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Monday, May 26, 2014

Director Report Card: Bryan Singer (2014)

9. X-Men: Days of Future Past

It’s hard to believe that the “X-Men” franchise has been running for fourteen years now. 2000’s “X-Men” was the movie to truly throw the gates open on blockbuster comic book adaptions, making it partially responsible for the current, exhausting summer season cycle we’re stuck in. However, the superhero movie landscape of 2014 is very different then 2000. The Marvel Cinematic Universe changed everything and now every major studio wants one of their own. Fox is hoping to extend its already long-running X-franchise into a series of interconnected spin-off films. Which makes “X-Men: Days of Future Past” Fox’s “Avengers,” the massive cross-over movie, the pay-off to years of build-up that will, ideally, set up countless future films.

It’s also a direct sequel to 2011’s well received “X-Men: First Class” and an adaptation of a beloved classic comic storyline. The storyline plays out over two different eras. The cast members of the first three “X-Men” movies live in a dystopian future were mutant-hunting super robots called Sentinels are very close to making man and mutant both extinct. In a last ditch effort to save the world, Professor Xavier has Kitty Pryde send series mascot Wolverine back in time. Or, at least, his mind anyway. In the past of 1971, he meets the younger version of the X-cast, last seen in “First Class.” Wolverine has to get Xavier back in shape, spring Magneto from a highly guarded prison, and stop Mystique from murdering the man who invents the Sentinels, thus sparking a wave of anti-mutant sentiments.

The split storyline of “Days of Future Past” presents some interesting opportunities. The film does not follow the traditional time travel premise of someone going back in time, body and soul. Instead, Wolverine has to remain perfectly still and safe in the future while he does what needs to be done in the past. Should anything happen to his future body, or should his past self receive a major shock, he’ll snap back, the mission failing. This device winds up creating far more suspense then expected. The climax plays out in two eras. The action in 1971 threatens to send Logan’s mind reeling back into the future. The action in 2014, giant doom-robots attempting to break in and kill his comrades, threatens his body. Cutting between two time periods like that might have damaged the movie’s pacing but “Days of Future Past” makes it work, both story lines affecting the other.

The future sequences are effectively grim. The movie opens with an extended scene of the Sentinels murdering X-Men, some of them established characters, some of them new introductions. Amusingly, after slashing through the cast members, the timeline snaps back, leaving the audience confused for a minute. The script seems to delight in dark moments like this. Throughout the future scenes, numerous familiar characters are killed, usually impaled on giant robot spikes. Perhaps the film was aiming for pathos with these deaths. Instead, it plays like a kid delighting in destroying his toys. Bryan Singer has returned to the franchise he started to end it, never hesitating to cleave through his established cast. It provides an exciting, “anything can happen” edge to the film.

As an apocalyptic conclusion to the original “X-Men” series, “Days of Future Past” is fairly successful. As a direct sequel to “First Class,” it’s less satisfying. That film’s ending set up a number of interesting ideas, Xavier’s fresh team of X-Men battling Magneto’s newly formed Brotherhood of (Evil) Mutants. “Days” dispenses with all of that entirely. Save for a cameo from Lucas Till’s Havok, all of the previous film’s supporting cast has disappeared in the margins, most killed off between movies. Charles Xavier is broken down, like Bruce Wayne at the start of "The Dark Knight Rises." The academy is closed and in disrepair. His powers are suppressed by a drug that allows him to walk. This is a clumsy plot device, mostly there to get Xavier’s plot-breaking superpowers out of the way. MacAvoy’s stringy hair, shaky moments of need, and syringe dependency is awkwardly modeled after heroine addiction. That’s a questionable comparison and one not truly fitting the character. Magneto, meanwhile, is in prison at story’s start. The plot forces Xavier and him to work together again. Basically, “First Class” promised a proper adaptation of Silver Age X-Men, the good X-Men fighting the Evil Brotherhood. The sequel skips over all of that, consigning the potentially fun stuff to the space between movies.

