interactions are rich and nuanced (Jackman and McAvoy have a weirdly appealing chemistry that makes me hope they one day appearing in something meatier together, and of course Fassbender, Hoult and Lawrence are way better than this material too), the various themes and meanings clear and compelling without being heavy-handed. A moment in the Paris scene demonstrates how gracefully Singer segues from action to ideas and back again: Beast jumps at Magneto and holds him underwater in a fountain to keep him from killing Mystique (thus preventing a dark future in his usual clear-cut manner), but the metal-master uses the sculptural tendrils in the fountain to pull his attacker off him and leaves him bound and exposed before a gawking, shocked crowd (some of whom film the mutants on Zapruder-like handheld home-movie cameras). Days of Future Past is far from Hank McCoy’s movie, and his shame at his genetically-marked difference is given much less play than it was in First Class, but in a passing beat, it’s given a revealing moment in the sun.

As mentioned, however, the bigger ideas that suffused First Class are less prominent here. Vaughn’s film was no less than a superhero-movie allegory for the post-Hitler social and political dialectical order of the democratic world, with Xavier as the liberal-humanist West and Lehnsherr as something like wounded, discriminated-becomes-discriminator Israel. Singer does not focus these beams of meaning as Vaughn did, nor does the misfits vs. conformists dichotomy clustered around the young Mystique and Beast burst forward often. The Vietnam War comes up but the movie has nothing worthwhile to say about it. The Sentinel element of the story quite obviously invokes Nazi-derived directives of racial purity, with Dinklage’s eerie Trask a mustached American-capitalist Joseph Mengele. But then that sort of thinking is fairly uncontroversially agreed to be wholly wrong, unlike the subtler and more insidious cycle of prejudice against and discrimination of difference that X-Men titles generally invoke.

Days of Future Past is certainly a more ambitious and probably a more enjoyable X-Men entry than First Class, even if it gives the sweeping political possibilities short shrift. It’s a big, strong superhero epic that is much more of a victory lap for the genre’s blockbuster ascendance than The Avengers managed to be, and its application of retroactive contuinuity demonstrates how comics-style storytelling practices can operate in a very different medium saddled with much greater practical, aesthetic and commercial challenges than comics are. If it can’t quite properly be dubbed triumphant, that’s not for lack of trying (indeed, it may be for excess of trying). Even if the consciousness-time-travel element leaves dangling uncertainties (which Wolverine in which time remembers what, and are they really the same Wolverine or separate ones?), Days of Future Past is a satisfactory and even superior superhero film. And more importantly for Marvel, it sets the stage for multiple sequels and spin-off possibilities, allowing both comics narrative methods and comics movie production to expand their potentials. With the exception of the Sentinels, everybody wins.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. February 11, 2016 at 12:32 pm
  2. June 9, 2016 at 8:53 pm

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