Saturday, June 07, 2014

I went to the movies and I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past and then I wrote all these words about it.

This sure seemed like a good idea for an X-Men movie, and the time-travel plot seemed like a rather elegant way to simultaneously make a sequel to 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand and 2011's set-in-the-past X-Men: First Class. By starting in a dystopian future and jumping decades backwards, it would seemingly allow the filmmakers to present the greatest pleasures of the original trilogy of X-Men movies—Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan acting at each other, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine—with the chief pleasures of First Class—a mutant period piece with sexy James McAvoy and sexier still Michael Fassbender as Young Professor X and Young Magneto, their bromance rapidly curdling into broenmity.

And the first somber, moody trailers even promised the giant robot fighting everyone who ever watched that shitty '90s X-Men cartoon has been waiting for, plus a who's who of characters and actors from the previous four to six films (do the Wolverine movies count as X-Men movies...?), including more of the fan-favorite characters who had way too little screen time previously, like Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde and big shiny Colossus.

I had relatively high hopes; high enough that I didn't even mind that for some reason they felt the need to put Bishop in it. I've never actually read the two-issue storyline the movie took its title from—I've never been much of an X-Men fan, and have never had much success trying to wade through old Chris Claremont-scripted comics—but I always liked that phrase, "Days of Future Past." It's up there with "God Loves, Man Kills" in terms of X-Men phrases I just like the sound of.

So I went to see it a few weekends ago.

My favorite reviews so far? I really liked Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's too-kind review for The Onion's AV Club, which includes this perfectly true opening paragraph:
For better or worse, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is the first Marvel movie to truly embrace comics-style storytelling. Context-less and origin-story-free, it presumes that its audience is familiar with all relevant character traits, continuities, and fantastic elements. It returns the genre to its geek roots; depending on the viewer, it has the potential to be the most narratively satisfying and fluid entry in the X-Men film series, or the most alienating. It’s a loose adaptation of one of the all-time great Marvel storylines, with Professor X and Magneto using Shadowcat’s powers to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to 1973 so that he can help their past selves set aside their differences and avert a dystopian, Sentinel-run future by preventing Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask. Readers who are confused by any or all parts of the preceding sentence should take it as a warning.
I liked Andy Khouri's Comics Alliance plot summary/review even better, as it says something similar, only in a much more acidic manner:
It is owing to the series’ bitterly old age that the new film is almost totally devoted to reconciling the conflicting plots and divergent timelines of its predecessors. In this very hilarious way, Days of Future Past is the most faithful adaptation to date, having actually translated to film that most core concept of X-Men comics: hopelessly confusing and eternally jacked up continuity.
Amy Nicholson's Village Voice review bears an unfortunately 100% accurate headline ("New X-Men Meet Old X-Men and Explain Lots of Stuff"), and while I don't agree with Abhay Khosla's overall assessment, I always enjoy reading Abhay writing about just about anything, and I do agree wholeheartedly with his assessment of the Sentinels (And the Future Sentinels opening up their faces to shoot death beams out of them? Am I misremembering, or is that pretty much exactly what The Destroyer did in Thor?)

Personally, I found the film very surprising. Like, I was in a state of almost constant surprise while watching it. Most of those surprises were negative ones, but I was pleasantly surprised several times as well, more and more so by the end. I think the good surprises were maybe the best parts of the film (which is basically me saying "spoiler warning"), but boy were there a lot of negative surprises too, mostly along the lines of I don't understand why this person is even in this movie or It boggles my mind that someone made this particular creative or story-telling choice.

For example, there is the entire section of the film set in a dark—as in, the lighting is very poor—future where a whole bunch of talented, likely expensive actors do next-to-nothing in what appears to be a story section of a new videogame. The trailers (and logic) seemed to suggest that a significant portion of the film would be set in this dystopian future of 2023; it's not. There are two action scenes, a conversation scene between the two guys playing Charles Xavier at different points in time filmed in a dumb way and then occasional check-ins, but the majority of the film takes place in 1973. I'm not sure what they paid Halle Berry or Ellen Page to reprise their roles, but I assure you, that was money quite poorly spent.
That first action scene features Shawn Ashmore's Iceman with a beard (in human form, not when iced up), to let us know it is the future, along with Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde (although I'm not sure they ever use her name?), plus Colossus, Bishop, Blink (played by Fan Bingbing!), Warpath and a fire guy I originally assumed was supposed to be Pyro, given all the call-backs to the previous films, but who is actually Sunspot (according to IMDb. Pretty sure his name is never used either). They all fight the super-adapting Sentinels, except Ellen Page and Bishop, who run away, using Kitty's powers to run through shelves. They hole up in a room where Bishop lays on his back, Ellen Page hunches over him, and glowy stuff comes out of her fingertips and into his temples. This somehow sends Bishop's mind back in time a few days, so he can warn everyone that The Sentinels are coming and they can relocate, so the preceding action scene in which everyone but Bishop and Kitty get killed never really had to happen.

