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Prison break? That's illegal, you know.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
(2014)

(SPOILERS) I’ve enjoyed all three superhero movies this spring/summer, which appears to be one more than most devotees of the genre. So far, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has received all the venom (some of it deserved) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier all the accolades (most of them deserved). X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives burdened down by the memory of six prior X-films of variable quality. Consequently, it has its work cut out for it to surprise, impress, or simply be vaguely distinctive.  And yet, against these odds, it succeeds on all counts.


Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise predictably takes its stylistic and design cues from his opening entries, but it’s Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class that informs most of what is good about this movie. It’s not as good as First Class, but then that is a great movie (if not my favourite superhero movie, then certainly a close contender). On his first time out with the franchise Singer put together a strong cast but, Hugh Jackman aside, he was never able to make them especially interesting. For First Class Vaughn assembled an even better cast and was able to make the previously rather bland and polar Professor X and Magneto vital and involving. I’m not altogether convinced by the trailer for his upcoming Kingsman: The Secret Service, purely on the level of premise, but I’ll be sure to give the movie a chance as he’s clearly a director always striving to make the best movie he possibly can.


Singer, in contrast, has seemed pretty much on autopilot since his classic sophomore effort, The Usual Suspects. He’s a reliable director, in that he understands staging and encourages coherent editing, but there’s little passion. Even his predilection for casting interchangeable pretty boys as X-mutants doesn’t have a discernibly galvanising effect on him. Once they’re onscreen, they tend to just stand around smouldering tepidly.  His reliability means that none of his films are actively bad, although Jack the Giant Slayer is wholly inert, but he hasn’t really impressed since X-Men 2 11 years ago. That movie was, until now, the second best in the series, more down to a collection of impressively engineered set pieces than a wholly convincing script. And yet now he’s bucked his own trend, the result of which is his best X-movie, one that includes not only impressive set pieces but also a largely effective and compelling storyline.


It isn’t all great. Whether it comes from a desire to show consistency with the early outings he mentored or straightforward aesthetic cluelessness, the design elements are patchy at best. The costumes of the apocalyptic future have strayed in from a particularly unenticing fetish bar, and they’re matched by a new array mutants whose only impact derives from the special effects that announce them (and in a couple of cases not even that); there is one notable exception, who I’ll come to. It’s fortunate the narrative hook for this future is so solid, as none of Singer’s original line-up (or even those from Brett Ratner’s aberration) can move beyond stolid ponderousness.


But so much of this works – as a time-travel move, as a character-driven piece, and just as a plot that continues to engage during the usually de rigueur final act – that Singer has done much to redeem his reputation as a filmmaker, one that took a tumble after he left the franchise. The only remaining question mark is the one hanging over his “super, super disturbing” (© Ellen Page) public face.


The story so far in the future (well, in 2023). The dregs of mutantkind, which just happened to include most of the original cast Ratner didn’t kill off and a number of others of indeterminate names and skills, are under threat from the robotic Sentinels, mutant slayers with the capability of adapting to the X-crew’s abilities and thus bettering them. This state of affairs has brought Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) together, firm in the knowledge that the Sentinel programme came to fruition as a direct result of the assassination of one Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, whose ‘70s porn ‘tache does most of the acting for him) by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). With the help of Kitty Pryde (Page, who spends most of the film glued to Wolverine’s greying temples) they send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, of course, nursing steroidal throbbing veins that could take your eye out) back through time, depositing him into the body of his endoskeleton-free 1973 self. His task; bring the at-odds mutant figureheads together in order to prevent Mystique from carrying out this act, and thus prevent an altogether horrid fate for mutant- and humankind.


So far, so Terminator. There is even a line where the newly arrived and barely decent Futurine (distinguishable by a lack of grey highlights), announces he has just time-travelled from the future.  Dressed like that?” reply the disbelieving guards. Obviously, since it will be another 11 years before they get a chance to see James Cameron’s movie (this picture might be a numerologist’s field day; it’s also 11 years since the events of First Class). In fact, this future is closer to the Wachowski’s unplugged The Matrix trilogy environment of constant threat than Jimbo’s also-perilous land of Skynet. The climax of Days of Future Past operates in a very similar manner to that of the first Matrix, intercutting between worlds on a knife-edge.


