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X-Men: Days of Future Past

May 23, 2014
X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies have a history of being good enough. There’s been some more variation in the entries he didn’t direct; the latest two entries — First Class (overly-serious, but not too bad) and The Wolverine (bizarrely Japan-fetishizing, and not too good) — give a good idea of the range. But now Singer is back to directing Days of Future Past. True to his form, the result is aggressively adequate, although it’s one of the better entries of the whole series.

The story opens in a post-apocalyptic, war-torn future for a kick-off set piece and exposition dump. Mutants, along with humans who might one day bear mutant descendants, are being hunted to extermination by polymorphic robots called Sentinels. These are the result of the work of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who fears that mutants will replace humans just as the rise of humans coincided with the extinction of the neanderthal. But Trask didn’t create the Sentinel program alone; political will to fund it hinged on his assassination in 1973 at the Paris Peace Accords by shapechanging mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). She was captured in the attempt, which also provided the project with the basis of the future Sentinels’ transformative abilities.

The war is unwinnable, but the mutants hope to stop it before it starts. One of them has the ability to send another back in time. Sort of. It’s kind of complicated and not worth explaining in detail, but the upshot is that it’s kind of like a lucid dream of their own past self, and when they wake up the changes they made will be real. Oh, and of course fan-favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the only one that can be sent back as far as 1973. He must enlist the younger Charles “Professor X” Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and get them to help stop Mystique and the coming anti-mutant war.

With no disrespect to the greatness of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, the younger cast of First Class/Days of Future Past is more emotionally resonant than a couple of old men marshaling teams of squabbling kids. Besides, the X-Men have always been a giant civil rights metaphor, and the stories set in the later 20th century seem to work better than the more “modern” ones. Between Fassbender and McAvoy, the schism between the separatist and integrative wings feels like a real, ongoing, and vital struggle rather than the dictates of politicians dryly expounding ideologies while their armies fight the battles more for their comrades-in-arms than for some high-minded principle. McAvoy, in particular, brings as much pathos to Charles’ struggles with hope and doubt as Fassbender brought to Erik’s desire for vengeance in First Class.

And yet, Days of Future Past as a whole feels overstuffed: more concerned with fanservice and box-checking than its core story. To some extent, it’s the natural result of a movie that wants to behave simultaneously as a sequel to First Class, a prequel to X-Men and the other contemporary entries, and a reboot of the series as a whole, retconning the events of The Last Stand — among others — out of everything but Wolverine’s memories. Every few minutes featured some name-drop or other that gave rise to scattered hoots and applause from those fans with an encyclopedic recall of the original comics, along with bemused silence from those who don’t remember why an offhand line about someone’s ex-boyfriend is important.

The action is generally well-executed, but unimaginative and boring aside from Mystique’s acrobatic hand-to-hand combat. The fast-guy-rearranges-all-the-things slow-motion scene looks good, but I’ve seen the exact same scene for every fast-guy character in genre fiction so many times that I just don’t care anymore. I desperately hope Joss Whedon comes up with something more original for Quicksilver in Age of Ultron.

The boring action and the overstuffed fanservice even come together in all the cuts back to the future setting, where the future mutants have to hold off an assault by the Sentinels while Wolverine is being sent back. There’s a lot of CGI whizzing around, but it’s all meaningless. None of it has any influence on the actual story; the only purposes are to showcase a bloated cast and to inject some artificial sense of urgency into the climax. The 1973 story is perfectly capable of standing on its own; if it does need any punching-up, it would be better done without importing an extraneous alternate storyline. A classic case of not knowing when to leave well-enough alone.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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