Thursday, June 12, 2014

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Is The Best and Biggest X-Men Film Yet


- The Bryan Singer-directed X-MEN films were huge in their day. Rarely had we seen beloved comic book superheroes adapted for the big screen with so much seriousness of tone and purpose. Despite some clunky moments, these movies generated an excitement for comic book-based films that had not been seen since the Tim Burton Batman days. And yet ... I don't know if those movies 100% aged well, at least in my own mind. As much as the X-Men films took their characters seriously, there was also a sort of self-hating dullness to the films that now feels dated next to the colorful, comic-book roots-embracing Avengers films. Singer's muted colors, workmanlike black leather character uniforms, and eschewing of beloved comic tropes in favor of realism (reportedly Hugh Jackman had to beg Singer to let Wolverine call someone "bub") was a mixed blessing. It was, likely, what was needed to erase the day-glo nightmare memories of Joel Schumaker's abhorrent Batman films. But the X-films also felt like a bit of a letdown to those raised on the colorful sci-fi soap-opera of the 80's and 90's cartoons and comic books.

But lo and behold, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is Singer's most sci-fi, most over-the-top, and most epic X-Men movie by a mile. It fully embraces its plot's time-travel wackiness, and revels in comic book-style action scenes, high-concept sci-fi imagery, and a sense of anything-can-happen fun that previously eluded this franchise.

Loosely based on the classic Chris Claremont / John Bryne comic book story from the 80's, the new movie sees Wolverine sent back in time from an apocalyptic present (a grim, black-sky dystopia in which the few surviving mutants wage a hopeless war against the all-conquering robotic Sentinels), to the swingin' 70's ... in hopes of preventing disaster. As in the comics, Professor Xavier believes that if a pivotal assassination attempt planned by Mystique were to be thwarted, then it would prevent a chain of events leading to mass public anti-Mutant sentiment, and thus the creation of the Sentinels. But unlike the comics, where Kitty Pryde sends her older-self's consciousness back in time to inhabit her younger self's body, the movie version has franchise favorite Wolverine make the timestream trek. Since Wolvie doesn't age (theoretically), it makes sense that he'd be the one to go back. Plus, in the movie, it's explained that only Wolverine and his healing powers can withstand the mental toll of the process, which is, it seems, now one of Kitty's abilities (so she can phase through walls, and *also* transfer people's minds back in time - random).

But the great thing about the whole set-up is that it gives Singer and co. an excuse to have a dream-melding of his original X-cast with that of Matthew Vaughan's well-regarded X-Men: First Class prequel. That film was a breath of fresh air, bringing talented actors like Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence into the fold. Once again, these three are huge spark plugs, and help to cover some of the weak spots that existed in the supporting cast of Singer's original lineup. And it's also just a lot of fanboyish fun to see the old and young versions of Professor X and Magneto in the same film. In particular, Patrick Stewart gets some great moments with McAvoy as his younger self. And let's face it, any excuse to bring back the legendary duo of Stewart and Ian McKellan is cause for much rejoicing. They quite simply rule (and as great as Fassbender is as a younger Magneto, he still can't match the sheer gravitas of McKellan in rage-mode).

Lawrence's Mystique is also a huge focus here. Rightfully so, I think, given how talented of an actress Lawrence is. And the actress does a fine job of making the character into more than just a badass in leaves-nothing-to-the-imagination blue body paint (though she is that, too). Here, Mystique is sort of the pendulum at the center of the eternal morality play being waged between Xavier and Magneto. To stand up for Mutantkind through peace and understanding, or through blunt force and aggression? The issue is forced by Peter Dinklage's Bolivar Trask, an anti-Mutant crusader and father of the Sentinel program. Future Xavier and his fellow X-Men know that Mystique's attack on Trask would lead to his Sentinels getting funding and eventually decimating the planet, Skynet-style. And so the fate of the future lies largely in Mystique's vengeful blue hands.

Singer populates the film with some of the most ingeniously shot set-pieces he's ever put to film. The biggest highlight comes thanks to the newly-introduced Quicksilver, a laid-back speedster who performs dazzling light-speed feats all while chilling to hippie rock on his slightly anachronistic headphones. Played by American Horror Story's Evan Peters, Quicksilver is one of the best new additions to the cast. And his big showpiece set piece - in which he makes quick (but seen in slo-mo) work of a room full of armed assailants - is emblematic of what makes this movie better than all other X-movies. It's fun, dazzling, funny, and fully embraces the potential of the character's powers. Singer also gets some good mileage out of Nicholas Holt's Beast, who gets to shine both in his geeky scientist guise and in his ass-kicking Mutant form.

The combination of Singer's seemingly reinvigorated direction with a surprisingly lean, mean, and effective script by Simon Kinberg makes the movie work in a way that it probably shouldn't. There's a lot going on here, but Kinberg's script ties everything together in a very digestible way that mixes plenty of solid character and emotional beats into the big sci-fi tapestry. Yes, Wolverine serves as our central character, but the movie soon morphs into a great Xavier / Magneto story that also feels like closure, of sorts, to this entire chapter of the X-Men cinematic saga. That said, the time-travel conceit allows for the kind of big, comic-bookish stuff that we really haven't seen before in the mainline X-movies. We get teams of X-Men fighting off legions of invading Sentinels in a Matrix-esque future. We get big, world-ending stakes. We get an anything-can-happen set-up in which all bets are off - with time-travel shenanigans going on, favorite characters can die at any time, maybe even on multiple occasions. And of course, the movie introduces a concept very familiar to comic book fans, but perhaps a bit of a revelation for newbies - the idea of the retcon. Basically, the time-travel hijinks give Singer and Kinberg the ability to selectively, retroactively undo a few choice developments from previous X-Men films (cough*3*cough), wiping the slate clean for future installments, but also just sort of leaving the house (or manor, in this case) in order.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST really surprised me. Going in, I was weary of yet another X-Men movie, and weary of yet another film in which Hugh Jackman's Wolverine takes center stage. I wanted Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde to get some love, and for the franchise to move in a new direction more in line with The Avengers and other Marvel studios films. I wanted the bright colors and melodrama of the comics and cartoons. Well, this one may not have bright colors, but it did capture the bigness and craziness that made The Uncanny X-Men the biggest thing since sliced bread in the 80's and 90's. It's a fun movie, plain and simple, and has about everything you could ask for in an X-Men/First-Class passing-of-the-torch film. There are nice callbacks to the previous movies, as well as some nice stage-setting for stories yet to come. This is pretty much the ultimate Brian Singer X-Men movie, both keeping what worked about the older films but also addressing some of the issues. I'd still like to see the X-films take a different path after this one, but this is a film that elevates the franchise as a whole.

My Grade: A-

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