This is where we met a sadly pervasive gaggle of undistinguished new mutants, sporting leather pants and curious coiffeurs. On the positive side, Singer operates a show don’t tell approach; we get to know their abilities through their actions. On the negative, they have zero personality, so all that super-powered potential is squandered. There’s Sunspot, Warpath (who clearly models his face paint after Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner), Bishop and no doubt a few others I forget. The only one who makes an impression is Bingbing Fan’s Blink, who can teleport herself and others through self-created portals. Hers is an arresting talent, one that forces a creative approach to the construction of action sequences. No doubt they are all signed up to multi- X-movie deals, but she’s the only one I want to see again.


Careful not to make the same mistake as the Fat Rat (well, that should be plural, the problems with Last Stand are copious), Singer repeatedly eats, sicks up, and eats his cake again when it comes to mutant deaths. The first scene enacts a grippingly staged fake-out slaughter at the hands of death-wielding Sentinels. For the climax, Singer opts to do it all again, safe in the knowledge that the day will be saved back in the ‘70s. Neither cheat feels like it’s shortchanging the viewer, perhaps because the stakes are elsewhere and this is the entire point (in contrast to the Joss Whedon world, where death is fickle and never permanent). 


Other familiar faces are briefly along for the ride. There’s Halle Berry’s Storm, and Shawn Ashmore’s now beardy Ice Man. From some angles Ashmore has the gait of a less bulky Matt Berry; if only Ice Man was played by Matt Berry. Yes I can hear you, Clem Fandango.  In contrast to the mutants, the future Sentinels are rather well designed. It helps too that Singer takes care with his set pieces, arranging the separate elements precisely and coherently. He integrates his antagonists in such a way that they pose a tangible threat; their victory is inevitable.


I have to admit, the trailers for Days of Future Past failed to pique my interest. I think partly because it seemed to be selling the reunion of the old cast as some kind of triumph. And because the absence of Wolverine was a major positive in First Class. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jackman; he has a natural screen presence and he clearly relishes the role (he should do, it’s his only guarantee of bums-on-seats). But a universe so ripe with potential characters to explire is diminished when it to come back again and again to the same growling guy with the moschops. One might say the same about Professor X and Magneto, forever droning on about chess and their different views of humanity with the same plummy gravitas, but First Class managed to mix that up with their younger selves. When Stewart’s Professor X proffers familiar and unrefined platitudes to his younger James McAvoy self, a part of me switches off. It’s the same part that finds it difficult to get through an entire episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.


Besides Singer’s originals, another reason the trailers failed to impress was the time travel element. Wasn’t it just the lazy gimmick of a tired franchise? There’s nothing especially different or striking about the time travel rules in Days of Future Past. It’s fully aware it needs to pull some cheats, but at least it wears them on its chin rather than trying to fudge it or exerting lofty claims to authenticity that are exposed as containing as many holes as less prestigious movies (Looper, I’m looking at you). It’s a simple narrative necessity that the changes in the past can’t suddenly alter the future as soon as Wolverine starts interacting with mutants he shouldn’t team up with for decades. And it’s just common-sense to construct parallel climaxes that operate through contrasting defeat and triumph. Nicholas Hoult’s Beast even provides a brief Doc Brown-style lecture on the mutability of time travel theory, after the foiled assassination of Trask nevertheless contributes Mystique’s DNA to the Sentinel programme; the idea that, whatever they do to prevent their demise in the future, it will course-correct to reach the same point.


Additionally, it’s not as if the picture has anything fresh to say thematically.  Singer’s first two X-pictures were occasionally on-the-nose in their statements about prejudice, but that substance lent the series an enviable grounding (that and the ultra-toned down costumes). Days of Future Past lacks the relevance or commentary of The Winter Soldier. But has something The Winter Soldier is short on, something crucial; engaging, charismatic characters. Again, this is entirely down to the influence of Vaughn, who gets a story credit with Mrs Jonathan Ross Jane Goldman from when he was still attached to direct the picture. Much as I wish he’d followed this one to completion, his central trio of Charles (McAvoy), Erik (Michael Fassbender) and Raven/Mystique is the pulse of the movie and they survive intact under Singer’s watch (Giant Slayer star Hoult’s Beast isn’t as strong; Kelsey Grammar’s two-second cameo has more impact, just for that voice). On the other hand, Singer’s wholesale dumping of Vaughn’s mutants, consigned to death-by-Trask-experimentation (a couple of photos in a file) seems a little off. Bad manners, almost.


