X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
Future perfect. [Insert equally dumbassed X-pun here.]
Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn
With Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Ian McKellan (Magneto), James McAvoy (Professor X), Patrick Stewart (Professor X), Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), Peter Dinklage (Bolivar Trask), and Evan Peters (Quicksilver)
Spoiler alert: moderate
What is the single most unforgettable image from the Days of Future Past storyline in Uncanny X-Men, as written by Chris Claremont and rendered by John Byrne? Despite the framing of the question, this isn't really a matter of opinion. It's Wolverine having the flesh seared from his bones.
So it's a little curious that, in the cinematic adaptation, the role of Days' original protagonist, Kitty Pryde, is given to the man who died in the first act of the original. Oh, I suppose it's not that mysterious: audiences love Hugh Jackman as Wolverine—and I too fit into the category of "audience"—whereas Ellen Page is in the midst of a career collapse that sees her willing to reprise a now completely thankless role in this occasionally-baffling reconception of the comic book super-classic.
For the benighted, Days of Future Past (the comic) was a two-issue story that gave us a glimpse of the possible future of the X-Men: a dystopian world where the fear and mistrust between humans and mutants had turned into a genocidal war. The humans carried out the war with their robotic Sentinels; but eventually it was the Sentinels themselves calling the targets.
The mutants lost, and, inevitably, so did most of the humans. The only hope left was to fight the future itself, so
Rachel projected Kate's consciousness back into the past, where she had an adventure and maybe (or maybe not) prevented the robot holocaust. And, yes, it is incredibly similar to The Terminator—a phenomenon which Days predated by almost four years. Luckily for James Cameron, Chris Claremont is no Harlan Ellison.
And luckily for Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum, neither are Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger.
As that image makes pretty clear, Claremont's X-Men were no strangers to bizarre science-fiction tropes more-or-less extrinsic to the core concept of the series (which is to say, being a somewhat bad metaphor for prejudice that would only make perfect sense if black folks or gay folks could shoot lasers from their eyes).
Indeed, between adventures in the Savage Land with tarzans and vampire dinosaurs, romances with alien empresses, and (yes) infestations by copyright-infringing xenomorphic parasites, the introduction of temporal shenanigans would certainly not have been any more severe than all the other thematic divergences Claremont took, filed under the heading "it's a monthly fucking comic book."
But Days was special: it took the more-or-less extrinsic sci-fi tropes of cursed Earths, computer tyrants, and cosmic suicides, and made them an indelible part of the X-Men mythos. It did this by making them extensions of its central and most resonant idea: without tolerance of the other, even if he can shoot lasers from his eyes, we are all of us doomed.
And that's a big part of the reason why the seventh X-Men film succeeds so totally, while the attempt to adapt The Dark Phoenix Saga was almost bound to fail. The movies, constrained by their own themes to tell focused stories that are about its mutants as metaphor rather more than they're about industrial superheroics, must present a version of the X-Men distilled to their essences; and what in the X-Men canon is more truly essential than the story of an all-grown-up Katherine Pryde assuming the responsibility of saving the human and mutant races from themselves?
Well, evidently, the story of the Wolverine getting yet another starring vehicle.
Because he's only had five out of the past six.
It's still the best X-Men movie of them all anyway. And, at this point in the bifurcated film franchise, Days of Future Past must be the single perfect story to make a movie of.
The future of this Days is otherwise largely identical to its comic book precursor, except that Professor X and Magneto are still alive enough to conceive of the plan themselves, upon which it falls to Kitty Pryde—the cat who can walk through walls—to mechanically execute. She does so through temporal-projection powers she now possesses due to the vagaries of fan-service and the admirable desire to reunite the whole damned cast of the first three films.
As for the vignette that started it all, the credits teaser in The Wolverine, you can just put that in a box marked "out-of-continuity advertising material" and try to be resigned to it.
The past Kitty sends Logan to, however, is not the then-present of 1983, nor the now-present of 2014—and it pays here to remember, for fannish beancounter purposes, that the first X-Men took place in the same timeframe as MST3K.
Somewhere in time and space.
