Monday, June 2, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Alternate Title:  Retcon

One sentence synopsis:    Wolverine is sent back in time from a hellish future to help Professor Xavier, Beast, and Magneto stop it from coming about.

Things Havoc liked:  At the beginning of each year, right about the same time that I sit down to work out my ten best and worst for the year previous, I like to look ahead to the movies to come and determine, unofficially of course, which ones I am the most interested in seeing. There's nothing formal about this process, it's really just a way for me to remind myself, several months later when the doldrums are burying me in utter crap, that there are in fact films to look forward to on the horizon. But with anticipation comes apprehension, for I have seen far too many bad films, and more specifically far too many bad films that I originally hoped would be good, to not be worried about Hollywood (or whoever) living up to my heightened expectations. It was thus with a great deal of trepidation that I went to see this movie, my most anticipated film of the year, sequel to 2011's film-of-the-year X-men First Class, a movie that promised to unite the various timelines of X-men movies into a single, cohesive whole. The trailers were inconclusive after all, and X-men is not a series with a flawless pedigree. My concern was that this would turn into a calamity on the level of X-men 3.

I do love being wrong sometimes.

Days of Future Past is a fantastic film on largely every level, and the reasons for this are, as they were with the previous film, threefold. The three in question of course that I speak of are James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence, who respectively play Charles Xavier (Professor X), Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Raven (Mystique). I spent practically the entire review of First Class praising these three, and the wonderful dynamic that their characters offered, and if I don't stop myself I will probably do so again. All three are note-perfect in their roles, as they were the last time we saw them. Xavier, who has degenerated into a recluse following the events of the first film, and the progression of failures culminating in the conscripting of most of his students and staff for the Vietnam War (clever idea), must claw his way back into the Roddenberry-esque figure that we know from both the comics and the first film. I don't often see characters undergo hero's journeys in reverse, but McAvoy sells every scene perfectly, humanizing a character that all too easily turns into a mouthpiece for the scriptwriter. Fassbender meanwhile, while he doesn't get material as meaty as he did in the last film, has come full circle. His Magneto is by now a hardened fanatic, dedicated to the point of megalomania to his cause, and yet we see so clearly how all of this is simply layered atop a normal, likeable person. Magneto has always been one of my favorite characters in comics (you don't see many empathetic megalomaniacs), and without disrespect to Ian McKellan, this is the version I've come to prefer.

But to my astonishment, not only is Lawrence's Mystique still the only version of this character that I can stomach, this film actually does the impossible and turns her into my favorite character of the film. Though her role is a bit more plot-heavy this time round, there is still plenty of time allotted for Lawrence to bounce off of everyone else. Embittered by the campaign being waged against Mutantkind, disenchanted with Xavier's attempts to force her onto the straight and narrow path, and tired of Magneto's excesses, Lawrence plays Mystique at times unsure of what she's actually trying to accomplish, at times driven with an unshakeable certainty to safeguard "her" people against what is being done to them. Every meeting she has with either Xavier or Magneto is perfect, be it surprise and joy at seeing one of them after so long, or a bitter reunion between two driven people who have simply parted ways. The dynamic she and the others established in the first film is perfectly intact here, and twists and shifts in different directions, just as it ought with characters like these.

