The X-men Are Back, and Occasionally Better Than Ever, in Days of Future PastPosted: May 28, 2014
Along with Batman, the X-men are my favorite comic book creation, and a great science fiction concept to boot, so it pains me to consider the number of missteps and poor decisions that have gone into the film franchise so far. There are numerous moments (and full films) where the filmmakers were unable or unwilling to commit to what the X-men really are, either in concept or theme. X-men: Days of Future Past thankfully rectifies several of those missteps, but still left me wanting more as a fan of these characters and their world, due mostly to some uneven and messy script work.
Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise is an overall, big-picture success, telling a broad, soap-opera-y scifi story in the way I’d expect from the X-men. But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and those details are a very mixed bag here. It’s a tale of two movies: one is stylish, visceral and full of legit X-men action, but completely lacking in character depth or emotional resonance, while the other does great things with (mostly) well-developed characters, but completely lacks the sort of surface-level touches that make the X-men stand out. The former film lies in the dystopian future, while the latter film lives in the 1970s. Aside from the (surprisingly) great Quicksilver sequence, there’s not much in the period sequences that feels particularly X-men-like, but the smartly crafted future sequences lack the character depth that makes the ‘70s segments so engaging emotionally.
Wolverine is used about as well here as he’s ever been used in the team movies, a major plus: here we see Logan later in his career as an X-man, when he’s fully committed to Xavier’s Dream and believes in the importance of what he’s doing, and puts himself as the heart of the team. It’s a major upgrade over his Reluctant Rogue persona from the first couple of films, and completes a gradual evolution of his character over the last 14 years that Hugh Jackman has accomplished very well. My biggest concern prior to seeing the film was the fact that they’d had Beast reduce his mutation, a move I figured would be a major betrayal of his arc both from the comics and from First Class, but that was actually handled very well. It’s something that is addressed, and addressed harshly, and the point is still made that Hank is wrong to turn away from his true genetic nature.
The most successful part of the film is that the basic conflict between Professor X and Magneto has never been as well-defined as it is here, with Xavier’s fear and Erik’s vitriol expressed perfectly in several key moments. My favorite moment is probably right after Magneto’s rescue, when he berates Charles and Hank for their running away while their fellow mutants were hunted down and killed. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy play off each other perfectly, capturing the sense of a scorned friendship very keenly while also each individually nailing their own uncertainties and frustrations. This plays nicely off the one emotional element of the future sequence, namely the world-weary love between Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, who in limited time imbue a great deal of regret and sadness into the proceedings.
The film doesn’t do right by all its characters though, and the one that is left twisting in the wind the most is Mystique. She’s certainly active, and a driving force of the plot, but the problem is that she’s used as much as a Macguffin and an externalization of Erik and Charles’ conflict as she is as her own character. While Jennifer Lawrence does a lot with the role, she’s much less nuanced in this installment than she was in First Class. Combine that with the criminal neglect that most of the future cast is treated with, and the easy dismissal of most of First Class’ crew, and it leaves the world feeling kind of shallow and limited in the exact way that an X-men story shouldn’t be.
Overall, Days of Future Past is a movie peppered with great moments (the opening Sentinel escape, the Quicksilver sequence, Charles and Erik’s relationship) and dumb choices (the justification of choosing Logan to go back is overtly convoluted, as is Mystique’s Macguffin-y role). It’s a very flawed movie, but one that sets up some great possibilities for the next film in the series, and has (temporarily) restored my faith in Fox’s X-men franchise.