X-Men: Days of Future Past

FUTURE
In the last century, movies have become universal standards in every aspect of our culture. One of the most interesting examples of this, though, is style.

Costuming and styling in film is a criminally underappreciated art. Almost every single big, culturally important film takes place in a world different from our own. I don’t necessarily mean space or the past or anything, but a world where things are just different enough to allow the main characters to be the way they are, and for the story to do the things it does. And costuming is an essential part of that – while our characters are doing important story things, their dress allows you to tell the story of who they are and where they come from without pausing for a minute or even interrupting the action at all.

I say this because the costuming of X-Men: Days of Future Past is not some of the best there is in recent memory, but it’s also very close to my heart. You see, the young Prof. Charles Xavier (probably my single favorite comic-book superhero), who is probably the most main of the movie’s four or five main characters, spends the clear majority of this movie looking eerily similar to me.

I’ve always felt an affinity for the style of the early seventies, and to have the hero of a movie set in that period looking and acting like the sexier, more popular and more moral version of you that you carry around in your head…well, the movie’s hard not to like for me.

Keep on keepin’ on, Professor.

But that seems to be the case for quite a lot of people. As time goes by more and more people have realized that the whole thing has a really haphazard script, with plenty of logical holes and nonsensical story beats, but in their realization they also forget that the thing was one of the most popular movies of the summer, and with good reason.

Days of Future Past is dumb, but it’s a talented kind of dumb – filled to the brim with flair, emotion,  conscience and style, so that the weak narrative always has some moment of identifiable character, clever dialogue, or visual invention to lean on as you’re watching it. That feels about right for an adaptation of a classic comic-book story, which have thrived on style for three-quarters of a century. and since I’m inclined to be nice to it already with the whole starring me thing, I think style is enough for an attention-holding summer movie at the very least.

Now, you might be scratching your head at that mention of “conscience” back there, but the thing has a self-aware undercurrent that is owed to its co-writer and director Bryan Singer. The X-Men were supposed to be his jumping off point, a popular little money-making franchise that would be his safety net for his involved, ambitious, classic and serious movies.

And a decade later, as the superhero became the premier popular narrative medium, the X-Men emerged as the most involved, ambitious, classic and serious thing he was ever involved with. I mean, House was a classic show, but come on. Do James Wilson or Thirteen even come close to comparing to Magneto or Wolverine?

Thanks for reminding us who those are, creepy fan website I found this banner from!

 

The point being, Bryan is an artist, so he’s aware of the failings of all the previous X-Men movies, and lots of the stylistic choices in this one reflect this. For instance, the opening is set in a bleak, very broadly-sketched dystopian future. People are murdered and put in concentration camps for possible mutant connections, giant nanotech robots control the government, and it’s a perpetual gloomy, dark blue night filled with foreboding skyscrapers and sparse lighting.

The subtle joke with this is that the first two X-Men movies are largely set in an almost identical environment, except for the whole “dystopia” part, and now it finally makes sense for everything to be so gloomy all the time. The original ones were made in the wake of The Matrix redefining the action movie forever, and the staging and cinematography of the opening action scene – where Ellen Page and some of her X-Men friends fight off the nanotech robots – is a tribute to this recently bygone era, featuring all kinds of martial arts and slow motion and big leather coats.

They can’t stand against the robots, but escape via some judicious use of time travel and meet up with all the X-Men that people actually recognize: Professor X, Wolverine and Magneto.

“Also me! Remember me? I’m…uh, Princess Elsa? Yeah, pretty sure I’m Princess Elsa.”

We don’t get a lot of background on what these guys have been doing to fight the dystopia, and I feel this was a major failing of this opening section, which is admittedly little more than a framing device. Wolverine and Hugh Jackman have fed off each other and combined to be one of the all-time standard heroes, and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are two of the most powerful actors working today. The latter one, in particular, gets really neglected when you actually think about it for a few seconds. I mean, this is Magneto, the guy who has always been bellicose toward normal humans because of their tendency to discriminate, subjugate and even enslave minority groups, and now exactly that thing has happened to his people. To quote one of the most popular X-Men slogans, Magneto was right!

