Sunday, 25 May 2014

We Need You To Hope Again: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Henceforth known as DOFP) always sounded like one of the most ambitious superhero films in some time. Bryan Singer- who helmed the first two X-Men films- would be directing and via two time periods- and a time travel plot- unite cast members from both the original trilogy and cast members from X-Men: First Class (Henceforth known as FC). The film was also said to be correcting the continuity errors that have plagued the franchise, and many thought the much derided X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine would be retconned out of continuity.

What's most surprising about the DOFP- now that it's been released- is how straight forward and small scaled it is, relatively speaking. While it has several standout set pieces DOFP is more of a character drama than an epic action blockbuster. This is somewhat disappointing since I was hoping for a film that felt bigger in scale. However, taken just as a story DOFP feels like both an organic expansion to the original trilogy and sequel to FC 

The film opens in the dystopian future of 2023. Mutant hunting robots called Sentinels have killed many mutants and the humans who have helped them.  A band of mutant survivors led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) devise a plan to send Logan/Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), once Xavier's surrogate sister Raven, from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Trask had suggested the idea of Sentinels to the US army but they rejected the idea. When Mystique killed Trask this prompted the US to move forward with the Sentinel program. Mystique was captured after Trask’s assassination and her DNA was used to upgrade the Sentinels so they could adapt to any mutant power.

Wolverine's consciousness gets sent back to 1973. There, he has to convince the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) to help stop Mystique. Wolverine’s mission is complicated due to Xavier being a broken man, both in spirit and body. Xavier was paralysed at the end of FC, lost his friend Erik Lehnsherr, (Michael Fassbender), now going by Magneto, and Mystique. Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters was shut down due to the Vietnam War draft. Hank McCoy (Nicolas Hoult) has created a serum that allows Xavier to walk but eliminates his telepathic powers. Hank takes a similar serum to control his “Beast” form. Hank is like Bruce Banner/the Hulk in this film. The Beast only comes out when he gets angry.

The concept of Xavier choosing to walk over being able to use his powers intrigued me. It also provides a firm character arc for Xavier throughout the course of his film. He eventually has to accept the chair and embrace his gifts so he can change history.  I also think it’s neat how Hank has a somewhat similar character arc to Xavier. Hank, like Xavier, is keeping something about himself locked away. As the film progresses he has to embrace the Beast inside him. The whole concept of Xavier and Hank essentially being recluses in a rundown mansion is also tragic and a tad amusing. I wouldn’t mind eventually getting a short film about these two guys’ lives. I really liked Hoult in FC so I’m glad he's a big part of the film.

I was surprised when McAvoy was first cast in FC. He didn’t strike me as the Professor X type. But seeing him in FC and now DOFP he’s become one of my favourite cast members in this franchise. He’s not trying to be Patrick Stewart but you accept him as a younger, more “rough around the edges” version of the man from the original trilogy. In this film McAvoy pulls off both the broken man and the man who finds his purpose again- going down the path to become the Xavier of later years.  There’s a touching scene where Xavier, via reading Wolverine’s mind, communicates with his older self. The older Xavier tells him he needs “to hope again.” It’s a fascinating conceit, the older Xavier essentially helping his younger self become the man he’s going to be. And I think the film pulls it off beautifully, giving the scene real emotional pathos.

Fassbender continues to be a powerful presence as Magneto. We learn he's been locked in a concrete prison (Magneto can control metal) for killing President John F. Kennedy. The film jokes that Magneto being the assassin is the only way the trajectory of the bullet that killed Kennedy makes sense. What Magneto reveals about his role on that day in Dallas is also a nice little joke that I won’t spoil.

To break Magneto out of prison, Xavier, Hank and Wolverine need the help of Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who has the gift of super speed. There were many who hated the look of Quicksilver in this film but he turns out to be the highlight of the film. Peters has a great oddball comedic sensibility. The sequence where we view an event from Quicksilver’s point of view- as time slows downs while he speeds up- is both visually wonderful and charming. The song choice for the sequence- Jim Croce’s “Song in a bottle” is perfect. Fans know Quicksilver is Magneto’s son in the comics and there's a sly reference made by Quicksilver that Magneto is his dad. I wish that Quicksilver was in the film more. I think the filmmakers didn’t want the film to be too comedic. Or, like Shakespeare with Mercutio from Romeo & Juliet, they didn’t want Quicksilver to run away with the entire film.

