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Movie Curiosities -- X-Men: Days of Future Past

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A few weeks ago, Sony released its attempt to take on Marvel and the big bad Avengers superfranchise. And their approach of "safe and marketable" worked out pretty well, until Amazing Spider-Man 2 lost the #1 slot to Neighbors within a week, and then fell even more sharply in the wake of Godzilla (2014). So now it's Fox's turn. For the purposes of this review, let's ignore that Fox still has Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer. Fox doesn't even need them to be ahead of Sony in this game. After all, Sony may have an impressive rogues gallery to play with, but they still only have one superhero. Spider-Man is a very impressive superhero, to be sure, but not even his franchise can possibly compare with that of X-Men.

This may very well be the single most expansive franchise in comic book history. It's comprised of heroes, villains, and secondary characters that number in the hundreds, if not thousands. X-Men's fifty-year history has seen dozens of comic book series and spin-off titles, and that's not even counting the various alternate takes in movies and television. There is so much material here that everything about X-Men could probably be spun off from Marvel and stand as its own comic book company. In other words, it might just be the only established comic book property out there that could stand a chance against Marvel and DC/WB. And of course, that's exactly what the people of Fox are betting on.

Consider that X-Men and Spider-Man both reinvented superhero cinema at roughly the same time, and both begat film series that continue to this day, though both series were rebooted about a decade after they started (by way of The Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men: First Class). The difference, of course, is that the original Spider-Man trilogy has been left in the dust, and Sony is only now developing spin-off films. Compare that to the X-Men franchise, which can already claim two spin-off Wolverine films in addition to its original trilogy and rebooted timeline.

And now, Fox wants to use the classic "Days of Future Past" comic storyline to bring all these different, often contradictory films into a single continuity. By way of time travel. To Fox's credit, it's a plan so ambitious and crazy that every other studio out there would probably shit themselves at the thought of pulling off something like it.

But of course, not even such a huge mutant mash like this one will be enough to keep the rights in perpetuity forever. Fox has already announced their plans to use the landmark "Age of Apocalypse" storyline as the basis for the next X-Men movie, and the spin-off films will keep on coming as well. Another Wolverine spin-off film is in the pipeline, and development is ramping up on long-gestating spin-off films for Gambit and Deadpool (Channing Tatum is confirmed to play the former, and Ryan Reynolds is still attached after all these years to play the latter). Mystique is also in line for her own spin-off film, now that she's being played by an Oscar-winning It-Girl. Finally, there's been word about a film adaptation of "X-Force," the X-Men comic book offshoot created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza in the 1990s.

There are, however, two problems. The first is a recent series of sex abuse allegations against X-Men cinematic mastermind Bryan Singer. He's already distanced himself from Days of Future Past while the allegations play out, and it remains to be seen whether the franchise will have to go on without him. The second problem should look familiar to anyone who read my review of Amazing Spider-Man 2.

  • X-Men: $157 million domestic
  • X2: X-Men United -- $214 million domestic
  • X-Men: The Last Stand -- $234 million domestic
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- $179 million domestic
  • X-Men: First Class -- $146 million domestic
  • The Wolverine -- $132 million domestic

I find it quite interesting how the domestic grosses kept growing under the original trilogy, then sank like a stone between the double-whammy of X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins. Of course, worldwide grosses are an entirely different beast and that's probably where Fox is finding the money to keep the franchise afloat. Still, those domestic grosses show a very clear trend of diminishing returns, and the people at Fox would be fools to ignore that. No matter how Days of Future Past does worldwide, it'll be much harder to justify bankrolling all those sequels and spin-offs unless the stateside trend reverses.

And so -- as Sony did with Amazing Spider-Man 2 -- Fox has spared no expense in promoting this movie to the hilt. Yet Fox has several advantages. For starters, Spider-Man director Marc Webb had contractual obligations to Fox Searchlight, and Sony was so desperate to have their web-slinging director that they agreed to help promote DOFP in return for letting Webb go (hence the DOFP clip some of you might have seen in the end credits for ASM2). Yes, the people at Fox are so diabolical that they got help from their competition. I don't care who you're rooting for in this superhero movie battle royale, that had to hurt.

