Saturday, July 12, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Living in the Age of Franchises means that there's a lot of audience hand-holding in big movies. It's a bit ironic, if you think about it. If the first movie was popular enough to merit a sequel, then one would assume that the prospective audience would be aware of the events so far when they see the sequel. And yet, sequels usually begin with a lot of expository info-dumps, making sure that the audience knows everything before jumping into the meat of the story. It can be kind of obnoxious, especially in a franchise where the second/third/fourth/hundredth installment was pre-ordained. Why do we need exposition at the beginning of the second movie when the first was just one big prologue?

X-Men: Days of Future Past, the sequel to 2011's sort-of reboot X-Men: First Class, is the rare franchise entry that trusts its audience to keep up. For the most part, there's no spelling anything out. A brief voiceover in the opening scene explains that, in the future, killer robots known as Sentinels have driven both mutants and humans alike to the verge of extinction. A band of mutants - led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) - have hunkered down in China with one last-ditch plan. The idea: send Wolverine (or, rather, his conscious) back in time to the 1970s, where he can stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Sentinels and whose death spawns the apocalypse they are currently living in.

The film's title spells out the complexity of this narrative: there's a lot of time-hopping between the past and future, uniting characters from the original X-Men trilogy with those of the First Class films. But despite it's enormous ambitions, the film only occasionally falters, succeeding as a thrilling installment to the series and proving how sequels should be done.

More after the jump.

Perhaps the wisest move the film makes is bringing Bryan Singer, who directed both X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003), back on as director. It makes sense on a base level: who better to get the old band back together than the original bandleader himself? But there's more to bringing Singer back than just that. Singer, more than any other director who's handled the franchise, understands how to use mutants as a metaphor without making it overbearing. Much has been made about how the mutants in Singer's X-Men films have been a stand-in for the LGBTQ community (Singer himself is openly gay), and that is an appropriate reading, but they could also stand in for any group that's been labelled as "Other." The central premise of Days of Future Past is based on intolerance and Otherizing: Trask's desire to eliminate mutants, coupled with his murder at the hands of a mutant (thus proving his point, in the public's eye), leads to the mutual destruction of humans and mutants alike. That the film presents this message with nuance through a convoluted narrative involving time travel is even more impressive.

But this isn't to say that Days of Future Past is a preachy appeal for tolerance. Singer effortless blends the thematic material with exciting action and creative set pieces. Though we don't really get to know some of the other mutants left in the future, such as Bishop (Omar Sy) or Blink (Fan Bingbing), but the opening stand between them and the Sentinels in Moscow is a thrilling start. Similarly, the pivotal confrontation in 1973 at the Paris Peace Accords, where Mystique is set to assassinate Trask, between Mystique and Wolverine and company is a well-staged descent into chaos. There's plenty of action to enjoy, as well as much well-placed humor.

Much of the humor in the film comes courtesy of Evan Peters (best known from American Horror Story), who plays Peter, aka Quicksilver (though that name is never used in the film, presumably because Paramount owns the rights to it for The Avengers: Age of Ultron). Peters makes the most of his limited role, fully embodying Peter's youth and super-speed powers with the snarky abandon of a super-powered teenager. He also gets the film's most memorable (and inventive) set piece, a slow-motion action sequence hilariously scored to Jim Croce.

His isn't the only impressive performance though. All of the actors do fine work, with Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult getting an opportunity to add some new shades to Mystique and Beast, respectively. Stewart and McKellen do fine work with their limited screentime, even if their roles are essentially glorified cameos. And Jackman impressively continues to find new ways to play Wolverine despite this film being his seventh outing in the role.

That being said, the film's clear MVP is James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier. McAvoy is a tour de force, portraying Xavier's disillusion with the world as an addict numbing himself from disappointment. Xavier's righteously angry with how his friendship with Magneto has turned, but McAvoy plays Xavier's rage with both indignation and reserve, suggesting his desire to fully let it out but his need to remain in control. His performance is far and away the best in the film, and surely ranks as one of - if not the - best in his career as well.

If there's one major fault in the film, it's that there's not enough time for every appearance to really make a difference. For example, though Michael Fassbender is effortlessly charming as young Magneto, it does feel as if he's coasting in this film. As characters die in the future setting, it's hard for their deaths to really make an impact when we in the audience are aware that this will (likely) be negated by the time the credits roll. Similarly, it seems like a waste to have actors as talented is Page or Sy and have them do very little (interestingly, Kitty Pryde was the protagonist of this particular arc in the comics; one imagines what this film would be like if that had remained true), or, in the worst-case scenario, show up in a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance, as befalls Anna Paquin as Rogue. Having many of these characters return is fine, but it ends up making the film feel a little bloated and fan-serviced.

Yet Days of Future Past remains one of the summer's most entertaining blockbusters and a better entry in the superhero film canon. It trusts its audience to be familiar with the characters and basic premise of the franchise, and rewards that trust with an exciting, thoughtful adventure that doesn't waste time with explanations. As it turns out, recapping the story so far isn't always necessary for the enjoyment of a sequel. B+

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