Later, they meet up with the rest of the surviving X-Men: Halle Berry's Storm, Patrick Stewart's Professor X (now in a hover-chair, but not the big, dumb gold hovercraft/tank he tooled around in in the aforementioned shitty cartoon), Ian McKellan's Magneto and Wolverine, who has some gray powder in his hair because, again, the future.

They are all wearing generic black jump suits that look pretty much like what they wore in all the other movies, only maybe with some more padding here and there. While I'm glad Bishop wasn't wearing his Bishop costume, it seems like a rather dull costuming choice. If they are the last few survivors holding out against the army of robots that control the whole world, shouldn't they maybe be dressed more like the good guys in the first Matrix movie, all sweaty and in rags and such? Or, if they're in a dystopian, possible alternate future that will of course be averted, maybe they could have given them some more dramatically alternate costumes? Maybe put Storm in white, for example, or give her a mohawk?

Of all these characters, none of them are the least bit important, save Wolverine. With the exception of Stewart, who gives Wolverine a pre-time travel pep talk and, at one point, shares a scene with McAvoy, they barely even get any lines. Bishop might shout "Blink!" and "Light me up!" and "Aarrrrrrrrggghhhh!" I think Warpath says "They're here." I can't remember Storm saying anything at all, although I'm sure she had at least one line.
Seriously, that's all she does.
Even Page and McKellan are non-presences. McKellan gets a nice death scene, I guess, and he and Stewart hold hands and exchange end-of-the-line pleasantries, but wow, what a waste. Same goes for Page; after her first scene, which involved running into a room to meditate over Bishop's head, she then spends the rest of the movie hunched over Wolverine's head, concentrating really hard. She's done promotional interviews on talk shows for this movie in which she has about 50 times more lines then she has in the actual movie, and during which she is called upon to act more than she does in the film she was promoting in those interviews.

This is a real shame, because I'd really like to see a movie in which Ellen Page plays Kitty Pryde, but it's easy to imagine this experience souring her from doing more X-Men movies (Or maybe not; they must pay well, given that Berry and McKellan showed up to get less screen time and fewer lines then they might in most television commercials).

So Pryde sends Wolverine back in time, thinking really hard and having light come out of her fingers. Wait, you might say, having seen Last Stand and/or having read comics or seen cartoons with Kitty Pryde in them, How does the mutant ability to phase through walls and solid objects also allow her to send someone's consciousness backwards through time into their own past bodies?

The film doesn't bother to explain, perhaps wanting to encourage viewers to write in with their own explanations, in the hopes of winning a no-prize, thus making the experience of watching this Marvel movie based on old Marvel comic books more like the experience of interacting with the people who make those old comic books? If so, I'm gonna guess "Secondary mutation," like Mystique's ability to slide long distances on floors and to bend her legs at weird angles.

In the two-issue comic book story "Days of Future Past," it's Rachel Grey, a powerful psychic, who sends Kitty back in time. But because Kitty is not Wolverine, they couldn't repeat that for the movie. It would have been easier to have a psychic like Rachel Grey or Psylocke (neither of whom are in the movie) or Professor X do this, but I guess they wanted to compromise and have Kitty still involved in the plot line that she played the pivotal role in when it was a comic book, even if it doesn't make any sense. So Kitty has mind time-travel powers now (A female friend of mine who is quite into the X-Men did not care for this development at all, and when I tried to point out that they had to use Wolverine in-story because only he, Magneto and Professor X were alive back then, she pointed out that the writers are just making all this shit up anyway, so they could just make up a way around the weird rules they themselves established to make it so that it had to be Wolverine. I guess that's a fair point.) (UPDATE: Andrew Wheeler said much the same in his review).

Before we jump back to the past, let's finish up with the future: At the climax of the film, all of the future X-Men die rather horribly save three of them, and a Sentinel is about to kill Xavier, Kitty and Wolvie when Wolverine wakes up, his mission accomplished.

And the X-Men who die horribly? They do die horribly. Colossus, for example, who is onscreen more here then in the previous films, but doesn't really have any more lines, is torn in half. I imagine folks at DC were in the audience on opening weekend thinking, Oh shit, we have to make sure part of our Justice League movie is set in a dystopian alternate future so we can tear our guys apart too!

