X-Men: Days of Future Past
2014 Director: Bryan Singer
The first 10 minutes of Days of Future Past were pure fan service, delivering cool moment after cool moment and making this X-Men fan boy squee uncontrollably.
I’ve largely enjoyed Fox’s X-Men movie franchise (with the exception of The Last Stand which is pure garbage) but I very early on had to separate them from the X-Men I know and love from the comics. The X-Men films were largely their own thing, much more like a conventional action movie than a translation of the storytelling style of the comics to screen. This is fine of course. When you adapt something from one medium to another, changes will occur and that’s a good thing. You also have to remember that X-Men was basically the first film that kicked off the modern age of super-hero films. They were taking a big risk adapting the X-Men and were understandably cautious about many of the things they were trying. Hence the all black costumes, the action scenes which borrow far more from the Matrix than from X-Men comics and the original plot rather than any attempt to adapt an existing comics storyline.
Times have moved on though. Captain America can wear his comic book costume in all its four color glory in The Avengers and no one bats an eye. Super-heroes are common and accepted by audiences now and so you can push the boat on what aspects of the comics you use in your film rather than trying to be conservative.
As such that first few minutes gave me teams of mutants, working together and using their powers in interesting ways! Costumes with colour and that aren’t just black uniforms. Blink! Goddamn Blink in all her pink face tattooed glory. The Blackbird! Sentinels! Iceman using Ice slides! ICE MOTHERFUCKING SLIDES! I was in nerdvana let me tell you.
The scenes with the future X-Men bookend the film but the confidence that you can take the audience further and do more daring things than a conventional action film permeates the rest of the movie. One of my favourite things about super-heroes is the creative ways their powers can be employed and X-Men: DOFP is full of scenes that show this off in startlingly original and visual ways. Blink’s portal powers are stunning and some of the stuff Magneto does is very clever but the real star of the show is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver who gets one of the most unique set pieces in action movie history and absolutely steals every scene he’s in.
There’s more fan-service too including cameos from basically every X-Man to appear in the franchise thus far (the only omissions are Nightcrawler because Alan Cummings wasn’t prepared to undergo the make-up again for a cameo and Angel because everyone wants to forget Last Stand.) and plenty of Easter Eggs.
But the fan-service stuff is mostly confined to the beginning and end of the film. For most of its running time the story it’s telling is at once not at all like the X-Men and actually something right at the core of the franchise.
X-Men: DOFP is of course an adaptation of the seminal “Days of Future Past” story-arc by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. In that tale, Kitty Pryde is sent back in time from an apocalyptic future to stop Mystique from killing Senator Kelly. Kelly was an advocate for a piece of legislation called the Mutant Registration Act and his death increases anti-mutant sentiment which leads to more support for the Sentinel Programme (a programme that builds giant mutant hunting robots) and eventually to the apocalyptic future.
X-Men: DOFP starts from the same premise with a few tweaks. Rather than killing Senator Kelly Mystique is trying to kill Bolivar Trask, the creator of the sentinel programme because Kelly is dead in the movie continuity. Also rather than Kitty Pryde being sent back it’s Wolverine. Whilst I am annoyed that both the character of Kitty Pryde and Ellen Paige’s performance get thrown under a bus in favour of more Wolverine I completely understand the film maker’s decision to use him. He is by far the biggest and most popular character in the franchise whereas most viewers might not even remember who Kitty Pryde is from her brief screen time in X3. Also if we use the mind transfer plot device from the comics then the only candidates for time travel are Wolverine, Magneto and Prof X and obviously the film wants to be about the 1970’s versions of Prof X and Magneto so that only leaves Wolverine. To make up for it Kitty randomly gets new “I can send people back in time powers” that she nicks off Rachel Grey. Because adding Rachel Grey to the movie continuity would have been way more of a headache than was worth it for anyone.
