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X-Men: Days of Future Past is a disappointing entry in a film series that now stretches back 14 years and almost half as many movies. It's disappointing mostly as a matter of pedigree; had Days of Future Past been made right after, say X-Men 3: The Last Stand, or the regrettable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Days would seem like a genuine improvement. As it stands, though, the movie suffers from its placement after 20th Century Fox's two most recent X-Men knockouts—the surprisingly adroit X-Men: First Class in 2011, and 2013's (and this reviewer's favorite X-Men iteration) The Wolverine.
The greatest irony of Days is that it wouldn't seem half so bad if it weren't for the presence of movies like The Wolverine, which make explicit the problems that are implicit in movies like Days and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
But first, some plot: it's the indeterminate future, and everything is awful. The X-Men—a team of super-power wielding mutants—have been hunted almost to extinction by the Sentinels, giant metallic robots whose only purpose is to eradicate all mutant-kind.
If the scenery is to be believed, much of the future exists as a kind of post-apocalyptic waste; it's only in a secret base that the X-Men have managed to stake out a brief foothold, while trying to figure out how to stymie the robotic onslaught. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) concocts a plan: the X-Men will send Wolverine's (played a record-breaking eight times by Hugh Jackman) mind back into the past so that he can prevent the creation of the Sentinels—but to do so, he'll need to unite Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who have become enemies following the events of the preceding X-Men: First Class.
(A note: I realize that this summary is nearly incoherent and riddled with holes and that many of the explanations are inaccurate. In my defense, recapping all this is kinda boring, and also the movie defies any coherent attempt to briefly summarize it—even by comic book standards, it's pretty out there.)
Unfortunately, at no point does this dual-timeline setup ever feel like one unified project—the aesthetics of mid-70's era America and the Vague Future Apocalypse are so wildly disparate as to feel like totally different movies (everything in the future is tinted blue and foggy, it seems, even under direct lighting). As such, the time-jumping—maybe the movie's most prominent distinguishing feature—is more confusing than it is helpful, and only serves to artificially weight one half of the story with drama when the other sags. I spent the whole movie hoping that the movie's climax wouldn't be jump cuts from Fight-in-the-Future to Fight-in-the-Past, and then was sorely let down when exactly that ended up happening. Layering the action on top of itself doesn't double the excitement—it only manages to halve our emotional investment in the action, a lesson in moderation best exemplified by 2012's Looper.
But that frenetic, scattered focus is true of all of the film, and it kills the character-based intrigue that was such a blessing in the movie's predecessor, X-Men: First Class. First Class's foremost strength was the way it stepped back from the constant action that had characterized the series' weaker entries, letting the sincerely human aspects of the story shine through.
Professor Xavier wasn't always a platitude-spewing old man, but actually started out even more cocky and aimless then the students he would later train; similarly, Erik, now calling himself Magneto, was given space to be something other than a metaphor for terrorism—Ian McKellen's performance as Magneto always having been excellent but too iconoclastic to ever make the character feel truly human. And both these performances were brought to life by their actors—to be brief, there just wasn't enough good to say about both McAvoy and Fassbender in First Class.
However, in the incessant (if unclear) plot progression demanded by Days of Future Past, character subtlety is traded for caricatures. The Professor is now an addict to a drug that mutes his powers but gives him back control of his paralyzed legs (drugs that are in both delivery and effect identical to heroin, but which are also very much Not Heroin). This happens not because of any well-examined out reason (briefly: "He missed a girl"), but because the movie needs a moment where he rejects his drugs in order to serve the Greater Good.
My problem isn't that this sounds bad on paper—as I write it out, I get excited about how interesting that idea is—but that it's executed poorly. Squishing three minutes of moralizing and forced character development in between long action sets will never replace the time investment of really getting to know characters—something I'd thought was clear from First Class, making Days of Future Past seem like a real step backwards.
For example: there's a moment when Xavier in the past and Xavier in the future manage to establish a tentative telepathic link, and young Xavier outlines to his older counterpart the exact contours of his problem. As a mind reader, he feels everyone's pain, as real as his own, all the time, and has no idea how to handle it.
Yes, I thought as I watched. We're an hour and a half in, this has got to be where it gets good. This will be the part I say good things about at the end of the review.
But instead, Old Xavier says that all he has to do is be open to the pain of others, accepting it into himself, that it makes him stronger because it helps him understand others—or something—because he's afraid of his own pain—it's not ever as clear as you'd want it to be, and even as delivered by Patrick Stewart, it's still cliche-riddled, incoherent enough to be laughable. Never mind the fact that what Young Xavier is being asked to do is a literally messianic task. It's such an insincere moment that it clues you in, as a viewer—The writers don't care, so why should I? And by the next scene, Xavier's anxiety is forgotten, and he's back to reading minds like a pro (because, of course, the plot demands it).
