Monday, May 26, 2014

Marvel Finally Gets Its Perfect Film With X-Men: Days Of Future Past!

The Good: Acting, Character work, Plot, Special effects
The Bad: Minutiae
The Basics: Mixing all of the best elements of the franchise, X-Men: Days Of Future Past resets the mutant section of the Marvel Universe with unparalleled success.

For all of the complaints that some might have with films based on DC Comics properties, the writers and directors of films from that comic book company have managed to succeed where Marvel Enterprises has failed. Twice. Those adapting DC Comics properties have managed to make two perfect films, which is a rarity and an exceptionally hard thing to do for action-adventure/science fiction/comic book genre films. And yet, for all the issues with making a movie that tends to rely upon trying to balance a story fans will love with creating a self-contained film that holds up independent of allusions to other films or books, to date, DC Comics properties had yielded the best results with The Dark Knight (reviewed here!) and Watchmen (reviewed here!). With the release of X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Marvel Enterprises finally scores a film that is damn near flawless, is thoroughly entertaining, and provides a compelling dose of character development and larger thematic elements to make a statement worth experiencing again and again.

To be fair to Marvel, the X-Men films have been some of the most consistently wonderful films based upon comic books; from Bryan Singer’s first dalliance in the universe fourteen years ago, the characters became a platform for discussing broader themes of alienation, prejudice, and fear. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of X-Men: Days Of Future Past is how the film is constructed as a time-travel movie that is remarkably devoid of temporal problems and makes some of the most successful and rewarding allusions to prior films in the franchise. Is X-Men: Days Of Future Past dependent upon all of the X-Men films that preceded it? Yes and no. Yes, if one wants to get the richest possible experience out of viewing the film; no, in that the film ultimately acts much like Star Trek (reviewed here!) did to reboot that franchise. For the Star Trek franchise, there is a Universe 1.0 and a Universe 2.0. In a similar way, X-Men: Days Of Future Past ultimately introduces the X-Men Universe 2.0 to viewers. It is worth noting that X-Men: Days Of Future Past is loosely based upon the graphic novel Days Of Future Past, which I have not read; this review is purely one of the film.

Opening in a bleak future in Moscow where a small band of surviving mutants are hunted by Sentinels (robotic/organic killing machines that absorb the abilities of the mutants they fight to learn how to better kill mutants), the world has become a dark and desperate place. Most of humanity is dead (as the Sentinels zealously killed the humans who carried the genes that could give rise to future mutants) and mutants like Storm, Blink, Colossus, Bishop, Warpath, Sunspot, Kitty Pryde, Wolverine, Magneto and Professor X represent some of the last of mutantkind. After what appears to be a losing battle in which only Kitty Pryde and Bishop escape, the surviving mutants rendezvous in China a short time earlier. Kitty reveals to Logan just how they accomplished their “escape;” during the battle, she sends Bishop’s consciousness back in time a week or two in order to let their small band know where the Sentinels will hit them and when and they manage to evade the Sentinels by using Blink’s portals to simply not be there. Xavier and Magneto, hearing this and seeing its success, realize that this same technique has the potential to prevent the rise of the sentinels in the first place. To that end, they want to send a consciousness of a mutant back to their earlier body to stop Mystique from getting captured by Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the Sentinels, so he can never develop the adaptive technology that leads to the new wave of Sentinels. Unfortunately, Kitty is fairly certain that Xavier’s mind would never survive the trip back in time because of the mental torsion that comes with her technique. Logan, however, with his incredible healing power, could survive the trip, so he volunteers to be sent back to 1972 to try to save the world. The two catches: his body must be kept alive in the future long enough for him to succeed in his mission and he has to reunite the younger Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr.