While Fan Bingbing is criminally wasted, let the record show that her powers and their usage are pretty damn neat. It's really too bad that she was cast into what turned out to be the cannon fodder squad of X-Men (Speaking of which, if they were going to just have a bunch of random X-Men fight and die in the future, I wonder why they went with such a bunch of lame ones, instead of using characters already introduced but under-used, like Kea Wong's Jubilee or Ben Foster's Angel, or why they didn't throw a Gambit in there, to tease his apparently in-development movie.)

So, the past. This past isn't the present, i.e. the 21st century setting of the X-Men movies, but the early 1970s. Why, you may ask, other than because it means we get to see Peter Dinklage in era-appropriate costuming?
(Hey, do you remember when his attachment to the film was first announced, and everyone thought he would be playing Puck? That'd be something, huh? I wonder if they'll ever get around to making an Alpha Flight movie. Can't be any less marketable than a Gambit movie. And hell,they can even put Wolverine in it!)

No, the real reason is because James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender were awesome in First Class and we all wanted more of that (Lucas Till's Havok makes a breif cameo, gets two, maybe three lines, while pretty much everyone else from that movie not played by Jennifer Lawrence or the guy from Warm Bodies appear only in their autopsy photos, an evil scientist having apparently dissected them sometime between movies).

Also, in addition to a few of those actors reprising their roles, it allows for more of the fun mutant-ification of American history. For example, did you know that Magneto was involved in the Kennedy assassination, which explains the irregular paths of the bullets fired? Mags says it was because he was trying to stop the assassination, but he was thwarted mid-bullet bending. Why did he bother? Because JFK was a mutant duh.

So Wolverine wakes up in his younger body in 1973, his younger body looking exactly like his older body, except he no longer has white powder streaked into his hair. Oh, and he's totally naked, allowing for a nice, totally gratuitous ass shot—the only nudity in the film and, in fact, really the only even mildly sexually exploitive imagery I can recall (Yes, Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique is technically naked, but she's really just wearing a blue body stocking with sequein-like scales hot-glued over her bathing suit area, or is a special effect, or some combination of the two). That's one neat thing about the Marvel movies, regardless of studio, something you don't ever really get in the comics—effective beefcake.

Wolverine puts on some clothes and goes to Xavier's school, where only Nicholas Hoult's Beast is left, and there he finds Xavier walking, bearded and with long hair, but rather than teaching young mutants to protect a world that fears and hates them, he's decided to while away his days drinking heavily and doing heroin—or, at least, I thought it was heroin when they first showed him tying up his arm and tapping for a vein. Turns out it was...whatever mutant-suppression drug that Beast invented in the last movie. So, super-heroin...?

Eventually, these three decide to break Magneto out of jail to help them stop Mystique from attempting an assassination, as history tells Future Wolverine's brain that her attempt will be thwarted, and she'll end up on an operating table, wherein Dinklage will be able to take her DNA, stick it in his Sentinels, and make them into Amazos (Wait, this is a Marvel Universe-derived film; I guess I should say Super-Adaptoids rather than Amazos), which allow them to mimic powers and successfully murder everyone all the time. (Got all that? Because that's the conflict of the film.)

To free Mags, Wolverine calls upon Quicksilver, who yes, looked terrible on that Entertainment Weekly cover, and in that Hardee's ad, and, yes, they did design him more around the Mercury Quicksilver/Impulse amalgamated hero from 1996's JLX #1, part of the "Amalgam Comics" specials that produced to tie into the DC/Marvel crossover event/storyline, DC Vs. Marvel.
In fact, they play him a bit like a slightly older That Seventies Impulse. Which actually makes sense in the context of the movie, as he's a teenager inn 1973, not the full-grown asshole he is in the present Marvel Universe.

This is, shocking though it may seem, the best part of the movie, as Quicksilver evinces a personality, as well as charm and enthusiasm. And the one special effect scene in which they show us his powers from his perspective rather than everyone else's perspective is as awesome as you've no doubt heard repeatedly by this point (I actually felt a little bad for Warner Bros/DC when I saw this part, as it is going to make the eventual appearances of The Flash in a Justice League or Flash movie look derivative of Quicksilver in this movie and/or Avengers 2, despite the fact that comic book Quicksilver is actually derivative of comic book Flash). The twenty minutes or so he is in the movie are way too short.

For reasons completely unclear to me, Team 1973 thanks Peter Maximoff and then abandon him, despite the fact that his powers could easily solve all of the problems they encounter for the rest of the film (I was incredibly surprised that Quicksilver never returned later in the film, particularly during points of crisis, one of which occurs in Paris, which he could run to rather quickly, showing off his powers and making for another amusing apperarance, and, at the very end, when Wolverine is drowning and all the other characters forget about/stop caring about him; Quicksilver's watching that fight on TV at home with his little sister, and though it would take him about a second to get there and effect its outcome,  he doesn't bother. I was convinced it would be Quicksilver swimming down at super-speed to retrieve the drowned Wolverine, while in fact something weird and confusing I didn't understand happened to Wolvie's body).