“First Class” was also the first X-Men movie without Wolverine in a major role, allowing other characters to take the spotlight and shine. “Days” does away with that too. Logan is at the story’s center, determined to be the only person who could survive the time jump. This forces the character into a story he doesn’t truly belong in. Wolverine works best as a berserking warrior. Here, he has to be the heart of the group, healing the damaged Charles and convincing Erik to stick around. It’s an awkward fit for the character. Furthermore, Logan doesn’t truthfully have that much affect on the plot. He’s mostly there in the background, navigating from scene to scene. The moments where he’d be truly useful, the action scenes, deliberately cripple him. A mental blow takes him out of one fight scene while he’s dispatch early on before the big finale. All signs point towards Hugh Jackman’s Canadian crusader being inserted into the story for the sake of commerce. “Days of Future Past” is supposed to be the biggest X-Men movie so Wolverine, the series’ overexposed MVP, had to be in it.

This is all the more distracting since the story is supposed to be about Charles and Erik. Disappointingly, their shared plot line is mostly taken back to square one. The direction of their arc is the same as in “First Class.” The two start out working for the shared good of mutantkind. During the big, action-packed conclusion, Magneto takes things too far, revealing himself as a dangerous extremist. Both movies climax with a terse stand-off, the fate of the world in one character’s hand. Both end with Magneto giving a call to arms to his fellow mutants. The script doesn’t explore the nuances of the two character’s relationship. They’re still BBFs and worst enemies, willing to work together but ultimately forced apart by their differing ideologies.

Going into “Days,” my biggest concern is that the movie was cramming in too many characters. This is a lesser problem in the finished film. By compartmentalizing the original cast to the future scenes, it prevents them from mucking up the past-set story. The new mutants that are introduced are mostly defined by their abilities, playing out in action scenes. However, the scenes set in the past still have a lot of balls to juggle. Wolverine, Charles, and Beast are trying to prevent the apocalypse. Meanwhile, Magneto and Mystique are pursing their own objectives. The government is eager to get the ball rolling on the Seninel program. The finale is especially fractured, the four groups all headed in the same direction for totally different reasons. With so many things happening, it’s no surprise the more focused future set scenes are far more satisfying.

With such a packed script, some characters get the short shaft. Problematically, two of those characters are the most important plot-wise. “First Class” had Mystique shifting from merely Magneto’s number one henchwoman to a tragic character, torn between two worlds. Her plot line here is supposed to be an epic battle for the morality of her soul. Will she give into her hate and inadvertently trigger doomsday? Or will she forgive and forget, possibly opening the path to redemption? The character’s part was no doubt beefed up for now Oscar winning actress Jennifer Lawrence. Unfortunately, Lawrence has no idea how to play the character. There’s no soul behind her eyes. Her Mystique has no inner life, instead bounced around by the script’s demands. An especially clumsy plot twist has her and Magneto at each other’s throats. The climax is depended entirely on Lawrence’s acting and she simply can’t pull it off. The audience doesn’t care about Mystique’s fate, the character not proving particularly captivating. I’m beginning to think that the earthy, exciting talent we saw in “Winter’s Bone” was a fluke. Lawrence has given increasingly dull performances in her action blockbusters.

The more-or-less villain of the film is Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the Sentinels. However, the script seems very uncertain about how to treat the character. The movie is split, unable to decide if Trask is an amoral scientist or an idealist sent down a cruel path. Most of the movie has him pursuing the Sentinel program ferociously, seemingly doing it for the money and out of a hatred for mutants. Yet a curious scene clarifies that Trask doesn’t hate mutants. Instead, he claims to be inspired by their potential. Then why is he so eager to wipe them out? Was that little speech a moment of self-denial? Who knows. Dinklage is a talented actor but, like Lawrence, his character mostly serves the plot. He’s there to set up the story and neither movie nor actor plum his motivations much.

Perhaps all my discussion of plot balancing and character development is missing the point. “Days of Future Past” is an action movie. On that level, it succeeds rather spectacularly. The opening future sequence has a new team of X-Men battling the neigh-invulnerable Sentinels. Dynamic superpowers are nicely displayed. Blink tosses portals, a fantastically realized special effect, while Iceman ice surfs and Sunspot spews flames. When it was announced that Quicksilver was going to be in the film, seemingly out of spite against Marvel for using the same character in the next “Avengers” movie, the internet starting yelling. Bizarrely, Quicksilver winds up being one of the best parts of the movie. Evan Peters nails the character’s chaotic energy and care-free tone. The character provides a lot of humor and his speedster superpowers are realized in a surprisingly creative fashion. A howler of a sequence, goofily scored to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” has Quicksilver manipulating a whole room of people, screwing around with the frozen folks mostly for laughs, only stopping the life threatening bullets at the very end. The movie never quite tops it.