Arriving back in the early 1970s where he is shocked to discover that the technique worked, Logan sets about to finding Xavier. While Logan heads to Xavier’s estate turned school for gifted youngsters, Mystique breaks a team of American mutants being used by the U.S. military out of Vietnam, where they were being sent home to be experimented upon by Trask. Trask, for his part, tries to sell the U.S. government on his nascent Sentinel program, but finds the Congressional leadership unwilling to spend money to create a weapon to use against American citizens. Logan finds that Xavier is disillusioned and is living at the school with only Hank McCoy. Having lost everything, Xavier is little more than a drug addict, as he has started to use one of McCoy’s treatments which allows him to walk, but at the cost of his telepathic abilities. Logan details his plan to try to save the future and even comes up with the means to get Erik out of his maximum security prison far underground at the Pentagon. After managing to convince Logan and Xavier, the trio picks up a mutant (Quicksilver) and they spring Magneto. Magneto quickly becomes game to find Mystique and in France, at the peace conference that would end the Vietnam War, Logan’s team encounters both Trask and Mystique. The stakes are raised in the past as the attempt to stop Mystique goes sideways and Trask gets a sample of what he needs, which breaks apart the alliance between Eric and Charles, while in the future, the team protecting Logan’s body is besieged by Sentinels!

There were several points in X-Men: Days Of Future Past where I found myself wondering if Bryan Singer and the writing team could pull off the concepts they were trying to present. For a time-travel film, the movie has remarkably few issues with temporal mechanics. In fact, it even has a built-in safety that is never addressed within the movie; if the first attempt to send Logan back fails, Kitty could send Logan’s consciousness to a few weeks earlier and try again! But three things stood out as potential sore spots that the writing team and Bryan Singer manage to adeptly pull off. First, from the moment the meeting in France falls apart, the characters are stuck in a clusterfuck of mistakes. Team members turn on one another, Trask gets a blood sample, and Logan’s consciousness slips back out of his body. The amazing thing is, even as all of the plans in the past go horribly awry, the film manages not to feel like a huge mistake. Instead, the characters keep pressing forward and innovating to adapt to their new circumstances and the brilliance of that is that it makes what could be a comedy of errors into a film intensely motivated by the characters. On the character front, X-Men: Days Of Future Past takes a turn that is reminiscent of the cave scene in The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) when it stops all of the action dead and moves for a philosophical conversation between the two Xaviers. The right turn in tone manages to work because the character’s journey is finally rectified in a sufficient way; Xavier can only rise to the heroic heights he needs to with help from himself and the infusion of personal strength plays out in an innovative way. Finally, the moment Magneto starts using his massive power to lift a stadium into the air, my stomach sank with the feeling that the entire sequence was going to be a pointless digression only to serve the needs of fans of extreme special effects. But there again, Bryan Singer pulls the sequence off (and I’m proud to say I figured out the purpose of the sequence moments before it was revealed!).

One of the problems with films based upon the X-Men has always been that there are so many characters to service and fans are bound to feel that some characters they might care about are getting the short end of the story. Cinematically, the X-Men films have largely (smartly) focused on Logan (Wolverine), Charles, and Erik (Magneto) above all the others. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is much the same, save that Magneto’s part is minimized in favor of adding more Mystique. For sure, Magneto is present, but much of his part in the film is to battle for Raven’s soul. Mystique has an actual character arc, fighting like an underground resistance fighter to an outright terrorist/assassin to a hero for her cause for which she is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. The character balance in X-Men: Days Of Future Past is sufficient to make for strong arcs for the main characters, though there are some elements that are hard not to miss. Most notable of those is the character of Rogue, whose footage was excised from the film months ago in order to get into the action earlier. Sadly, we shall have to wait months for the DVD/Blu-Ray release to confirm the theory that the body that a young scavenger finds in a pile in New York at the film’s outset is, in fact, Rogue’s (Rogue dying in the film’s early moments would justify the implicit relationship that Kitty Pryde now has with Iceman). Nicholas Hoult as the young Beast is given a truncated arc that makes him mostly into Xavier’s sidekick (without the chance for him to have any reflective, emotive, moments with Mystique). Most of the thrill in X-Men: Days Of Future Past on the character front comes in the form of cameos of X-Men past and present (even Emma Frost is given a nod if one watches the special effects closely as one of the final Sentinels seems to have her abilities!).

