Friday, May 27, 2016

Summer School: 'X-Men: Days of Future Past' (2014)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

One of the great things about the world of the X-Men in comic books is how vast and varied it is. Even within the larger Marvel universe, the X-Men exist in their own expansive world, one that encompasses a wide range of superpowers, heroes, villains, conspiracies, institutions, alien races, alternate dimensions, dystopian futures, etc. Even the best movies in the X-Men franchise prior to Days of Future Past haven't managed (or even attempted) to capture that scope. So it's exciting when Days opens not on Xavier's mansion or a government building or a quiet suburban street, but in a war-torn, post-apocalyptic wasteland like something out of the Terminator movies. Returning director Bryan Singer immediately announces that this is going to be a different sort of X-Men movie, and he largely delivers on that promise.

As has been the running theme of these entries, it seems, watching Days immediately following the previous movies in the series highlights some of its shortcomings, most notably its haphazard approach to continuity, which it both uses and disregards whenever convenient. The entire story is built around the idea of messing with the timeline, so keeping things straight would apparently be important, but Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg use only the elements that serve their story, and throw out the rest. It's easy to forgive those missteps when the story is as entertaining and exciting as Days is, though, and Singer and Kinberg do a great job of creating an engaging, fun and thrilling story out of scraps of several other movies.

Days takes place mainly in the past, during the 1970s about a decade after the events of First Class, with a framing sequence and occasional glimpses of that post-apocalyptic future. Although the movie was touted as a combination of the casts from the first three movies and from First Class, the actual screen time is divided unevenly, with only Hugh Jackman from the original cast taking on a real starring role. The rest of the returning characters appear only in the future scenes, and some barely even appear at all. After fighting so hard to get more substantial storylines for Storm in previous movies (and ending up with high billing in this one), Halle Berry only has a handful of lines. Anna Paquin, also highly billed, doesn't appear at all until a wordless cameo in the coda. The longer cut of the movie (which I still haven't seen) features an entire future-set subplot about Paquin's Rogue that was cut for time, and while it would have been cool to see her do more, I don't think the movie suffers for where it places its focus.

Adding Jackman to the cast of prequel characters is a brilliant move, and his Wolverine fits in perfectly with James McAvoy's Professor X, Michael Fassbender's Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique and Nicholas Hoult's Beast. Getting Wolverine's consciousness back into his younger self to stop a terrible future from happening requires some pretty painful contrivances (especially the random, nonsensical new powers for Kitty Pryde), but it's worth the effort, and Jackman makes the most out of his character's man-out-of-time predicament. This is easily the most humorous X-Men movie, but it also features real emotional depth, especially in the struggles of Professor X and Magneto to believe in their dreams again. The mid-film scene in which McAvoy and Patrick Stewart interact (via a trippy sort of cross-time telepathy) as the two versions of Professor X is a lovely distillation of the core philosophy of the series.

On top of all that, Days is a great action movie, easily the best installment in the series since X2. It features some impressive set pieces with real suspense, and the time-travel storyline lends a sense of urgency to every mission that none of the other movies had. The X-Men are saving the world, but they're doing so by having intense arguments with each other, combining two of the elements that make this franchise unique. The fate of humanity and mutantkind hinges on whether two old friends can put aside their differences and work together.

And it really does feel like something important hinges on these characters coming together and fighting for what they believe in. The climax features some excellent, extremely effective cross-cutting between the two timelines, as the mutant-hunting Sentinels close in on the future X-Men, while Magneto and Mystique close in on the president and his advisers in the past. And yet the final victory comes about thanks to diplomacy, not violence, although there is plenty of that leading up to it. The coda, featuring cameos from several stars who had major roles in the earlier movies, is pure fan service, but it's crafted with just the right balance of pandering and genuine emotion. In a way it's a shame that the success of Days and Hollywood's endless hunger for franchises won't allow the series to end, because Days is a satisfying capper to an inconsistent but groundbreaking superhero series.

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