I’m a little mixed on Lawrence’s performance. She’s a good actress but I don’t feel she fits the femme fatale role. However, she handles the emotional beats of the character. Her performance is consistent with the character from FC and her Mystique mostly works as the middle grown for the character between FC and the original trilogy.  

I know many don’t like how Wolverine centric these films have been. I agree with this criticism but I do think Jackman owns the role and it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else playing the part after Jackman retires. And while Wolverine is an important character in the film his presence doesn't takes away from Xavier.

Character-wise, Xavier and Magneto needed more screen time together in both the 70s and future scenes. In the 70s we see that Xavier is angry at Magneto for corrupting Mystique but we know there’s more to their conflict than Mystique. Putting too much focus on her as the root of Xavier’s hostility somewhat trivializes the relationship between him and Magneto. Their different philosophies are what caused their separation. That needed to come to the forefront. Old Magneto gets a great moment later in the film when he implies to old Xavier that he regrets all the years they’ve spent fighting. It would've been great to learn more of how this war has affected their complex relationship. 

As to be expected in this franchise, several characters do get shafted, particularly the characters in the future scenes. The newly introduced mutants such as Bishop (Omar Sy) and Blink (Bingbing Fan) hardly get any dialogue or development as characters. I do like Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, even though she may be a little too Ellen Pagey. Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), who was established in FC, appears briefly but his role feels superfluous, almost as if he’s just there to let the audience know where he was and then move on.

For me, the film would’ve been stronger if the future scenes were as fleshed out as the 70s scenes. Even though the opening of the films vividly shows us what the this world is like for mutants I feel there should’ve been a more active story happening in the future, with more time dedicated to seeing how the mutants operate in this future. It’s also somewhat disappointing that the future scenes taking almost entirely in one location.

From a cinematography standpoint the look of the future is gorgeous (Newton Thomas Sigel, who did the cinematography for X1 and 2 returned to the franchise for this film). I know that's an odd way of describing a post apocalyptic future but I really loved the atmosphere of those scenes. When we’re in the 70s the film does give off an authentic 70s vibe. The use of camera footage of events made to look like footage from that time period is a fine touch.

I’m going to get a little spoilery in discussing this film’s approach towards the franchise's continuity. We live in an age where franchises like Spider-Man, Batman- and next year’s Fantastic Four- just start over with a blank slate. On the flip side DOFP reboots the X-Men franchise within its own continuity. The outcome of DOFP's plot is similar to J.J Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. In both cases time travel is used as a device to create an alternate time line where new stories can take place and pre-established events can occur differently. It’s a risky but arguably more intriguing way to approach the whole idea of a “reboot.” However, I think there are still some continuity hiccups. And the biggest drawback of the film may be that it’s partly a long form version of fan service. Nevertheless, I think the film still works as a cohesive and meaningful story on its own terms.

I know many feel Singer’s directorial approach to the X-Men franchise doesn’t have a place in today’s landscape of superhero films. I understand this point of view. Singer’s X-Men films- including DOFP- aren’t as “comic book on screen” as a film like The Avengers. But what I admire about Singer as a director of superhero films- both X-Men and the heavily criticized Superman Returns- is he always puts a heavy focus on the humanity behind the super powers. All four of his superhero films have real weight and emotion to them. While the climax of DOFP is a set piece the story resolves itself with Xavier trying to convince Mystique, with whom he grew up, to make the right choice. Near the ending Hank mentions the immutable theory of time. This theory states that you can never truly change the future. The timeline will always correct itself. The film sides with the opposite idea, that the future can be changed- and even the past.

Whether or not you enjoy DOFP will depend on how you feel about this franchise- and Singer’s X-Men films in particular. If you’re tired of this continuity then this film may just be a chore. If you love this franchise with all its ups and downs- and if you’re like me, grew up with the first two X-Men films- then DOFP has the potential to touch you deeply. There'll be an undeniable nostalgia factor to the film for many. DOFP is a loving tribute to the X-Men franchise but it’s also a bittersweet goodbye- and an exciting new start.

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