Wolverine doesn’t actually get to do a huge amount in the film though. He gets some nice making fun of the 70’s gags but he’s largely just there to move the plot along after that and have some short character stuff with Ryker. He doesn’t even get into a decent fight scene which seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity (although we do have 5 films of Wolverine fight scenes already). In fact most of the characters in this film exist either to move the plot along or to have a brief cameo and do something cool with their powers. Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask, for example, is supposed to be our villain but he plays basically no part in the climax and has only one direct confrontation with the heroes. He gets juuuuust enough screen time so that he comes across not as a one dimensional villain and Dinklage is one of those charismatic actors that makes their character feel real and lived in even without much screen time.
In fact, the acting in this film is uniformly excellent. The X-Men films have generally been graced with excellent casting as one of their strengths. One of the reason’s the first three worked as well as they did is that old pros like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen can elevate a poorly written script with very well considered performances. DOFP is no different and the film is generally at its best when it just lets two performers in a scene act at each other. There isn’t anything in here to hit the heights of ‘Magneto Nazi Hunter’ but stuff like McAvoy and Stewart’s cross time Xavier meet-up is joyous and McAvoy and Fassbender retain their fascinating screen chemistry.
And it’s a good thing they do because for most of the film this is a triple header between James McAvoy’s young Professor X, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique.
The film set’s these three up as a trinity opposed along different extremes with at various times one character in the centre, generally Mystique. So for example Mystique is the active character for most of the first act opposed to Magneto imprisoned in a cell and Xavier imprisoned in drugs and emotional crisis. Then we get Xavier preaching non-violence in stopping Mystique opposed to Magneto wanting to kill her and Mystique as the target. Or we get Magneto as a proud mutant who wears a costume proclaiming it versus Mystique who is a proud mutant but can hide who she is versus Professor X who is literally taking a drug so that he stops being a mutant.*
The main trinity of course is between Xavier’s dream on one hand, Magneto’s on the other and Mystique in the middle, someone who was part of the X-Men and part of Magneto’s Brotherhood but is now striking out on her own. Xavier tries to win Mystique back to his side, of a dream that mutants and humans will co-exist and that the best way to do this is to set a good example, showing humans they can be heroes and saviours. Magneto argues that humans will never trust mutants and the only way to survive is to instil a terror of mutants in the humans, to set themselves up as rulers so the humans are powerless to attack them. Mystique sits in the middle, wanting a better world for mutants but unsure of the method to achieve it. She is pragmatic and cynical in what she is prepared to do but she has not yet killed to get what she wants, not yet crossed the line into terrorism and it’s the battle for Mystique’s soul that the film really concerns itself it with.
This battle of course is one of the driving forces in the X-Men comics but despite Magneto being in 4 X-Men films to date this is the first one to really concern itself with that central issue. And unlike many X-Men stories where you are inherently on Prof X’s side the film plays fair with it. Magneto’s viewpoint is bolstered by the fact that the future where Human’s hunt Mutant’s to extinction happens, it’s shown to us at the start of the film and despite everything Xavier and Magneto do it still seems to be inevitable. And yet the day is ultimately saved when Mystique chooses Xavier’s path, showing compassion for her enemies and not giving in to violence to achieve her arms. It’s only when they truly give Xavier’s dream a shot that the future becomes a better place.
The 70’s setting gives this theme a rich resonance too with the dreamers of the 60’s the civil rights activists, sexual revolutionaries and of course the X-Men literally destroyed by the Vietnam war leaving a more cynical, less compassionate and more pessimistic America in its wake. First Class did something similar using the backdrop of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the Cuban missile crisis to give the illusion of depth to its story but First Class basically rhymed with history to seem smart. DOFP in contrast has actual themes which parallel history but could also equally apply to today. The whole Sentinel aspect, for example, could be read as a cry to use compassion in winning the war on terror rather than drone strikes.
It’s this thematic depth that ultimately makes DOFP stand above any of the other X-Men films, and indeed most Super-Hero films. I’d still probably rate X2 as the most entertaining X-Men film and the best composed as an action piece but for what its worth I think DOFP might be the best X-Men film now.