I’m sure Vaughn would have embraced the ‘70s more than Singer does. He definitely would have ensured a memorable score (First Class’ is great; John Ottman’s work here is … well, I could barely remember it as I heard it!) Singer’s version is fun, but it’s only ever a “Just visiting” approach. One might argue this is a result of the Marty McFly approach, but Zemeckis revelled in his ‘50s-topia. I suspect it’s more that Singer just isn’t especially keen on brown leather. Yet the fancy dress is partly why this, the main section, is so much fun. Sure, we’ve seen strip-mining of pop culture touchstones in everything from Austin Powers to MiB3. And the attempts to here to extract political capital from Vietnam War are as empty as poking at Nixon (a decent stab from Mark Camacho). In both cases it’s shooting fish in a barrel, although I admit the “brave” Mystique Nixon at the climax, in contrast to the real one cowering behind his staff at the back, raised a smile.  It’s depositing the staid Charles and Erik here that reaps dividends. That, and the “Getting the gang back together” approach needs to be done really badly not to excite.


Charles, emotionally excitable, long of hair and sporting a fashionable drug addiction (Singer lovingly shoots the paraphernalia that way) that masks his abilities, is about as unlike the Stewart version as can be. McAvoy’s stature and general demeanour also make him something of the underdog to Erik, in a way Stewart’s clipped manner could never engender opposite McKellen. 


Good as McAvoy is, though, this is Fassbender’s ride all the way. It’s ironic that he reportedly had to be dragged back very reluctantly to fulfil his contractual demands, as his Magneto walks off with the movie whenever he’s on screen. There’s no sign of reluctance on screen at any rate, and there are moments (such as a fit of pique on Charles’ plane) where his studied rendition of McKellen makes it very clear he’s delivering. Sporting some very stylish ‘70s clobber (love the cravats), it’s a crying shame when Erik is forced into the purple and helmet for the last act. Fassbender and McAvoy have a great energy together, and it’s to believe in the deep friendship between their characters, even if they haven’t seen each other in a decade. If their team-up doesn’t last, it’s to the benefit of the juicy plot beats delivered to Erik. From the reason he’s been incarcerated (the assassination of JFK – falsely accused; the gag that it explains the magic bullet is a far superior to the one that the President was a mutant; the latter is the same lack of subtlety we saw in the approach to Nixon) to his snap decision to kill Mystique and commandeering of the Sentinels, he’s gets all the script’s best ideas.


As for JLaw, it’s a smart move to carry over the battle between Erik and Charles for Mystique’s heart and mind from First Class. She has been cut loose since Erik’s capture (the original Vaughn script reportedly began with the JFK assassination, but I rather like that we’re picking up after such a long time, that these mutant figureheads have, in some respects, been impotent for a decade) and what Lawrence lacks in supermodel athleticism (let’s be real, Rebecca Romijn’s version was all about the nude body painting) she more than makes up for in the character stakes. Lawrence was as reluctant as Fassbender to come back, and one can only assume this disinclination had a productive effect on the writing side, since she has been served a hearty course of narrative meat. She’s cool, deadly, but not yet lost completely. Sure, we’ve heard these pleas to discover one’s better nature before, and Simon Kinberg could do with a script doctor adding more flourish to his dialogue, but he’s blessed with a leading trio who are so good they very nearly make his restirred pot look extra-tasty.


There isn’t much to say about Wolverine. He’s a measured fellow here, bringing everyone together and only occasionally getting a bit snippy/slashy when his unfortunate associations with the latest incarnation of Stryker jog unsettling memories. Jackman is the elder statesman of the series now, having notched up appearances in all seven of the Fox movies. That fatigue, which might not have made its presence felt in last year’s solo outing if it had been made about five years earlier, isn’t a deal breaker here as he’s only nominally front-and-centre. So much so, the makers have the confidence to do the previously unthinkable and wholly discard him from the climactic confrontation. Wolverites may not be happy, but it’s a refreshing move. I’m left with some nagging questions, such as how does he get his adamantium claws back if Stryker isn’t there to experiment on him, but if the makers were really brave they’d leave him out of Apocalypse entirely (the truth is, despite the so-so box office of The Wolverine, it would be seen by Fox in the same terms as leaving Tony Stark out of The Avengers). They haven’t.


