X-Men: Days of Future Past

Future. Past.

So odd to see those strange bedfellows sitting incongruously next to each other, engaged in a playground shoving match for supremacy.

In the comic book storyline from which this seventh X-Men film is liberally adapted (between this and “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” we’ve seen two of comics’ most beloved storylines come to the big screen this year, to middling fanfare), there’s an implied comma between the Future and the Past: “Days of Future, Past.” The apocalyptic future, the title insinuates, is potentially averted, placed in the rearview mirror.

But in the movie, the contradiction is embraced; no comma needed. Let the intriguing future – in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender – and the stalwart past – in the form of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and… Ellen Page? – fight it out. Hugh Jackman’s bulging bicep muscles, the true logo of any X-Men film, will moderate. And go!

X-Men: Days of Future Past can be very bad. The first ten minutes, thrilling action sequence aside, are a mush pile of shoddy exposition and baffling continuity tinkering, a startling smack in the face to anyone who might have cared about Xavier being torn molecule from molecule in X-Men: The Last Stand.

X-Men Days of Future Past can be extraordinarily good. The last ten minutes are so affecting, so moving, that one unexpected shot (yeah, I’m a sucker) actually brought me to tears. A hearty slap on the back for “true believers,” these ten minutes honored fourteen years of pent-up goodwill for these characters. “We may have let the timeline get a little screwy, friend,” they seemed to say, “but we still know how to make you feel the weight of time.”

The year 2000. How many did I love in that far off time (when I was trading Pokémon cards and voraciously reading Animorphs) that I still love today (know where those Pokémon cards and Animorphs books are? Boxes…)? I can count four.

  1. My family: Duh.
  2. Harry Potter: The year 2000 is when I first discovered the books, and fourteen years later I want to see an animatronic Gringotts goblin so bad it hurts.
  3. Survivor: This reality television pioneer just wrapped its 28th season. One of its best yet. I hear your “is that show still on?” jibes. I refuse to acknowledge them as anything other than the faddish thinking they are.
  4. X-Men films: The original two Singer films – once considered pretty untouchable (especially the much better X2) – have come in for a shellacking over the past few years. Why? Maybe because so many other superhero films, from The Incredibles to Iron Man to the Dark Knight, have rendered them sort of passé by comparison. But never underestimate the power these films held as gateway drugs for impressionable youths (such as myself), existing not just as films but as an inviting open door that led to a world filled with Brotherhoods of Evil Mutants and freaky powers and thinly veiled Civil Rights/closet allegories.

The X-Men films always got three characters right – Charles, Erik, and Logan. By association, Logan made other character’s work too; if the love triangle between Logan, Jean and Scott always felt stifled by James Marsden’s and Famke Jannsen’s stiff performances, we couldn’t help but love Jean because Hugh Jackman made clear how much otherwise grouchy Wolvie loved her. This meant her death, even in a subpar film, carried legitimate weight, especially for someone who cared as much about the X-Films as I did/still do. That weight carried the X-Franchise through its “wandering through the desert years,” and now (after a kicky but potentially irrelevant stop at a Mad Men inspired oasis overrun with ascots) we have made it to the other side, safely through the parched plains and back in the lush and verdant forest of high adventure and romance.

As of right now – at least until Guardians of the Galaxy changes the game come August (as I believe it will) – the saga of Logan and Erik (the progression of the X-Men films, and especially the focus of this latest film, back up that focused reading, rendering pretty much everyone else as a side character, with Raven ascendant if only because she’s played by the literal Girl on Fire, Jennifer Lawrence) has completely bookended the cinematic Superhero Age, forming both its definitive starting point (discounting the marginal success of the first Blade) and its current ending point.

The variable quality of the X-Films aside, there is something – something very complimentary! – to be said for this film’s remarkable, nigh mutant, ability to – long after it seemed possible to loop Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen back in for another go in the chair and helmet, respectively – keep the entire saga afloat, honoring the love that exists out there for the original films, while also getting ready to tackle another decade with a set of vibrant, glitzy young actors. It would have been easy and probably sane, considering all that new talent on-board, to ignore the old films (damaged by the reputation of Last Stand and decimated by the reputation of X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and start completely from scratch, as the decision-makers at Sony opted to do with their wallcrawler.