But not always. As Professor X reveals in narration, things wouldn’t be this way if the creator of all these robots hadn’t been murdered by a mutant back in 1973, which led to him being a martyr for the anti-mutant cause and spurred the scientific community to carry on his work and make this racist nanotechnology a viable proposition. He wants to use the same judicious use of time travel that let Ellen Page and company escape to go all the way back then, in order to avert this dystopian…well, I was going to say future, but from the way they talk about things “Present” would be more accurate. More understated self-awareness, which is nice.

Ellen Page says her powers don’t work well enough that far back (which only made me stop and think why a genetic mutation would allow you to send other people back in time instead of just yourself), but Wolverine’s healing powers would allow him to go instead. Wolverine has become notorious for upstaging the whole rest of the team, but he works well here just like he did before: As the audience’s viewpoint. Only not literally, because if we were seeing things from his perspective we couldn’t see his rock-hard physique.

Once he goes back in time he notices some telltale signs it’s the early ‘70s. A colorful and bright aesthetic emphasizing natural light is just the beginning, as we see lava lamps, waterbeds, classic blue jeans, slimy and sympathy-free mob guys for Wolverine to fight in a Terminator reference, and the most obvious sign of all: Waka-chicka-waka-chicka-waka!

Like cherubic harps, the funk beat carries him to the derelict X-Men school, where it turns out the geopolitical turmoil and universal bad vibes of the early ‘70s have sent Professor Xavier into a reclusive and cynical funk (no pun intended), with only his loyal friend Hank (aka Beast, aka The Blue One What’s Not Mystique) for company

…As you can tell, I’m dialing back on my mean nicknames today because 50 years of comic writers have already done my job for me.

Look at that color coordination! See what I mean about costuming?

Hank, who’s a super-scientist, lest we forget, has developed a drug that gives Xavier his legs back in exchange for taking away his mental powers, which he sees as a win-win since he doesn’t have to feel all the suffering going on around him. Yeah, this doesn’t make any sense at all logically, but it makes perfect sense from a narrative standpoint: It takes away his power so he doesn’t have the attendant responsibility, and more or less makes him normal so he no longer can have the pride in being a mutant that he now associates with his fallen friends and especially Mystique, his lost surrogate sister.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, home of dusty yellow screen filters, ominously rustling broad-leafed trees and helicopters with big open bay doors, we see what’s become of her. She leads some army mutants (who it was mentioned earlier were not exempt from the draft, although you’d think quite a few of them would have the ability to end up as 4-F if they tried) in an attack some shady goons doing shady research for a shady biotech corporation.

The head of the corporation turns out to be Peter Dinklage, who would be one of the most recognizable actors working even without his stature. He believes that his racist robots need to be built as a heavily implied nuclear deterrent metaphor against mutant uprising. Despite all he’s done to protect himself from the mutants, right down to his hair-helmet and caterpillar mustache, Mystique is able to break into his house and steal his identity with pretty much no trouble at all, so I guess he has a point.

Xavier agrees to track him down, but they need one more piece of the puzzle first – Michael Fassbender as the younger, smoldering Magneto. Well, strictly speaking they don’t need him, but he needs to be in the movie and we need a big second-act action scene.

We also need an excuse to have Magneto’s estranged son Peter, the super-fast guy who you may have seen in The Avengers 2 where he sounded like Borat until he died. If you did, you probably also know that he was actually a member of the X-Men who they couldn’t refer to as such for legal reasons. Those same legal reasons prompt Wolverine to recruit him as a lovably rebellious teenager to break into Magneto’s prison he was locked in after being blamed for the events of the last movie.

Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it – Patrick Stewart’s mournful Shakespearian voice recapping the relevant parts is a decent substitute.

 

And this is why I say this is style succeeding over substance. From a narrative standpoint it makes no sense to have the characters of Peter and Magneto be this way – a much more logical choice would have been for Magneto to have retired from the supervillain business to raise Peter as his own son – but it does make sense because of the style the movie has.

The winning formula of the last one, the early Sixties-set X-Men First Class, was combining superhero movie conventions with the setting and plot elements of a classic Bond movies (Right down to making Xavier and Magneto basically James Bond split in two, Jekyll and Hyde style). And similarly Days Of Future Past takes quite a bit of stylistic inspiration from the crime comedies of the early ‘70s like The Sting, the original Pink Panther or the sadly forgotten Hot Rock.

And so we have our heist. The presence of Peter makes the whole thing pretty much devoid of any stakes because how powerful he’s shown to be (Peter Evans, the heartthrob from American Horror Story playing him, actually does a bang-up job selling the character of a rebellious teen with godlike powers), but it’s really more for fun than anything else. We get all the set pieces – mugging guards for disguises, comically subverting security systems with gadgets, infighting between members of the crew – but the standout is that now-famous slow motion scene where Peter just goes nuts and plays a lot of slapstick on a whole squad of security guards.

This scene also has a fact from QI in it, which automatically makes it about 4 times better as a result.

With Magneto successfully broken out, he has a reunion with his longtime everything-but-lover Xavier. It starts out heated, and Magneto is so angry at one point he makes everything in the room fly around with his metal-controlling powers to show his anguish at the injustice that set them apart, a moment which perfectly sums up the entire franchise.

Eventually, though, they manage to reconcile and go to Paris, where Mystique has infiltrated the Vietnam peace accords. Jennifer Lawrence, only returning to this role for contractual reasons because she signed up as Mystique before she was Katniss Everdeen, hasn’t had much opportunity to act before, but she really doesn’t impress when she has to do some actual acting, especially since she was the emotional heart of the last one. She gets a more minor role here, and that’s good because if she was more central she might have harshed the whole groove’s mellow. Man, really getting into the ‘70s spirit here!

At the crucial moment, though, when she’s about to murder Peter Dinklage for telling everyone at the Peace Accords about his new racist robot program, our heroes show up and everything starts going to hell. You might notice that Wolverine, the top-billed and audience viewpoint character, hasn’t done much in the movie. This is another one of those moments of self-awareness, since he spends the entire chaotic and sweeping action scene (in which everyone gets away, good and bad) completely out of commission because something bad is going on in the present with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.

Remember us? Two of the most iconic and beloved actors in all of SFnF? Yeah, we’ll be over here if you need us for anything.

Peter Dinklage pretty much came out of the thing on top, since the public now knows and fears mutants, and so he convinces President Nixon (whose presence really detracts from the seriousness of the scene) to start up the robot program on the double. Magneto, who has by now returned to the old standard dynamic with Xavier, sabotages the robots in production, in the silliest out of a lot of serious CGI sequences.

Meanwhile, Xavier is starting to come down from his medication, getting his powers back and collapsing in pain from all the minds in his head. Wolverine convinces him to put up with the pain and embrace his powers to find Mystique and stop the whole thing, but he can’t take it after so many years and breaks down sobbing about all the awful things that go on in people’s heads. Although, to be fair, if you realized that everyone was just as cruel and dumb as you were inside your head, wouldn’t you be a little sad?

Now, this movie was obviously made after the success of The Avengers showed that superhero crossover movies were viable, but there’s actually quite a bit of disconnect between the past and present X-Men, with almost no interaction between the two different halves of the franchise. We finally get that now, when through mind shenanigans the young Xavier is able to use Wolverine’s mind as a conduit to talk to his older, more Patrick Stewart-y self. It’s a big moment, but it works like a charm, since both of the actors manage to pull off the strange kind of connection and divide between the two guys who are just one guy, and it adds some gravity to the previously very lighthearted movie.

