Tuesday, May 27, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I haven't been quiet about my deep loathing for X-Men: The Last Stand. It's a refilling reservoir of hate, and one that wasn't stymied by the insult of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  It's no secret that the franchise went off the rails for awhile, but what's most interesting about the X-Men saga is perhaps its raw persistence.  Where other comic book films are content to drop the issue, retreat, and eventually reboot from square one, the cinematic timeline of the X-Men looks to its roots to solve its problems. When The Last Stand unfurled the massively detrimental Dark Phoenix saga and blew up the franchise as we understood it, some 20th Century Fox executive somewhere wisely decided to begin a complicated excavation process.  Instead of looking forward, they'd look to the past. Where First Class is certainly a prequel --and a flawed one-- it's one that recaptures the upbeat character energy that made watching X-Men enjoyable.  With the stage set, the franchise continued to step forward, moving the twin galaxies steadily towards each other, keeping their biggest star -- Wolverine-- at the gravitational center. They've found a way for everyone to have their cake and eat it, and when all the elements come together, Days of Future Past is time travel at its most entertaining.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is perhaps best described as the Robert Altman ensemble film of superhero cinema. As the cast variations merge, the number of possibilities increases exponentially, and the construction of a storyline with any sort of clarity is a fragile endeavor. By my count, Future Past juggles somewhere between 15-20 possible protagonists at any given moment. Each scene becomes an exercise in controlling our collective focus. That we know where to look, who to follow, and what's happening as we're tossed across time, space, and perspective is something of a feat.  The most unnecessary characters -and the ones we're told the least about- are largely confined to the movie's opening sequence.  For fifteen minutes, the audience is left shrugging in a near-future post-apocalypse.  Monstrous bits of biotech called Sentinels (aren't they always?) have been deployed to carry out a mutant holocaust, and their tyranny has expanded to the killing off of sympathetic humans so much so that Manhattan is left in ruin.

Here, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) is running about with a pack of unnamed mutated magic-blasters for a relentlessly obnoxious special effects blowout. It's a weak scene -exhausting, unimpressive, and confusing.  The scene freezes and flames out in a way so absurdly 2002 that it seems almost deliberate: a hokey evil marking the sea change from the world of The Last Stand to the slicker First Class.  In an epic-level knowledge drop of exposition, Kitty meets up with the elder Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) and they agree to tap into Wolverine's (Hugh Jackman) brain and send his present consciousness back into his 1973 self. His task: find young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), find young Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), and reunite them to stop young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from carrying out the revenge act that triggers all-out war.
While the nuances of Kitty's skill aren't elaborated upon, director Bryan Singer manages the rules of time travel remarkably well.  Wolverine doesn't age, and when he lands in 1973, all that's missing are a couple white streaks and some adamantium. His signature claws are mere bone protrusions. He's intact and ventures on a mission impossible complete with welcome song cues, well-placed lava lamps, and satisfying early encounters. When things get going, the story is as effortlessly entertaining as the set pieces are smart. Singer's return to the franchise is a welcome one, and his ability to lock up the plot lines and weave them through carefully is enviable. Though the early mayhem may be absurd, we're able to understand from it exactly what's at stake on Wolverine's journey. As he comes to know young Charles and Eric, he begins to see first hand how their relationship became so fraught, and the intensity of their ideological approaches to mutation.  Ultimately, this is a time travel film wrapped up in a complicated morality, and the questions it begins to open run far deeper than the initial set-up. What looks like a "beat the clock" story is complicated time and again by disagreements, impulsive acts, and nature. The lines between heroes and villains blur, and it's through the mutants that we scratch at deep questions on what it means to be human.

2 comments:

  1. You totally hit the nail on the head regarding superhero franchises, and their need to reboot completely instead of fixing the root of the problem. I too had my serious qualms with the prior spinoffs (Couldn't stand the Wolverine movie), but going backward instead of forward actually worked to their advantage. There was a bit of protagonist overload, but it got back on track into the first 30 mins or so. Great review! :)

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  2. While entertaining and bolstered by excellent pan-X-Universe
    performances, Days of Future Past is a grimmer, less exhilarating
    chapter in the saga.

    Nadia
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