While that Spider-Reboot has been disparaged and is starting to look like a costly disaster in spite of universal adoration for the actors involved, 20th Century Fox has found a way to render all but the most continuity-hungry satiated by putting the series’ original scion – Bryan Singer – in charge of an insane-sounding, mind-bending adaptation of the X-Men’s most famous storyline, which everyone and their mother knew would also serve as an in-continuity reboot in the style of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. But X-Men Days of Future Past, if not quite the film that Star Trek reboot was, one-ups the now-famous reboot maneuver (let’s call it the Kobiyashi Ma-reboot) by actually putting every single relevant actor from the franchise on the screen and giving them something (not a whole lot in most cases, but something) to do.

I’ll allow Darren Franich to speak to most of the flaws (and highlights!) of the X-Films here, in his brilliant manifesto that looks back at all six, but I’ll highlight one as it applies directly to this seventh film: The X-Films had a remarkable capacity for squandering the talents of talented people. Overstuffed as they were with characters brought in mostly for their powersets, they wasted name actors like nobody’s business, and while DoFP still wastes those same actors, back for cameos, it wisely casts largely unknown talents in the roles of its new mutants – Sunspot, Blink, Bishop, Warpath, and a wonderfully conceived Quiksilver who gets the best showcase scene since Nightcrawler BAMF!d the Oval Office – showing off some neat-o mutant abilities while not sweating it too much if they don’t give a full character arc to a walking Portal sim.

Don’t outline Blink’s backstory for me, well I’ll survive; but past X-Films floundered when they gave the same treatment to more prominent team members. Halle Berry, after enough time onscreen to create her own feature-length Storm film in which she would appear in every scene, never found her footing as the African weather goddess. That’s an understatement. (Who’s to say African royalty is even what her cinematic take on the character was supposed to be? The X-Films remarkable capacity for de-ethnicizing fascinating foreign characters – from Storm to Russian Colossus to Irish Banshee – is maybe their most unforgivable misstep.)

After a remarkable opening stretch of X-Men in which she formed an unbreakable bond with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Oscar winner (and Soookie) Anna Paquin largely faded into the background and broke all bonds, getting less and less to do in each film, to the absurd point where she is billed above half the cast, including Ellen Page, for DoFP and appears for approximately one second. Speaking of Ellen Page, it’s probably not the fault of America’s favorite coming-of-ager that the X-Men’s greatest teen identification character, and perhaps the most well-rounded female comic book character ever, was given only one definable characteristic across two films – she has quite the foul mouth.

That the Kitty Pryde game isn’t upped in a story that has been, for its three decades basting in the public imagination, Kitty Pryde’s to own will offend many, and, to be sure, it isn’t promising that a franchise adapting the superhero team most associated with female characters who have something to do (almost all defined by Chris Claremont) just got called on the mat in the above paragraph for three of its most prominent female characters. It may make logical sense (or as much logical sense as these films ever care to make, considering Kitty has, off camera and without explanation, manifested the non-canon power to… phase people’s consciousness through the walls of time?!?) to send Logan back to his 1973 body since that body is identical, minus some gray streaks on the temples; the film truly finds its footing when Logan, a character we know all too well, wakes up on a day he can’t remember and begins to piece together his rag-tag team of proto-X-Men in the days of lava lamps and waterbeds and Roberta Flack. And it definitely makes monetary sense since Hugh Jackman is this franchise’s golden goose. Alas, it is disheartening all the same to watch Ellen Page do nothing more than sob at Wolverine’s temples, trying to convey strength and determination while her boyfriend, Iceman, frets at her side.

Faring better is Jennifer Lawrence, who, since turning into a media supernova from the marketing of First Class to the marketing of Days of Future Past, has been awarded a prime piece of real estate as the shape-shifting Mystique… Which, in a superhero movie, for a female character, is unfortunately the spot directly between two men with more to do. In this case, these men are her feuding mentors-cum-love interests, the drug-addled Charles Xavier, walking but otherwise powerless, and the imprisoned Magneto, locked away for a certain “bent bullet.”

Yet the film goes through great pains to grant Mystique her own agency, forcing her to become neither messiah’s faithful disciple. (Spoilers from here on out.) Through the whole film she has one mission, a mission that, if she succeeds, will cause the dark future we glimpse in the opening, and she gives up on that mission not because she is ordered to do so by the men in her life but because Charles finally realizes he needs to stop treating Raven like his misguided lackey and start treating her like the fragile but strong-willed badass protector of mutantkind she has become in the decade since they last crossed paths.