In Paris, Magneto decides the best way to stop Dinklage from getting Mystique's DNA is not to convince her to abandon her attempt to assassinate someone, but to shoot her in the leg with a gun, thus ensuring plenty of blood getting spread all over the place (Isn't Mags smarter than that? Why wouldn't he try to, like, incinerate her or something?)

For the rest of the film then, Young Charles and Young Eric are at odds, with Young Beast and Old Wolverine-in-Young Wolverine's-Body on Charles' side. They're attempting to convince Mystique not to keep trying to kill Dinklage, while Magneto is attempting to kill Dinklage, President Nixon and a bunch of other people around President Nixon.

There's a big fight involving them all and the 1973 Sentinels, the actions of Magneto, Xavier and Mystique don't really make any sense, and, perhaps the biggest mystery is why the hell Mystique is  crux around which the film revolves. Is it to make up for the fact that the rest of the X-ladies were side-lined, or simply because Jennifer Lawrence is a big star now, much bigger than she was when First Class was released? (If so, it's still damn weird, as Jennifer Lawrence only appears as Jennifer Lawrence in two, maybe three scenes; most of the time, she's in that blue body suit and made up so as to be so unrecognizable that she could have been Ray Park or Andy Serkis for all I could tell).

Despite the gibberish of the plot, there are still a lot of pleasures in it, ranging from the aforementioned performances and the neat X-Men-ification of U.S. history (I'd still like a First Class 2 and/or 3, myself) and some decent special effect sequences, many of which are at least glimpsed in the trailer. And then there's the pay-off, in which Wolverine wakes up to see how he changed history.

How did he change history? Well, I have no idea what the various butterflies he must have stepped on during the course of the preceding movie might have changed exactly to lead to different outcomes in a bunch of different events from X-Men: The Last Stand, but, long-story short and totally spoiled, he wakes up in his room at Old Xavier's school, which is booming, and there's a string of cameos from X-Men, including ones like Iceman and Storm that we saw die horribly at the hands of the Sentinels in the future. And there's Kitty Pryde! And there's Rogue! And there's a bigger, bluer, furrier Beast, whose one line in this sequence is delivered by Kelsey Grammer (who played  him in Last Stand). And, of course, Famke Janssen's Jean Grey is still alive, as is James Marsden's Cyclops. Hurray! The original movie X-Men are all back together again, thanks to a DC Comics style, in-story cosmic reset of the timeline! Damn, that's some comic book-y storytelling! (Have any films based on comic books done this before, bringing a totally dead character back to life? I can't think of examples).

Weirdly, we don't see Blink, Bishop, Warpath, Sunspot or Colossusus, all of whom also died horribly in the future. Why don't they get little visual reminders that they totally didn't die? Were they never born, or did they never join the X-Men, on account of the messing with the past? The film woulda benefited by showing them somewhere during this passage, I think, as a reminder that Wolverine actually did save all the mutants fighting for survival in the future, and not just the ones from previous films (Additionally, this scene looks as if it's meant to be set in the present, 2014, rather than in the future of 2023, when it should be, based on the rules the movie itself established).

Anyway, it certainly made me excited for the prospect of a future X-Men film, which I understand is already underway, as it means we can at least have Cyclops, Jean Grey and Wolverine in it (I think a lot of the life was deflated from the franchise in the third film, when Cyclops died, and it became a quick march to Jean's death).

Hopefully, in the next movie, they'll give all of these people something more to do, from Page's Kitty and Anna Paquin's Rogue on down to the just-introduced characters like Quicksilver and Blink.

I left as the credits began, as I had no advance warning of a teaser for X-Men: Apocalypse, which I guess was there...? I'm kind of surprised Angel wasn't in this film at all, as it would be weird to have an Apocalypse movie without him.
But as long as they work in the robot horses, I'll be cool with it.

3 comments: said...

I saw this movie just last weekend, and was surprised as well, mostly because it received such rave reviews. Maybe the critics are just more into X-Men films than I realized?

Ditto with what Wheeler said about females and minorities ultimately getting the shaft, which seems straight-up contradictory to what the franchise has been in the comic books for so many years. That's in addition to the aforementioned plot holes, of course.

Cristalle said...

We did see Colossus in the reset timeline - he was teaching a class with Kitty Pryde.

Other than that, I generally agreed with you.

JohnF said...

Andrew Wheeler's reviews are annoying.