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Entries in X-Men: Days of Future Past [2014] (1)

Friday
May232014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-emplary

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to present the first great comic-book movie of 2014! I know everyone's over the moon about Captain America 2, and the Spider-Man reboot sequel is more liked than many had expected, but X-Men: Days of Future Past is truly where it's at this summer. Director Bryan Singer triumphantly returns to the film franchise (indeed, the genre) he helped create with an action-adventure spectacle that finally brings Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's four-color mutants to ass-kicking life--without the silliness that has bogged down the series' last several entries.

In the not-too-distant future, both mutants and mankind are hunted by creepy, invincible robots called Sentinels. A rag-tag band of resistance fighters devises a plan to send one of their own back in time to alter the past in order to save the future. Yes, this is the same plot as The Terminator, but two factors should help you right over that hump: Simon Kinberg's Days of Future Past screenplay is an adaptation of Chris Claremont's beloved X-Men storyline of the same name--from 1981, three years before James Cameron's sci-fi classic hit theatres. Also, this is a truly fresh take on the material, with dozens of colorful, complex characters zipping us across timelines and embarking on mini-adventures, instead of the standard run-and-hide scenarios that became the Terminator sequels' bread and butter.

What makes this adaptation so special is that Singer and Kinberg take into account all fourteen years of X-Men cinematic continuity. As we follow Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) from the future back to the 1970s, he not only runs into X-Men: First Class's prequel cast, he encounters younger versions of characters not seen since 2003's X-Men 2. Just as the comics use the liberty of an infinite universe of ageless and ever-evolving characters to great effect over multiple storylines and continuities, Singer and Kinberg assemble all their marquee talent for a spectacular cross-over event that's not to be missed.*

I just realized that I've only been talking to comics geeks (a community of which I was a proud member for decades, so please don't take offense). Is X-Men: Days of Future Past accessible to non-comics fans or casual moviegoers? Sure, but I don't know why anyone would see the sixth sequel in a series with which they're unfamiliar. That doesn't mean the filmmakers don't try to capture everyone, though. One of the film's shortcomings is that the dialogue is rife with repetition. Kinberg (likely at the behest of Fox) has his characters restate themes and motivations to the point where anyone paying the slightest attention will likely mutter, "I get it, let's move on."

In fairness, these are pretty wonderful themes. The X-Men we know from Matthew Vaughn's fun and innovative First Class have lost their shine. It's no longer the 60s: we're entrenched in the drugs-and-disco 70s of Richard Nixon's (Mark Camacho) America. Mutant activist Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) lives in stuporous seclusion, aided only by the bookish Beast (Nicholas Hoult). He mourns the loss of his traitorous best friend, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), as well as his mind-reading super-powers--which he traded in for an experimental drug that allows him to overcome the lower-body paralysis he suffered at the end of the first film.

Then there's the matter of Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), Xavier's intellectual equal and philosophical rival. He's been locked in a concrete prison miles below the Pentagon for his involvement in JFK's assassination. Wolverine's job is to help these idealistically opposed men overcome their own deep-seated flaws, resolve their interpersonal conflicts, and then gear up to save the world.

In lesser hands, this could be pulpy, convoluted stuff. But Singer, Kinberg, and their crazily game cast make Days of Future Past a rich moviegoing experience. Waves of special-effects bravura crash into species-ending desperation, which drains smoothly into a reservoir of humor and spirited adventure. The cycle continues, making for a fully realized story that is neither fatally self-serious, unwatchably goofy, or confused as to what kind of movie it actually is (see Nolan's last two Batman films, Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier for respective examples). No one phones in their performances here, and I think the film makes the best case for comics not just being for kids than any recent such films in memory. Adults can take it seriously, but they can also take the kids without fear of them seeing anything too traumatic or confusing.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning the movie's major stand-outs. Peter Dinklage is not given a lot to do, but he makes the most out of a minor role. As Bolivar Trask, the scientist who creates the Sentinels, he mostly reacts to people telling him he's crazy and comes just short of twirling his considerable moustache. However, he commits to the role enough that I wanted to see more of him in action (and more of his character's motivations, frankly). I also loved Jackman in this. As I've said before, his Wolverine was once a force to be reckoned with--but as the X series' common thread, his character has worn out both his usefulness and welcome. At least, that's what I thought going into Days of Future Past. Here, he's plain wonderful: irascible, funny, and just involved enough with the plot that we can focus on other characters when he starts taking up too much screen time.

Last, but certainly not least, is Evan Peters as the super-speedy teen mutant, Quicksilver. He's only in the movie for a bit, but he's the spark that reminds us of how much fun the younger X-universe of Vaughn's First Class was. There was a lot of fan outrage over their perceived treatment of this character, based mostly on costuming and the fact that he appears in a lame fast-food commercial, but in context, he's the best part of a movie filled with great things.**

Unlike many recent comic-book films, Singer's Days of Future Past doesn't feel like a box on a movie-studio marketing chart. It brings elements from other pictures together, but works as a complete story: beginning, middle, and end are all there and all ready for this to be the last X-Men story. It's not, of course, and if you stay 'til after the end credits you'll see the phenomenal set up for Age of Apocalypse (this one's actually worth sticking around for--if you're a fan of the comics). I'm one of many who'd begun to suffer X-Men fatigue in recent years, despite having loved First Class. But I'm fully back on-board now, ready to leave the past in the past and look towards a bright, thrilling, and imaginative future.

*They even make (mercifully brief) references to the Wolverine spin-offs.

**I don't envy Godzilla star Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who must develop his own interpretation of this character for the Marvel Studios film continuity. Following in Peters' footsteps is like trying to find a suitable Joker in the post-Ledger era.