But I have to stop praising these three characters, because there is simply so much more to talk about. One such thing? Wolverine. Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine perfectly even in bad movies, here has the fascinating task of coming full circle. His Wolverine is older, wizened, finally restored to some semblance of peace with all of the turmoils and terrors that have been inflicted on him. Jackman's version of Wolverine has long been the only one I could actually stand, and here he takes the character to a new level, tasked with turning around and dispensing the same sort of level-headed support for a younger generation of mutants that was dispensed to him by these same characters in the future. Time travel plots are fun. But Wolverine's addition to the past-time cast is barely the tip of the iceberg, as largely every character from every rendition of every X-men film, past and present, shows up here, if only for a cameo, turning the film into a veritable farewell tour for a series that has spanned seven films in three different decades. On top of that, we have new additions, including Evan Peters as a hyper-powered Quicksilver, played in this case like a teenage stoner whose capabilities are so immense that he is simply bored with the wider world. Quicksilver's role here left me with a number of questions (not the least of which are how the alternate version of the character in next year's Avengers 2 is going to avoid confusing the hell out of us all), but his role is transparently an excuse to show us awesome things, including a hilarious battle inside the Pentagon's kitchen that will forever change my feelings towards Gordon Lightfoot (don't ask). But the biggest newcomer to the scene is undoubtedly Peter Dinklage, playing Bolivar Trask, a weapons designer dedicated to exterminating mutants with a series of powerful mutant-hunting robots. Dinklage admittedly does occasionally slip into Tyrion Lannister mode, but his portrayal is perfect, not a screaming psychopath but a scientist and engineer who regards mutants as nothing more than a particularly interesting civic engineering problem to be mastered and dealt with. I always love watching Dinklage, and interestingly, the film not once makes mention of the fact that Bolivar Trask, in this version, is a little person, the fact in question being utterly irrelevant to the plot, the characters, and the world at large.

So much said, and I haven't even spoken of the plot, which despite gyrations and the insanities of time travel, manages to hold together well. I haven't even spoken of the action, which is crisp and inventive and violent to a degree previous X-men films have not been. I haven't spoken of John Ottman's score, an inventive mix of action beats and period music (the period in question lending itself to some trippy sequences). I haven't spoken of the shoutouts to previous films, the unending stream of inspired cameos, or the fact that this movie, as a time travel film, manages to unwrite a fair amount of X-men canon that nobody, least of all me, is sad to see thrown aside. I haven't spoken of any of these things, because the core of the film, the connection between the characters I enjoyed seeing so much the first time around, eclipses everything else, good or bad, that the movie produces. Believe me, this is not a complaint.

Things Havoc disliked: Which is not to say that I have no complaints.

For one thing, this film takes a while to get started, with an ill-conceived opening segment that, while effective in establishing the credentials of the antagonists, necessarily is mired in an infodump to end all infodumps, one that is badly-paced, awkwardly-written, and is clearly rushed through in order to get us to the meat of the material. I don't mind when films concentrate on their strongest elements, mind you, but throwaway stuff like this should either take thirty seconds or should be expanded into something more palatable. After all, at barely over two hours, it's not like this film couldn't have had another five or ten minutes added onto it.

The plot of this film is, of course, demonstrably goofy, which is forgivable in a movie that has to use time travel and astral projection to make its plot work. What is less forgivable is some of the decisions made in regards to what the film has several of the characters do. Magneto's abilities, always exceedingly potent, are in this film extended to the point of ludicrous absurdity, something which Magneto has been subject to before, admittedly, but generally not to good effect. If Magneto can exercise control of his abilities to the extent that he demonstrates in this film, surely he would simply win, at everything he chooses to do, instantly. Similarly, Quicksilver, though a fun addition here, has a power-set so absurdly over the top that he would, if used properly, obviate the entire plot in twelve seconds, which is likely why the main cast leaves him behind once his admittedly awesome sequences are complete. One must set boundaries on one's super-powered characters if they are to be compelling at all, for if not, any difficulty they encounter can only be rendered a challenge by making them an idiot.

Final thoughts:   There are good movies, there are great movies, and then there are great movies that retroactively render bad movies either better or obsolete, and X-Men: Days of Future Past is unabashedly one of these rare third category. A wonderful, sweeping, brilliantly-executed film, if this film fails to live up to the quality of its predecessor, it is only because of a greater focus on plot and less on character establishment. Prior to this film, the X-men franchise had produced six films, three good, and three less so, but this movie puts all (but one) of them into the shade, not content with redeeming characters that I imagined irredeemable, but erasing the flaws that originally rendered them so annoying in the first place. Gleefully shredding the continuity of the X-men, it leaves us in a place from whence, once more, anything at all is possible. And if the makers of the previous six films should choose to use this movie as a launching point for another six, then they can count on me being there to watch every one of them.

I have seen franchises born, and I have seen franchises die. But not often do I see a franchise return to vibrant and wonderful life after being all but left for dead.

Final Score:  8/10

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