That said, the character journey of Charles Xavier roots all of the fantastic elements of X-Men: Days Of Future Past in a profoundly human journey. Xavier is essentially experiencing the holocaust that Erik Lehnsherr always warned him about and that Magneto fought to prevent. That Xavier’s only chance to help save the future and prevent that holocaust means that Wolverine must appeal to him at a time when he was the least hopeful makes for a compelling story in which a disillusioned man must learn to feel hope again. Amid all of the wicked cool special effects sequences and character turns, the story of Charles Xavier’s hope being rekindled grounds the film incredibly well.

By contrast, Wolverine’s journey in X-Men: Days Of Future Past is largely only appreciated by fans of the franchise. Wolverine is essentially a plot tool in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, but the climax of his journey is one that completely justifies the faith viewers have in the franchise. In that regard, X-Men: Days Of Future Past truly rewards fans of the franchise with payoffs to little moments seeded in earlier films. Magneto’s final line in X-Men: The Last Stand might have been paid off by the mid-credits scene in The Wolverine, but it entirely justifies his place in the future scenes of X-Men: Days Of Future Past as a full ally of Xavier’s. One of the few niggling continuity issues (in franchise, as opposed to in-film) is how Wolverine got his adamantium claws back (he lost them in The Wolverine and the mid-credits scene in that film pointedly illustrated that he did not get them back).

On the acting front, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is exactly what one would hope for. The cameos are wonderful and returning cast members do amazing jobs of reclaiming the roles they are known for. Omar Sy and Bingbing Fan are nice additions to the mutant mix as Bishop and Blink, though they are not given much to do – Kitty Pryde works on Bishop and Fan’s presence is nowhere near as impressive as the special effects used to illustrate Blink’s powers. Quicksilver is cool and he is performed with the film’s most comic presence by Evan Peters. And while Bolivar Trask might be presented with something of a monolithic fa├žade, Peter Dinklage makes him entirely watchable. Even Josh Helman brings enough moments of suspicious eye movements and calculated tone to his deliveries to sell the menace of Stryker in his younger form.

The real moments given to the performers are given to James McAvoy (Charles Xavier in 1972) and Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) to pull off. And they do. McAvoy plays Xavier with a tormented quality that we have not seen from Professor X before and yet, he manages to make the character feel like the same one that was introduced in X-Men: First Class. There are few films that so successfully find a previously likable and empowered protagonist wrestling with such crippling defeat and pulling it off the way McAvoy does as Xavier in X-Men: Days Of Future Past. He does this with a slouch and stare that sell the lost man who is essentially an addict and he plays it well.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Raven and whether she is in full blue make-up or essentially herself, she is given some of the key emotional moments in X-Men: Days Of Future Past and she knocks them out of the park. Lawrence plays Raven as strong and internally motivated with great posture and a sense of dignity that radiates from her. She embodies the “mutant and proud” slogan her character mocked in the prior film. But the key for her range comes in a scene that could simply seem to be an answer to plot questions fans of the franchise had. When Mystique learns the fates of the mutants who accompanied her and Erik after the Cuba incident, Lawrence plays shock and sadness wonderfully and Mystique is shaken to her core without the actress delivering any lines.

Some have said that X-Men: Days Of Future Past is inaccessible to non-fans, but the film is strong enough on context clues to answer all of the questions new viewers might have. Just as the film does not make explicit what Bishop’s mutant power is - it can be inferred enough through what happens to him to allow the viewer to enjoy his brief time in the film – the key elements of Charles’s lost nature, Logan’s pining for Jean Grey and even Erik’s rage are presented in a clear enough way that their characters make sense. Ultimately, X-Men: Days Of Future Past uses its broad canvas to tell a story that burns through its two hour, ten minute runtime at a lightning pace and makes viewers pine for more. Hopefully there will be a Director’s Cut that restores more footage to X-Men: Days Of Future Past; between that potential and the promise of the next sequel on the heels of one of the best franchise-ending scenes in all science fiction film history, fans have much to be excited about for the future of the X-Men franchise. But in the wake of a time travel movie that looks back and intimates about the future, X-Men: Days Of Future Past reminds us to enjoy the now and this is just the film to enjoy now with!
For other movies based upon the Marvel comic books, please check out my reviews of:
Guardians Of The Galaxy
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro
The Wolverine
The Avengers
Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance
Captain America: The First Avenger
X-Men: First Class
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Spider-Man 3
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Blade: Trinity


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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