The effects packed finale features robots exploding cars and Magneto lifting a sports stadium into the air. By that point, the humorous energy of the Quicksilver scenes has mostly left. “Days of Future Past” is dead serious by then. Yet explosions and levitating sports stadiums have their own pleasures, don’t they? The future half of this equation has Ian McKellen’s Magneto cutting loose with his power for the first time. He tears apart an entire squadron of machines, tossing the shrapnel around like spears.

The movie doesn’t take the time to explain each character’s powers. If audiences aren’t familiar with Blink or Warpath, played by the improbably named Fan Bingbing and Booboo Stewert, they might not understand what they can do exactly. However, there’s something refreshing about this approach. Instead of the script stopping and saying what they can do, the movie just goes with it. Non-comic readers might not leave with an exact idea of what Bishop and Sunspot’s powers are but they’ll at least have a general idea. These newly introduced characters are mostly there as action figures, fighting robots without delving much into their personality. This is actually a-okay with me. Half of the fun of the X-Men series, whether it be in comic, cartoon, or movie format, is seeing what crazy super powers the writers can cook up. Similarly, fans have long been wanting to see the Sentinels on-screen. The future designs rather smartly recall Nimrod, their power shifting ability brought to life well. The retro designs, meanwhile, look plausible in the time period while more accurately representing the classic Sentinel look.

 “Days of Future Past” does something else interesting too. Superhero comics are notorious for retconning unpopular previous events out of existence. When histories span on for decades, over thousands of issues and millions of pages, that’s not surprising. This movie might present the first time such an act was carried out during a superhero movie franchise. By the end, Bryan Singer has successfully removed most of the widely loathed “Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” from continuity. Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Professor X are still alive. The Kitty Pryde/Iceman love affair has been completely sunk, both characters back with their director-preferred partners of Rogue and Colossus. Meanwhile, the ending seems to set up a new “Wolverine” solo flick that will completely retell his origins. Whether this is petty or not, one director stamping out another’s work, is up for debate. I’ve never hated “The Last Stand.” I actually sort of admire the way it closed off so many storyline. But there’s no denying that the happy ending Singer creates for his characters here are more satisfying and more true to the franchise’s overall spirit. Frustratingly, the director still refuses to acknowledge the plot holes “First Class” created, like Beast inventing Cerebro or Xavier and Mystique’s relationship being totally changed. Oh well. That’s comics for ya’.

The X-Men movies have always had fairly excellent cast and “Days of Future Past” is no exception. Patrick Stewert and Ian McKellen have been playing these characters for so long that they have no problem inhabiting the roles. Even if James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have their talent repressed by the whims of the screenplay, the two actors still share a unique, fascinating chemistry. As a long time Ellen Page fan, it’s nice to see her having a bigger role then expected. Kitty might be reduced to a walking plot device but Page still gets some prime moments. The continually underrated Nicholas Hoult has some fun as Beast, getting to play with some refreshingly home-made, Bond-style gadgetry. The movie is even smart enough to push problematic actors, like Halle Berry’s Storm or Daniel Cudmore’s Colossus, to the background.

Like all modern superhero flicks, “Days of Future Past” ends up on a teaser, setting up fan-favorite supervillain Apocalypse. (And 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse.”) I can’t help but roll my eyes at this a little bit and not just because I think Apocalypse is lame. Must every superhero movie have a sequel, even those that seemingly wrap of their stories? By returning to the franchise he started, Bryan Singer makes “Days of Future Past” a proper send-off to the original X-Men class. However, as a sequel to the excellent “First Class,” the movie is far more problematic. I suppose those are the perils of the comic book crossover. For what it’s worth, the movie is still frequently successful at what it sets out to do. This might be one of the most unenthusiastic “Bs” I ever give out but it’s a “B” never the less. [Grade: B-]

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