In fact, the whole nature of the film is so vignette-ish that it's sometimes hard to keep track of what's happening, or why. Plot points don't flow naturally so much as happen because they have to, because without them the movie would fall apart—ironically enough, as the movie tries with its plot to argue against a deterministic universe, the way the story is told says, "Doesn't matter how it happens, so long as we get our paycheck at the end." And it's a massively disappointing move for the X-Men series to make, especially considering their place in the comic canon.
The X-Men series has always worn its allegorical nature on its sleeve. While superpowers-as-metaphors in other stories vary from the adolescent (Spider-Man) to the übermenschian (good old Superman) to the gendered (one can't help but notice the symbolism, intentional or not, behind the Invisible Woman), X-Men has always been about People Who Are Different. This is immediately obvious in the title of the school itself—"Charles Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters" rides on the double entendre of intelligence and superpowers—but it's also clear in the way mutants have interacted with "regular people" throughout the films.
Mutants are shunned from society because of visual deformity, or because they simply can't fit in. One child named Rogue (played since the original movie by Anna Paquin) cannot physically touch anyone without slowly killing them, a power she gained during adolescence and discovered when she first kissed a boy—and, like her counterpart in Frozen, she wears perennial gloves to prevent other people from ever experiencing the "real her."
Much was made over X-2's decision to make a kid's admitting being a mutant almost indistinguishable from a "coming out of the closet" moment, but to pigeonhole the message to one specific issue robs it of its power. No matter what the context is, X-Men have always stood in for the outsiders, outcasts, the refuse and the throw-aways who feel like they've got nowhere else to go.
So the real shame of this movie is that 20th Century Fox has thrown away an opportunity to actually use this message, in favor of just making another movie whose sole purpose is getting people to see the next movie. We saw the same happen thing in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, whose tagline "His greatest battle begins" openly admitted that the movie was little more than titillation for the next installment. And when The Wolverine did the exact opposite—featured a self-contained story with character progression and no sequel hook—critics (including myself) went wild, calling it maybe the best X-Men movie to date.
When these movies are so aggressively franchised, the films aren't allowed to be more than big shiny arrows pointing toward subsequent films. This cripples any movies' ability to simply be itself, regardless of genre; superhero movies are most susceptible to this simply because they're already so thoroughly serialized. But when everything is obligatory—when you know that everything's going to be okay because the sequel demands it, and not just knowing this but actively being reminded of it by a too-busy (or perhaps just too-lazy) script—it empties out the movie of anything valuable. Nothing is allowed to just be itself, or to mean anything beyond "wasn't that cool (I sure would love to see the sequel)."
It's telling that maybe the only believable character in the bunch is Wolverine, who's had eight film iterations now to perfect his Wolverine—and perfected him is just about right. Between his hair, facial expressions, gruff tone, impeccable comedic timing, Jackman manages to make a mostly hackneyed script seem believable, even profound. It's clear now, regardless of the reception of future X-Men movies, that Jackman's performance as Wolverine will be at least as iconic as Christopher Reeves' Superman.
All negativity aside—I will make an exception. There's one scene in the movie (you'll know which one) that is such a joy to watch, its three minutes taken in isolation would make a better superhero movie than most of the stuff out there today. It's the only segment of the film that's any real fun to watch, and is so much fun to watch that it almost sours the rest of the film by comparison, especially when held up against the late movie's penchant for stomach-turning (if not overly graphic) violence.
Ultimately, I can't be upset with the movie for not addressing the topics I want it to address. I can only point out the topics it "tries" (quotes relevant) to address and evaluate its success. And on every issue the movie tries to weigh in on—personal liberty, choice, hope, tribal instincts, all of which seem like real home runs—it fails, mostly because it's preoccupied with showing you how the glass shattered in slow motion like just so, or with capturing the exact contour of a punch, or of a fireball.
In making way for its fireballs and shattering glass and punches and stabs, the movie forgets why we care about any of those things in the first place, marginalizing its characters so it can maximize screen-time. Unfortunately, as an audience, we don't fall in love with a crumbling CGI building, and we'll never empathize with even the most immaculately rendered explosion. We love and come back for characters. And characters is what this movie lacks, even though it's what X-Men has in spades.
One f-word joins about a dozen minor profanities, including s--t and d--m. The violence is pretty shocking for a superhero movie—20th Century Fox seems to be making a stand against Marvel's Disney offerings by upping the on-screen body count significantly. People are ripped in half by Sentinels (though are transmuted when they do so, so no gore appears), stabbed, burned, frozen, decapitated—Sentinels really are extraordinarily violent machines. Various heroes assault guards and various nemeses, hitting them with objects or slashing them with claws. One character is shot in the leg and then dragged across the ground by a character controlling the metal in her leg. Another character is hit with a cinder-block, and then has rebar metal twined through his body to paralyze him—the camera watches it all. (Even as an experienced movie-goer, this last scene made me squirm.) Definitely leave the >12s at home for this one.
One character goes clothes-less much of the movie, but has scales that obscure her anatomy up to the level of let's say Generously European standards. Another has her bare back shown, and we see her in a bra.
Jackson Cuidon is a writer in New York City. You can follow him on his semi-annually updated Twitter account: @jxscott