Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Grade: 69/B

At a point where the vast majority of Marvel Comics films have become homogenous (and the one that isn’t is terrible), X-Men: Days of Future Past feels like a breath of fresh air. Many of its contemporaries have become extended trailers with the appearance of comic book crossover storytelling. Days of Future Past is a rare film that actually plays with its characters history in a comic book fashion, for better and worse.

Utilizing one of the comic’s best-loved storylines, the film begins in a dystopian future in which robots called Sentinels hunt mutants. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) plans to use the powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send his consciousness back to 1973 to prevent the shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Sentinel-inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), thereby convincing the humans of the need to use the Sentinels. But the process could kill a man without the power to self-heal, so Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back instead to reach the younger versions of Xavier (James McAvoy) and his friend-turned-nemesis Magneto (Michael Fassbender playing the young version of Ian McKellen) to change history and save their friends, mutantkind and the world.

It’s a lot of plot, but director Bryan Singer, returning after an absence post-X2 that sent the series into a brief spiral, handles the material confidently. After a creaky handful of exposition-heavy scenes, the film kicks off a fleetly-moving section of Jackman, still wildly charismatic as Wolverine, rounding up a group of not-always-willing mutants, from Fassbender’s cold Magneto to McAvoy’s boozy, self-pitying version of Professor X and Nicholas Hoult as his loyal right-hand man Hank “Beast” McCoy. Jackman’s relationship with McAvoy is particularly strong, as we see a reversal of the mentor/frustrated loner dynamic that served as the center of Singer’s first X-Men film.

Singer also conceives some dynamic set-pieces (again, a boon when put alongside its cookie-cutter competition), starting with an opening of the surviving X-Men running from the Sentinels in the future through the aid of Blink, a mutant with the ability to create portals to teleport. There’s also a terrific failed assassination that grows more complicated when one character’s true motives are revealed, and a scene in which Xavier and Wolverine have to break into the Pentagon to bust out an imprisoned Magneto. That sequence is aided by the appearance of the super-fast mutant Quicksilver, played with punkish glee by Evan Peters, and the best use of slow-motion in quite some time.

Singer can’t totally avoid the pitfalls that even his best film, X2, fell into. One of the greatest strengths of the X-Men comics is the number of rich characters the writers have to draw on, but there’s only so much time to devote to them even in a 2-hour-plus film, so a number of mutants inevitably wind up being little more than cool special effects (though that might be preferable for Halle Berry’s eternally blank take on Storm). Singer also remains an occasionally indelicate writer and director, from his tendency to lay the “we were young/different people” dynamic for Xavier and Magneto pretty thick to his continually exasperating choice to have Mystique transform into herself in moments of subterfuge, especially when it’d put her in danger, for the benefit of those who either forget Mystique can transform or else need Katniss Everdeen’s face to show up in at least 55% of the movie.

Days of Future Past has its own share of problems. Everything looks far too sterile, blurry whenever the action gets too fast, and difficult to make out in the night scenes. The film’s use of its 70s period, meanwhile, is broad and desperate when it turns to comedy (lava lamps! Water beds!) and on-the-nose when mixing fiction with historical figures. True, the film’s influences (James Cameron and the original Star Trek series, both heavily referenced) and source material were rarely subtle, but by the time both JFK’s assassination and the missing 20 minutes on Nixon’s White House tapes figure into the story (and Nixon himself becomes a supporting character), it does feel like the film is straining for relevance.

Yet for all of the film’s missteps, Singer juggles the different time periods with a deft hand. He never loses touch of the film’s emotional core: Fassbender’s Magneto, a defender of his people turned tyrant; McAvoy’s fallen hero Xavier, embodying the post-60s loss of hope; Lawrence’s Mystique, another idealist turned jaded killer; and Jackman’s Wolverine, the rogue and tortured hero redeemed by the work of his friends, and ready to do the same for them. The film’s belief that nothing is set is particularly heartening when put alongside the grim determinism in the latest Spider-Man. Redemption is possible (though not a given), and dependent on the choices of the characters rather than the mechanisms of the plot. In a time where superhero sequels are more a fact of life than something to look forward to, X-Men makes the prospect of a follow-up seem promising again.

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