Peter Dinklage has the villain role, but unfortunately Trask doesn’t possess enough personality to allow him to stand out, aside from the flourish of his initial casting. You’d rather have a great actor like Dinklage in an undernourished part than not, but they really should have made the most of the opportunity. Josh Helman’s Stryker the Younger has a bit of a Stifler thing going for him, but again there’s nothing much to him.


Prior to this, Singer’s tour-de-force set piece was probably the opening White House infiltration by Nightcrawler in X-Men 2. That, or the raid on Xavier’s school. Here, he has assembled an array of winning sequences; Mystique and a line-up of mutants in a tent in Saigon; her assassination attempt in Paris; Magneto’s single-handed train heist; his subsequent dropping of the RFK Stadium around the White House (one thing about this picture; the effects budget is all up there on screen). 


Best of the bunch comes early on, though, as Xavier, Beast and Wolverine descend on the Pentagon with Quicksilver (as a Kick-Ass player, one wonders if Evan Peters was Vaughn’s pick) to release Magneto. The breakout is impressive enough but, just as they’re in sight of freedom, guards block their exit. Quicksilver’s visualisation (silver hair?!!) looked entirely crappy in the promotional materials, but in action he is nigh on perfect. Apparently he isn’t much like the comics’ Quicksilver (I can see he’s nothing like the Joss Whedon one) but I’m choosing to take the position that what I don’t know won’t hurt me. I don’t even mind that he shouldn’t really have a Walkman in 1973, since the scene where he overpowers the heavies in superfast superslow motion to the accompaniment of Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle, rearranging bullets, fists, guns, and consuming food and drink, is visually remarkable and giddily hilarious. And it’s capped with the sublime punch line of the sudden jump back to normal time.  I’m quite glad the character is unceremoniously cast aside immediately afterwards, as this is a perfect example of leaving the audience wanting more. And really, how could Singer top that?


There are, of course, the nagging elements that don’t quite work. I’m not in the know on the specifics of most mutants’ abilities, which may be why I don’t bat an eyelid at Kitty’s new abilities or general misappropriation of super-talents, but even I suspected something wasn’t quite right about Mystique’s super-DNA. How does it give the Sentinels the ability to mimic the gifts of any mutant again? Also, the time trail to her assassination of Trask feels a little under-developed; it could have done with a few more building blocks and twists to mask the rather straightforward cause-and-effect.


Then there are Trask’s very conveniently ready-and-waiting hi-tech ‘70s Sentinels. It’s an obvious choice really, or you don’t have a climax and no opportunity for escalation unless you’re willing to have Wolverine jump ahead another 10 years to encounter the now fully capable technology 40 years early (now that might have been neat… but wait, that’s the next film). Presumably the argument is that it’s only Trask’s nouse that gets them up and running so quickly. In the original timeline, with him out of the picture, it takes another half century to set them off. Really?


Even with the young guns, certain plot beats aren’t fully reinvigorated. The usual impasse between Charles and Erik may be necessary, and perhaps it works in the comics. And I’m all for an inventive Magneto prison break every sequel, but the producers either need to take a different take or get rid of Kinsberg or both. The newspaper headlines filling us in on the divergent 1973 are also a somewhat cheesy; the announcement that the mutants have saved the President and that Trask has been imprisoned for arms trading carry an unfortunate “rush to wrap things up” vibe. The flipside is the acceleration of global awareness of mutants, which is an effective plot device.


I was left wondering how the post-credits teaser for X-Men: Apocalypse would feed into the new future of 2023 (where everyone’s alive – yay! Snore). But it seems Days of Future Past is most likely the curtain call for the elderly Xs, at least until someone surfs a fresh wave of nostalgia. Apocalypse will be set in the ‘80s, with the First Class thesps (and Jackman, naturally). Which should make me happy, as underwhelming as the teaser was. X-Men is taking a Watchmen-esque era-spanning approach, it seems, one that so far has yielded dividends through appropriating history as it sees fit. There will be new Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm and Gambit (Channing Tatum). Just as long as Fassbender, McAvoy and Lawrence still get all the good stuff.


****

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