Even better, Fox is working with a stronger release date, since they get to open their picture after Marvel and Sony have already had their say (and Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't come out until August). It's also a holiday weekend, which is crucial. And last but not least, Fox gets to bring back the director who made this franchise a hit. Hell, if this film comes anywhere near meeting Avengers-level expectations, Singer had the chance to potentially reinvent superhero cinema a second time.

Though I wouldn't say Singer met that incredibly high standard, and though Days of Future Past has some very prominent flaws, there's no denying that it is in fact a damn good movie.

Our story begins about a decade into the future. For the past few years, the world has been overrun by giant machines called Sentinels that hunt down anyone with the merest shred of mutant genetics. Even worse, these Sentinels are so advanced that they can absorb and imitate the powers of mutants they encounter. Naturally, the mutants are waging a resistance against the Sentinels, and they're losing badly.

This whole doomsday scenario traces back to 1973, when Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) was just starting to shop his Sentinel ideas to the bigwigs in Washington. Trask is turned down until he gets killed by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), which proves that the mutant threat is no longer some abstract faraway concept. Even worse, Mystique's DNA is reverse-engineered and becomes the basis for the shifting and imitating technology used in the later Sentinel models.

So, back in the dystopian future, the mutant resistance hatches a scheme to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, of course) back in time to stop the Sentinel invasion before it begins. Though it's actually just his consciousness that gets sent back in time. The idea is that 1973 Wolverine spontaneously wakes up one day with all the memories and personality of his 2023 self. It makes a lot more sense in the movie, I promise. It's also worth noting that 1973 is a time before Wolverine acquired his adamantium skeleton, which naturally comes in quite handy against Michael Fassbender's ruthless portrayal of Magneto.

The premise opens itself up to a number of plot holes, but a lot of them are dealt with quite nicely. Why is Wolverine sent back in time instead of someone else? Because Wolverine's oh-so-convenient healing abilities make him the only one physically capable of travelling that far back in time safely. What's to stop him from trying again if he fails? Because until he succeeds in changing the future, his body is still laying dormant in 2023. One minute of scrambling to stop Mystique in the past is one minute of laying unconscious and defenseless in the future. Which means that Old Logan has to hurry up and get the job done before the Sentinels catch on and find out where he is.

Unfortunately, there are a boatload of plot holes that aren't dealt with nearly as gracefully. To start with, Shadowcat (Ellen Page, reprising her role) is the one who sends Logan back in time. It's never explained how she can do this, or why she's the only one who can. Also, I think back to the ending stinger of The Wolverine and I have absolutely no idea how we went from there to the dystopian 2023 witnessed in this picture. More to the point, if so much happened between The Wolverine and now, why did everyone wait until now to try this plan?

Then we have the continuity glitches. For those who don't remember, X-Men: First Class showed that the James McAvoy version of Charles Xavier grew up with Mystique. And this connection is explicitly mentioned by the Patrick Stewart version of Prof. Xavier. So the childhood connection between Xavier and Mystique went completely unmentioned through all of the first three films? Bullshit. Such a damn shame the original trilogy has to get itself tied into knots to justify something in First Class that never should have happened to begin with.

Speaking of which, there's the matter of Cerebro. When McAvoy-Xavier uses Cerebro in DOFP, it's quite clearly not the one he used in First Class. It's the one that Stewart-Xavier used in the original trilogy. I have no idea when one was supposed to become the other. I can understand subtle visual tweaks (Magneto's helmet looking more like the original trilogy version than the First Class version, for example), but this is a much bigger deal and I'll tell you why: McKellen-Magneto and Stewart-Xavier designed their Cerebro together. Magneto helped build Cerebro. That was a huge goddamn plot point of the first two movies. And the way DOFP lays out the timeline, there's no possible way this could have happened. Really, what the fuck?

