X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
written by Simon Kinberg
based on the X-Men comic book storyline Days of Future Past by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
directed by Bryan Singer
In recent years, superhero movies have become darker in tone. This is not necessarily bad, specially if the world the characters inhabit seems real, a place with tangible moral quandaries and consequences – Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) comes to mind. But it’s a slippery slope. Go too serious and you’re left with a type of heavy-handedness that can be as lethal as kryptonite – in Nolan’s trilogy, I’d argue that the first installment, Batman Begins, is the more balanced of the three, while the second, The Dark Knight, goes too grim and ponderous.
In any case, while I like fun superhero movies, I tend to gravitate more towards stories that resonate with the world we live in. And that brings me to the imperfect, but interesting, X-Men series.
The X-Men comics have been around in one form or another since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them in 1963. I’ve never been a connoisseur, so my knowledge of the characters really started with the first film in the series, 2000’s X-Men. I immediately felt a kinship with this motley crew of superheroes and villains who possess a mutant gene that allows them to have special powers. Wolverine has self-healing properties and “adamantium” claws (how cool is that?). Jean Grey is telepathic and telekinetic. Storm can command the weather. Cyclops can shoot energy beams from his eyes. Magneto creates and controls magnetic fields. And so on. But one thing unites them all: In essence, they are all freaks, feared and persecuted by society at large. The world does not want them. They are bullied, shunned, segregated. As a larger allegory about oppression, racism, and the discrimination of anything the status quo doesn’t quite understand, the X-Men saga, both in comics and films, goes into deep, rich territory. And that’s interesting.
The first two outings, X-Men and X2: X-Men United (2003) were directed by Bryan Singer with a keen eye not only for action but also for humor and character development. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen immediately became memorable film adversaries (and later allies) as Charles Xavier (Professor X, leader of the X-Men) and Erik Lensherr (Magneto, founder of the extremist Brotherhood of Mutants). And Hugh Jackman became virtually inseparable from his Wolverine character – he has now played the role seven times. However, things took a turn for the worse with the next two outings, 2006’s disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s even crappier X-Men Origins: Wolverine, both lacking any sort of emotional connection.
Then came 2011’s zippy prequel X-Men: First Class, which introduced younger versions of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and the origins of their respective mutant groups. The franchise seemed to have gotten back on its feet. And I’m happy to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past, the latest installment in the saga, is as good as they come.
In the future, giant robots called Sentinels are exterminating any remaining mutants. Professor X, Magneto, Storm, Kitty Pryde, and a couple of other X-Men band together to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to the body of his younger self so he can attempt to change the moment when Mystique, a shape-shifting mutant, murdered the designer of the Sentinels and inadvertently precipitated the same future she hoped to avoid. Sounds convoluted, but trust me, it’s not (and besides, it’s time travel).
X-Men: Days of Future Past has great fun balancing the old cast with the new, with Wolverine essentially connecting both. The 1973 timeline works best, with its retro-cool references and sprightly tone. There’s a fantastic sequence where the X-Men rescue Magneto from a top-security prison with the help of an ultra-fast mutant named Quicksilver. It’s everything you could want in a summer movie: Dazzling, exciting, laugh-out loud. Another action sequence has Mystique desperately trying to escape from Magneto in Paris, jumping through windows, trying to blend in with the crowd. When Magneto finally has her in his grasp, you can see not only the horror in her eyes, but the realization that their alliance has shifted.
Singer, back in the director’s chair, stages all this with what reviewer Chris Nashawaty recently called a “…cocktail of gravitas and merry-prankster fun,“ and I agree: In the world of X-Men, same as in the Batman trilogy, characters are complex. They have layers. Mystique may opt to follow Professor X’s hope for a world where mutants and humans can co-exist, or choose Magneto’s vision of fighting Homo sapiens at any cost. Her central dilemma propels the movie forward, and her choice will affect the lives of others, mutant and human alike.
Less successful are the scenes in the future, a bit top-heavy on the ponderousness and CG and too light on the original cast. Plus honestly, are there no medical advances or mutant powers that can prevent Kitty from bleeding to death?
Of course, you can’t sit and question mutant powers too much, because then the illusion begins to crumble. But I was still a bit confused as to how Professor X, having died and transferred his mind to a comatose man at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand, still looks exactly the same (or why, if he somehow reconstituted himself, he didn’t choose a body that could, well, walk). No biggie. The best part of the time travel arc in X-Men: Days of Future Past is that, in essence, the older movies have been retconned and the possibilities for the franchise are once again endless. And better yet, we can finally forget that X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were ever made.
The X-Men are the ultimate family of outsiders, and for most of my life I’ve felt like an outsider too. I hope the next film in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), will continue to evolve the mythology and keep viewers like me enthralled… at least until I develop my mutant powers further.
Carlos I. Cuevas
P.S. I skipped the 2013 stand-alone adventure The Wolverine. Unless someone tells me otherwise, it will probably stay skipped.