A Review of X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men is probably one of the few superhero franchises I actually like. There are certain films in other franchises that have earned praise from me, but this is one of the few (baring the unforgivable Origins: Wolverine) that is consistently worth watching.

Certainly not all of the films have been great (see The Last Stand for proof of that) but all of them have some level of subtext in play. I’ve seen arguments that the mutant gene represents homosexuality. I’ve read countless debates about how Magneto is Malcolm X and Charles Xavier is Martin Luther King Jr. Or that the whole thing is an examination of the McCarthy hearings. All of that actually makes sense. But beyond that, the franchise can still surprise me with its characters and plot. Not only is there a staple of new mutants that can be introduced (and they usually get the best scenes), there is always a lot of ways to bring out the best in existing characters. They work in both a large ensemble drama and in a stand alone action film (like in The Wolverine). And even though the series is now almost 15 years old, the narrative is still holding together.

Days of Future Past, based on the very famous comic. The film doesn’t follow it but I can see why director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg wanted to use it. It’s not only a great example of speculative fiction, but also the culmination of what hatred can produce…and how we as a species can stop our civilization from descending into madness.

The films starts off about nine years into the future, with the few surviving X-Men, including Kitty Pride (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Storm (Halle Berry, who has four or five lines in the entire film), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and Magneto (Ian McKellen) all fighting the Sentinels. These are the famous giant robots who have been programmed by inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) to kill mutants and those who may eventually breed mutants. Professor X comes up with an idea that it was Trask’s assassination by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence wearing only blue body paint) that lead to the creation of the Sentinels and the current world they live in. He uses Kitty’s power to (somehow) send Wolverine back in time to 1973 and stop this future from happening. Wolverine must recruit the younger counterparts of the team – still Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), along with Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Also, there is a new mutant character with super speed named Quicksilver, who is part of the best scene in the film.

Part of the fun is seeing how the younger characters introduced in First Class grow up into their weathered selves. Professor X was a particularly troubled show. His past self has found a way to walk again, but at the cost of his mutant powers. He is torn by the fact he failed raise Mystique properly, and now practically lives as a drug addict. It was an interesting contrast, but I think I preferred Magneto’s story. He’s still cartoonishly evil at times, but at least we get that sense how. Being accused of killing JFK will do that. Still, it’s fascinating to see how two men on the opposite ends of the moral spectrum can still be friends – and to examine whether or not the villain may have a point.

The better super hero movies try to examine what “fighting for the right thing” means and what “right” is. Magneto may be a monster for trying to kill President Nixon, but what about Trask? Even Congress incredulously asks about how “weapons that target our citizens” can be morally justified. It’s easy to see how killing Trask would be considered a logically sound conclusion – and equally easy to see how it isn’t. In fact, it’s hard at times to see how the X-men can prevent the disastrous future. The first act ends with them stopping Trask’s assassination, but it only makes things worse and makes them look like monsters.

The performances are…well they’re not noteworthy, considering the talented cast that has been assembled. But they do show characters who are carrying a heavy burden. Lawrence, in particular, is even more conflicted than McAvoy. She realizes how much better she could be if she did evil things, but is afraid to carry them through. It’s great that a character who started out as a secondary henchman has become such a strong character. It’s why I like these films.

Days of Future Past is not perfect. There are some significant gaps between the films that have not been explained, like how Magneto got his powers back. Certain characters (like Toad) or introduced or reintroduced in the first act, but are forgotten by the end. There is too much exposition in the dialogue, especially when someone has to state that homo sapiens is the scientific name for humans. You really think that someone doesn’t know that? Actually, please don’t answer that question.

I also have mixed feelings about how it ends. I won’t go into details, except to say that a few characters appear who shouldn’t be in any condition to show up and walk around. I imagine it’s being done to keep everything fresh so they can make more movies (others Fox will lose the rights to Disney) and it does make sense that a film about time travel would have an affect on events from previous films. But that sort of narrative, which is used far too often in comic books, takes away any impact characters have in shaping their own destinies and prevents me from caring about any of them. When death is a temporary thing, who cares if a character makes a heroic sacrifice?

Still, that’s in the comics, so I can’t fault Days of Future Past for creating that narrative problem. And the good far outweighs the bad. Days of Future Past appeals to the usual popcorn audience while being very smart.

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