Oh, and remember Emma Frost? The mutant that the Brotherhood broke out of prison at the end of First Class? Yeah, there's no mention about what happened to her. It would've been nice to get direct confirmation on that matter, but I assume that she was killed along with pretty much every other mutant who appeared in First Class.

Though the cast is massive, the story really only boils down to Wolverine, Charles Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, and Bolivar Trask. I won't bother commenting on Jackman's Wolverine, Stewart's Xavier, or Ian McKellen's Magneto, because what would be the point? They've been playing these roles for over a decade, and they're as perfect now as they were perfect on Day One. Similarly, Fassbender's Magneto is more of the same suave, cold-blooded badass we saw in First Class. Simply awesome.

McAvoy's Xavier, however, merits a bit more discussion. It seems that Xavier's school has fallen into disrepair, since many of his students and employees were drafted into the Vietnam War as a covert means of gathering mutants to experiment on. The only one left at Xavier's side is Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who's developed a serum that allows Xavier to walk again. The only catch is that Xavier can't use his telepathic powers while on the drug, but since his telepathy makes him more sensitive to the pain of others around him, Xavier calls it a win-win.

Basically, Xavier is a man crushed under the weight of his own emotional baggage. He's lost so many friends and allies that he'd rather die alone than risk losing anything else. Xavier is also afraid that there's no chance of things getting anything but worse, which ties nicely into the film's strong predestination theme (because of course a time-travel film deals with fate). Xavier's development arc is all about learning to hope again and inspiring hope in others. He must also learn how to embrace his pain and fear, as well as the pain and fear of others, and find a way to make all of that his strength. In short, this is the movie when Charles Xavier starts learning how to be the leader that Homo superior needs him to be.

As for Bolivar Trask, I can honestly say that this character surprised me. I was expecting Peter Dinklage to be good, for starters, but I was not expecting him to be great. I was also expecting Trask to be a much more two-dimensional bigot, and he turned out to be far more interesting. See, while Trask does show concern for growing mutant dominance, that concern isn't an end in itself. No, Trask is much more interested in using mutants as an omnipresent threat to all of humankind, and not just one particular country. He seeks to bring about world peace by uniting all nations against a common foe. That's certainly a novel take on the central "human vs. mutants" concept, especially when presented (however subtly) at a time when the Cold War is in full effect.

Finally, there's Mystique. I'll grant that her shapeshifting ability is incredibly useful, and her childhood connection to Xavier (bullshit though it was) means that she has a very compelling conflict of loyalties between Xavier and Magneto. That aside, there's absolutely no reason why Mystique's part had to be as big as it was. The plot put a disproportionate amount of importance onto this one character, most likely to capitalize on Jennifer Lawrence's star power. Lawrence puts in a good performance, don't get me wrong, but it's not enough to properly earn a place next to Jackman, McAvoy, or Fassbender in their roles. Those actors have thoroughly owned their characters in a way that Lawrence hasn't yet. Not for lack of trying, of course.

Aside from the core five leads (seven, counting both versions of Magneto and Xavier), the film is loaded with supporting characters worth precisely jack. Storm, Colossus, and Iceman (respectfully played yet again by Halle Berry, Daniel Cudmore, and Shawn Ashmore) could have been swapped out for any other mutants or cut from the film entirely and nothing would be lost. Newcomers Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Bingbing Fan), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), and Sunspot (Adan Canto) contribute absolutely nothing but spectacle. We get return appearances from Havok (Lucas Till) and Toad (now played by Evan Jonigkeit), but I wouldn't have missed them if they weren't there.

Mercifully, we have two major exceptions. The first is Maj. Stryker (now played by Josh Helman), the very same man who would later turn Wolverine into an adamantium-boned powerhouse. It was interesting to see where this character came from, and Helman plays him just barely well enough to be something memorable. The other big one is Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who gets maybe fifteen minutes of screen time in total and crushes every moment. Peters very effectively sells his character as a snarky kleptomaniac, getting plenty of laughs and fantastic action scenes before wearing out his welcome.