Instead, she sends his consciousness back to occupy his body in 1973, a long ten years after the events of X-Men: First Class, but close enough to still feature James McAvoy and super-actor Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier and Magneto, respectively, and to sew together the two arms of this cinematic universe like the Frankensteinian continuity monster they were always destined to be.
The ingenious thing about Days' time travel conceit is that Logan's future consciousness is, moment-by-moment, overwriting his past self, and this means that the single stupidest narrative problem a time travel story can have is explicit, explained, and turned into a strength. Even if I'm pretty sure the timeframes don't match up close to exactly, Logan has a ticking clock in the future as well as in the past.
This future is not, after all, ruled by Sentinels for no reason. Though by appearance derived of Kryptonian pin-art technology but advanced beyond its suck factor, the future Sentinels are in fact the result of experimentation upon mutant DNA and they can adapt to any potential mutant threat.
Despite being led by Patrick Stewart, remodulating frequencies does not occur to the X-Men.
And no hiding place is hidden well enough from these mighty hunters. No sooner than the X-Men's scheme is put into action, have the Sentinels tracked them down; the remaining mutants must fight and die to defend Logan as he dreams of a better yesterday. And it looks great.
In fact, it's not fifteen minutes in before we see the absolute quantum leap made between First Class and Days.
First Class, with some exceptions, is a VFX joke. In fairness, Azazel's bamfing looked (and was) badass, and Shaw's energy absortion effect, if not conventionally "good," was certainly charming, and Magneto, whose powers rely on compositing and don't demand anyone render nonsensical glowy crap, looked just fine; but from Havok's hula hoops of death to Mystique's awful morphing effect to Angel's fireball vomit thing to Riptide's pet tasmanian devil, First Class deployed an awful lot of CGI that would look cheap on a TV show. Days does not look like a TV show. Well, actually, Bingbing Fan's obvious makeup as Blink kind of looks like something from a TV show—or a high-end stage production—but if her teleportation portals are not even the single coolest fucking thing just in this movie, it's only because what I'm already prepared to call the best special effects sequence of 2014 is still on deck.
Logan's specific mission in the past is to stop Mystique, last seen abandoning the essentially pacifist philosophy represented by Charles, from assassinating Bolivar Trask. He's the creator of the Sentinels—and cast for maximum irony with Peter Dinklage. Trask's interesting: he believes in the Independence Day school of international relations—mutants are the best thing to happen in history, because our blind hatred of them will unite the human species in the face of a true existential threat.
And humanity will build artificially intelligent killer robots to face that threat. This is the best idea we've ever had.
Unfortunately, all the good killing him will do shall be to accelerate the government's extermination program. But to catch Mystique, Logan must bring the First Class band back together, which is easier said than done given that the last time they met, Magneto put a bullet in Charles' back, and Charles' physical collapse was only the precursor to his spiritual one. It also doesn't help that in the meantime Magneto has been put in a concrete bunker a half-mile beneath the Pentagon, on suspicion of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
GET IT? Good, because it's funny.
To point out that Magneto's cell under the Pentagon is in the shape of a Pentagon would probably be just about enough to assure you that the central aim of this movie—which, mind, begins with the image of corpses being dumped into a landfill—is that you have a really darned good time.
It's an midcentury architecture thing. Rooms in the Empire State Building are shaped like the Empire State Building.
But as the plan to break Magneto out unfolds, that you're having a great time will hardly need pointing out.
Logan's made contact with Charles and Hank McCoy, but despite their strength Beast and Wolverine aren't really capable of forcing their way into the Pentagon through thousands of armed men, and Professor X' mutant abilities and spinal disability are both negated by a serum he's been pounding into his veins, partly in order to avoid the plot-breaking convenience of Charles's mind control powers, partly to emphasize Charles' emotional issues, and partly because in this movie series about diversity we need a man of action rather than some cripple pointedly not walking around.
Well, the Pentagon was probably not wheelchair accessible in 1973.
Thus Logan must turn to a combination of plot device and special effects for assistance.