Things continue their more serious turn as Xavier uses his newfound courage to finally contact Mystique, who refuses to listen but spills her not-quite-evil plan: Assassinate Peter Dinklage at the big Washington gala event where Nixon will unveil the racist robots to the world. Everyone suits up and heads for this event, with Magneto putting on his Magneto costume, which I think (I’m not sure, and I’d believe someone who told me either way) helps him use his powers.

Now, every single X-Men movie has involved Magneto lifting a big thing at the end. The first time, it was Wolverine. The second, it was the X-Men jet. The third time it was the Golden Gate Bridge (which was just ludicrous and apparently has now been stricken from the record). And last time it was an entire aircraft carrier, which was before The Avengers made that kind of thing normal.

It’s hard to top that without getting too silly, so the movie takes advantage of its dual-world nature and has both the young and old Magneto lift a big thing. The old Ian Mckellen model lifts the X-Men jet again and completely demolishes it to take out a squadron of racist nanobots who are attacking Ellen Page’s hideout, while the young Michael Fassbender variety lifts the Washington Senators’ entire baseball stadium (which didn’t have an official name at the time the movie was set, interestingly) and plonks it down in front of the White House to keep out any military or National Guardsmen from the final fight. The could use planes, of course, so the whole thing was pretty much useless, but it does allow me to make a whole lot of really terrible puns.

Like “I guess what they say is true! Politics is a spectator sport! *badum-tish*”

The former can’t quite control the explosion and gets a fatal chunk of metal stabbed in his side, but the younger one succeeds entirely and just starts murdering everyone with the reprogrammed racist robots. Now, at this point, I thought I knew what the plan was: Just as the young and old Xavier helped each other in a time of need, I thought Wolverine would finally stop being able to take the strain on his mind from Ellen Page’s time traveling, and Ian McKellen would sacrifice himself by going back instead, using his iron will (pun intended) to withstand long enough to merge his mind with the younger and more evil Magneto, turning him reasonably good again and joining together with Xavier. This wouldn’t only be a satisfying end to the thematic and narrative arc of the story, it would be a perfect setup for the sequel, since all the X-Men would be together just in time to be broken apart by the big bad guy who’s coming in the next one.

But instead, he just stays evil, even going so far as to lift another big thing with his powers (the secret bunker below the White House where President Nixon is hiding), and Ian just gets some tearful last words with Patrick Stewart as Wolverine stops taking the strain anyway.

Magneto gives a big speech that’s essentially “We’re here, we’re evil, get used to it!”, and is about to kill President Nixon when Mystique stops him, after Xavier finally man-splains her into joining the good guys. She gives yet another speech, and there’s the big emotional moment, but things have really fallen apart, and all the energy has gone out of the movie. By now it’s essentially limping to a close, and all it can do is flap around: Magneto and Mystique go off on their own once again, Xavier goes off to start his school once again, and we get the setup for the big sequel bad guy I was talking about.

Meanwhile in the future, Wolverine wakes up at the X-Men school, where everyone is living happily ever after. And I mean “everyone”, right down to cameos by Anna Paquin and Kelsey Grammer because hey, might as well.

The ending is just a complete sour note, which I think is one of the reasons so many people have grown to dislike the movie. It doesn’t hang together all the way through, and it has some issues in every area, but its best moments are quite simply the best in the franchise. The concept of the X-Men world is one of the defining story ideas of our time – they were the first to do the “School for gifted youngsters” thing, long before Harry Potter – and as a whole, Days Of Future Past definitely lives up to that idea.

TWO THUMBS UP: Moments of self-awareness, James McAvoy as young Xavier just because I’m so biased

THUMBS UP: All the design elements, the whole heist sequence

THUMBS DOWN: Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, the contrivance of the whole heist sequence

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The spotty and haphazard plot

 

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