It’s not without weaknesses though. A Super-Hero film necessitates action and DOFP seems to know this but to be singularly uninterested in it. Sure enough an action scene comes along approximately every 10 minutes according to some script writing guide somewhere but most of them are perfunctory and devoid of tension or excitement. Mystique beating up the ambassador for example is neither exciting, nor tense, nor an interesting use of her powers, nor building of character. It is a scene that exists purely because we haven’t seen anybody hit something for a while and it’s exactly the kind of Hollywood laziness that DOFP generally avoids. DOFP has three and a half really good, inventive and well shot action sequences but it really needed one more. Still that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent film.
*As an aside this plot point is something of a stroke of genius. Clearly at some stage two production/story problems emerged. Firstly they were going to have one of their main characters in a wheel chair, which causes a nightmare for the production and lots of headaches that I’m sure they’d rather not have to deal with. Secondly Xavier’s power set is so powerful that he could legitimately end the story in about 5 minutes if he was working at full capacity. The plot device that the “cure” for Xavier’s paralysis dampens his psychic abilities not only deals with both issues at a stroke but it adds the idea of Xavier as a kind of metaphor for the downfall of hippies as the 70’s rolled in. His ideals of peace and love have decayed into drug abuse and mental problems. His self-identity as a mutant/hippie/campaigner has been crushed much like the dreams of hippies everywhere were by Vietnam. It’s an inspired McGuffin.
X-Men DOFP is the first example I can think of where a film employs a ret-con. For those who don’t know a ret-con is short for retroactive continuity and it basically means that what you saw before in a story didn’t happen the way you thought you saw it. A good example from comics is Swamp Thing. Originally conceived as Alec Holland, a scientist who was reborn as swamp monster after an experiment gone awry Alan Moore ret-conned the origin so that Alec Holland died and the Swamp Monster created by the experiment merely thought it was Alec Holland.
Other films, especially sequels, have played fast and loose with continuity before and chosen to ignore other films in the series. Superman Returns, for example, is a sequel to Superman and Superman 2 but ignores Superman 3 and 4. DOFP however is the only film I can think of that provides a reason in the context of the story for how one of the previous films you watched, namely Last Stand, never happened. Basically it uses time travel as an excuse to undo the huge amount of damage that disaster did to the franchise. This made me happy, really happy. We might never get a film set in the timeline of the first 3 films again but if the future shown for he X-Men in DOFP is all we get I’ll still be satisfied.
The 70’s setting is realised quite well until we get to the Sentinels who in no way shape or form look a thing like 1970’s technology. They look like I-Pods with guns.
The X-Men films have not been shy of plundering the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for some obscure characters before (First Class had Azazel in it for fuck’s sake from the one X-Men story we all collectively decided did not happen the moment it ended) but I still cannot believe that Ink is in this film. He gets no dialogue and nobody names him or explains his deal but that is unmistakeably Ink. For those who don’t know Ink his power is that whenever he gets a tattoo he gets a new super-power that relates to the image of the tattoo. Now X-Men fans are prepared to accept as part of the suspension of disbelief that mutant powers can give you such diverse super powers as the ability to teleport through space, the ability to absorb other people’s super powers by touch, the ability to make copies of your own body out of seemingly nothing and a million and other powers that shit all over physics and give biology a swirly. However Ink was where we all collectively cried, bullshit. No, nobody has that as a mutant power. That is dumb. They made it slightly less dumb when they later ret-conned it so that Ink didn’t have super-powers, his tattoo artist did, and his power was to give other people super-powers and the tattoos just served to define what power they got. That at least explained how Ink’s body somehow new that the biohazard symbol would make people sick but it was still stupid. Ink was quickly put into a coma and nary a single fuck was given about him since. I honestly can’t find you a more despised X-Man, and yet, here he is.