Yet Quicksilver still falls prey to the same question I kept asking of all the support characters in this film: What if he had been replaced by a different character? As far as I can tell, Quicksilver could have been swapped out with a young Nightcrawler and nothing would have been substantially different. For that matter, Beast never does anything in this movie that couldn't have been done by, say, Cyclops or Jean Grey.

I understand if it sounds like I'm being overly harsh; it's hardly unusual for a movie to have tons of disposable supporting characters around five main leads, and a lot of films have done more with less. That said, this was supposed to be the big X-Men showcase. This was supposed to be Fox's big chance to gather tons of mutants -- all played by proven and talented actors -- into one place to really show what they could do. For a film to take that much potential and promise only to waste it on disposable characters and five artificially inflated leads is something of a disappointment.

For comparison's sake, consider X2. Somehow, miraculously, every character in that film got at least one chance to shine. Every mutant was there for a specific purpose and pretty much all of them were well-developed by way of their own storylines and fight scenes. Though X2 wasn't bogged down by so much slipshod continuity to reconcile, it also had a sense that if a single character had been replaced or cast differently, it would have been a completely different movie. This is why, ultimately, I still think that X2 is the best film in the franchise so far.

With all of that said, however, putting a core group of characters front and center to tell a single cohesive story is still way, WAY better than throwing a dozen undercooked plotlines against a wall to see what sticks. That's the trap ASM2 fell into, and this very easily could have been another case in point.

Moreover, I can't stress enough that the five main characters are all really damn good. Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen put together comprised the vast majority of what made the original trilogy so great, and First Class would've had nothing if it didn't have McAvoy and Fassbender. These are the greatest actors in the franchise so far, working under the greatest director in the franchise so far. Leaning on the film series' most powerful assets while putting them together in a new and ambitious configuration like this picture did was a very bold move with results that were compelling to watch from start to finish. Though the addition of Peter Dinklage certainly helped. Seriously, when the weak link of a main cast is Jennifer freaking Lawrence, that's saying a lot.

As for Bryan Singer, good God, was it amazing to see him kick ass again. I thought the guy had lost it between Superman Returns and Jack the Giant Slayer (the competent yet forgettable Valkyrie notwithstanding), but then he comes back and directs the hell out of this movie. Singer directed a time-travel movie that stays coherent even while alternating between timelines, and that would be a great accomplishment in itself. But Singer also shows tremendous skill at presenting the action scenes, effects sequences, and the character drama. The comic relief is perfectly placed, the fight scenes are delivered with impressive tension (Wolverine's pesky immortality notwithstanding), and the emotional conflicts of Xavier and Magneto -- young and old, with each other and with themselves -- hit their mark hard.

Also, Singer brought John Ottman back into the fold. His editing skills and musical abilities were dearly missed.

All that's left now is to discuss the aftermath. Without getting into spoilers, this film pretty much completely rewrites everything released before First Class. The original trilogy's timeline is still there, but it's quite recognizably different. Whether or not we'll spend any screen time exploring it is anyone's guess. There's also an end-credits stinger, but it doesn't have a thing to do with any film in the franchise so far, and anyone who isn't already an X-Men geek won't make heads or tails out of it. Basically, the stinger is a completely non-essential reward for those patient enough to sit through all of the credits. The way a stinger should be, in my opinion.

X-Men: Days of Future Past succeeds by virtue of being incredibly well-made. The action is solid, the effects are great, the time-travel plot is coherent (if loaded with plot holes), the lead actors are all extraordinary, and the internal drama of the main characters is still compelling. This isn't the massive intra-franchise crossover we were promised, but that's only because Fox didn't dump six movies and fourteen years of continuity into a kitchen sink and throw it at the screen. Instead, the approach was to cherry-pick the greatest and most memorable aspects of the previous movies, blend them all together, and structure everything else around keeping those aspects great.

Looking back at everything after X-Men Origins, it's clear that there's been a sea change over at Fox. No longer content with quantity, Fox is clearly taking the right lessons from Marvel and focusing on quality as well. That's not to say Fox has taken Marvel's spot as the reigning empire of superhero cinema just yet, but the competition is a lot closer now than it was last year.

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