(He still does this by mansplaining, but it’s powerful all the same. McAvoy is fantastic by the way, finally giving Charles something the dignified Patrick Stewart never could: vulnerability. Evoking the pain a telepath must feel hearing the anguish of others, he’s not as trendy as his 1973 co-stars, but [unpopular opinion alert] he outpaces them, maybe because Lawrence and Fassbender get caught in weird and nonsensical game of “I’m going to kill you first!”)

This film also carries over a dangling thread from the first movie: An ongoing battle over body-image (you like allegory, here’s more allegory) waged between Mystique – who only keeps her true blue form under a Jennifer Lawrence façade when she’s trying to stay under the radar but isn’t afraid to flaunt it when it’s time for an ass-kicking and a droll one-liner – and Beast – who now uses drugs to normalize his appearance, though intense emotion causes this Jekyll to Hyde out. First Class ended with Mystique telling her former paramour – deeply unhappy, as he was, with his furry visage – to be “mutant and proud.” Beast rolled his eyes in response.

In this film, shortly after reuniting, both Mystique and Beast are thrown out into a Paris street in their true forms, and spectator footage captured on an 8-mm camera beautifully shows what it would be like to actually witness two unknown creatures fight a magnetic man in front of a regal fountain. The distance and the historical veracity lends the moment a resonance typical blockbuster filmmaking may not have in that moment. Nicolas Hoult is heartbreaking in that scene, caught in the iron bars of the fountain, captured on all the world’s newscasts in a form he hates. He doesn’t get too much to do outside of that intense instant of body shame – the film really keeps the cast tight for the scenes set in 1973, though it could have been tighter since Hoult’s Hank McCoy is pretty expendable – but he’s worth it for that feeling of melancholy and the way it ties into the film’s climactic image: Mystique, mutant and proud, saving President Nixon and abandoning her quest to assassinate the inventor of the Sentinels. She shows the rapt audience at home what good mutants, no matter how they look, can do – the audience need not know that she may not be quite the hero the American viewer assumes her to be.

The mutants of the future are given a temporary stay of execution because humanity, now aware of the mutant menace decades in advance, might be willing to work something out. (Or work something out with everyone but the debonair sociopath in the helmet who dropped a baseball stadium on the White House lawn and aimed a gun at the President.)

And so a dire future is averted, and with it the continuity nightmares brought on by five X-Films that nobody at the studio expected would be analyzed under a microscope in the Marvel Studios Age of Intensely Planned Tie-In Films. In the back of our mind we’ll still wonder about characters fluid birth dates and ethnicities going forward, but these will be minor concerns as the X-Men franchise forges its own path into completely unexplored waters. Only two potentially interesting characters have had their flames extinguished before their time (Banshee and Emma are supposedly dead, which I guess means no ‘90s-set take on Generation X…) How did Cyclops and Jean meet I wonder? My wish may very well be their command. This time, they might actually remember to make that pairing one to root for, and not one to root against.

And so it is that James Marsden’s very presence is a punchline, stifling Wolverine’s ardor in the moment that brought me to tears – the end of a pan through a golden, flawlessly-executed Lost-like afterlife in the X-Mansion that is actually a time-shifted reality. The payoff is similar to the one that concluded six seasons of Lost – it honors the dedication of long-time viewers by tying up emotional loose ends and investing in characters while ignoring lingering questions about the technical stuff like mutant cures and their permanence. And just as certain character reunions in the Sideways world meant more than a treatise on the importance of Libby or Walt ever could, a single shot of that fiery hair is all it took to utterly destroy me. That shot, and Jackman’s subsequent reaction to seeing his Jean alive and well, could have made an execrable film worthwhile. In this case, it makes a perfectly adequate film (which, devoid of all its franchise tie-in pieces, it is: a nifty summer blockbuster with some period comedy elements and an affecting addiction drama subplot) into a once-in-a-lifetime experience: you only get to see the treasured artifacts of your adolescence tied up in a graceful package so many times in your life. That X-Men: Days of Future has done this while seamlessly (okay, maybe not without any seams) transitioning into its new age bodes well for the oldest and less-venerated cinematic superhero continuity.