Calling him a special effect is absolutely unfair, because Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff is amazing within the confines of his role, and, especially after Godzilla, it makes me absolutely weep that it'll be Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the role of Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
But calling him a plot device is fair. It's lucky that Magneto's speedster son (though this informs nothing but an excellent joke) is around to help bust his dad out of prison. Super-speed probably would have been a real boon in every subsequent scene, too, especially the one that is remarkably similar to one of Mark Millar's Ultimate X-Men books in which Quicksilver's betrayal is a major factor in his father's defeat.
Super-speed > mastery of magnetism. It is known.
However, this shit is clearly very expensive.
There are only two problems with Quicksilver in Days of Future Past. The first is that his name is Peter instead of Pietro, something that matters only to me and other sufferers of nerdism. The second is that he is only in the movie for twenty minutes and this will matter to everybody. It will matter because Quicksilver, as a concept and as a character, is unbelievably good: super-speed has never been rendered with such grace, nor such whimsy, let alone both simultaneously. It's funnier than that episode of Futurama where Fry drinks 300 cups of coffee; it's more visually orgasmic than any effects sequence since Gravity. Short of maybe Kevin Spacey losing his limp, it is undeniably the best thing Bryan Singer has ever done in his whole career. And I say that as the one person on this planet who unreservedly loves Superman Returns.
With Magneto out, complications ensue, friendships are reforged and shattered, and reforged again and shattered again, and ultimately Charles Xavier relearns the power of hope. And it is all genuinely great stuff, probably the greatest stuff in the whole X-Men franchise. But nothing matches or really quite comes close to Quicksilver's all-too-brief appearance. Yet that is so transcendently wonderful that the conscience rebels at the prospect of asking for more: it is certainly enough. You can't even blame the movie, when he's gone in the blink of an eye.
Magneto's denouement perhaps comes the nearest to Quicksilver in terms of awe, but there is something weird and arbitrary about it. When he lifts a 50,000-ton stadium into the air—as seen in the trailers—it is breathtaking, but one can't shake the feeling that it should have been full of spectactors, when instead it is only empty.
I'll avoid describing the scene in detail, for it forms part of the climax, but it is evident that Magneto's intent is to be seen by the whole world. I can only expect that someone foresaw that a CGI crowd would be another million dollars, and that Days, already reportedly one of if not the most expensive superhero show of all time, wouldn't benefit from it.
And he doesn't even really drop it on anybody!
Still, if it meant another mil for rendering Quicksilver, then it was the price that had to be paid.
Days of Future Past is essentially the perfect X-Men film. It deals in weight, but doesn't crush you with it. It is, as noted, beautiful—and for what it's worth, the 70s scenes' cinematography is pretty flawless and well-contrasted with the steely look of the future. It is very funny when it wants to be, but we always feel the melodrama that infuses all these great characters with such life. It has the dose of fun, purely enjoyable superhero action, that, lately, only the Spider-Man franchise seems capable of offering in equally copious quantities. It even has an end teaser that genuinely excites the blood, which is in radical contrast to the obfuscatory or trivial ones of the last couple of years.
And not for nothing, time travel promises a soft-reboot to a franchise that lost its footing a decade ago, though the benefit of that remains unclear. I for one was rather tremendously enjoying these X-Men period pieces with McAvoy and Fassbender, who, it must be said, are demonstrably more capable of embodying Charles Xavier and Magneto than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are now—and perhaps ever were.
Literally the only thing that truly bothers me is Kitty Pryde's time powers, and that would be such a small, pointless grudge to hold against the film that I just can't bring myself to do it.
I'll close with a few words about Marvel superheroes in general: the fact that they've been partitioned like Poland between three great powers is the best possible cinematic world to live in. It gives each big franchise the room they need to be themselves. The X-Men can live in their fearful, racist world, apart from the worshipful flatscans that populate the Avengers and Spider-Man franchises. If nothing else, their separation permits the existence of grand global threats without the contemptible but unavoidable question asked in an obnoxiously nasal voice, "Where's Thor?" Consider this an argument to maintain segregation, if you must.
That said, with the perfect X-Men-as-X-Men movie now a fact accomplished, isn't it high time Wolverine went to space to fight alien monsters and Charles boned a bird-woman? You know you want to see it. And just who owns the rights to Longshot, anyway?
Oh, X-Men: Apocalypse? Well, that is pretty cool too.