Review – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Trailer

Time travel stories can be easily messed up, How do the X-Men fare?

Time travel stories can be easily messed up, How do the X-Men fare?

There are few existing film franchises with the longevity of the X-Men. Their first, relatively low-key, adventure was 14 years ago, when the genre of the modern comic book film was still in its infancy. This was a genre that the X-Men helped to propel past its basic beginnings and into a dominant spot on the box office lists: there would be no Avengers, no Dark Knight, no cavalcade of superhero TV shows if the X-Men had not proven you could make an elongated series of films based on one such property. Six films and three separate arcs (the first trilogy, Wolverine adventures and the prequel) later, the mutants are back in their grandest adventure yet, a loose adaptation of the source material’s famous story of the same name. It’s an ambitious project, but could director Bryan Singer hold it all together?

In the not too distant future, humanity and mutants wage a terrible war against each other, where the latter have been ruthlessly hunted to near extinction by the “Sentinels”, advanced robotic behemoths with few weaknesses. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) come up with a last ditch plan: to use Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) abilities to send Logan (Hugh Jackman) back 50 years into his old body to prevent any of these events from happening. In 1973 he must stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Sentinel designer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), but can only do so with the help of two sworn enemies: the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

More in-depth discussion of the film with spoilers, from this point on. My shorter, non-spoiler, review should soon be available on The Write Club.

This must have been a difficult project to envision for the production team, with such an immense cast and a storyline spanning from the separate ends of a 50 year gap. On the surface of it there is so much to keep track of, so many big names to give a spotlight to, a task that you could argue is as big as or bigger than that which faced Joss Whedon when he began production on The Avengers.

But I am delighted to say that Singer and his team have pulled it all off rather wonderfully. With the “modern” sections serving as just some scene setting and spiffy action sequences, the focus is very much on the world of the 1970’s, as the X-Men franchise continues moving forward with a younger cast over their older equivalents. This is a film with great pacing, framed and carried out with skill in choosing the right action beats, the right moments of elaboration and simply the right tone to keep the audiences interest piqued for the majority of the running time.  It is a film with the right feel for being set in the 70’s, properly, with more of Nixon’s shenanigans and Vietnam repercussions than bland inserts of period music. Such things are vitally important for setting the scene in an effective way, and for allowing this gargantuan story to be told.

And what a story it is, told with a really tangible confidence exuding outwards. X-Men knows that it is based on comic book material, knows that the premise is extreme, even difficult to accept for an audience. But it does its explaining early on, doing only enough to make sure there aren’t any shouts of “Plot holes!” and then Singer is moving on the better parts of his narrative, a fine one, whose quality makes Days Of Future Past an easy pass when it comes to my own “Inception Test”. It’s nice to see this genre of cinema take itself seriously and refuse to fall back on whimsy, overdone comedy angles and other such things, even as it is also good to see that it is not all grit and darkness. This is a film with source material based on a different palette of story, from a different era, and it goes with that history rather than try and change it. The scale of things have gone up since the first X-Men movie, but the feel of it really hasn’t changed all that much.

The great success of Days Of Future Past is its decision to focus roughly 90% of its time and energy on 1973, using the dystopia of 2023 only for some scene setting, and for a very impressive action sequence early on (and another, shorter, one late on) that serves merely to introduce the Sentinels and establish them as the very deadly threats that they really are. This is a film about a very small amount of characters a long time ago really, and effective use is made of their older versions simply to make the audience realise that the stakes are indeed high, that things might turn out very badly and that Logan’s mission is of the most immense importance. Yes, there are a lot of very big name actors whose roles amount little more than being present or just looking grave, but a story like Days Of Future Past requires that. It sets things up rather wonderfully for the time skip, and is the only way that a story like this could have been efficiently told (without increasing the running time by an hour).

And so to the past, with Wolverine being our eyes into the aftermath of First Class. The end of that film was cautiously optimistic when it came to a wheelchair-bound Xavier and company but just as the opening of Days Of Future Past shows us a world in peril, so does the opening scenes in 1973 show us a world upside down. Aside from America generally being in a state of chronic low self-esteem over Vietnam and other issues, aside from Bolivar Trask’s efforts to militarise a campaign against mutants, Charles Xavier is a dishevelled wreck in an abandoned mansion, cared for only by a mutation averse Hank McCoy, while Erik Lehnsherr is imprisoned in the Pentagon. The compare and contrast with the unity between mutants of the opening scenes is remarkable, and serves to really drive home the point that 1973 is a world away from where the X-Men will one day find themselves. But still, despite the danger of over-complexity in such a time-travel narrative, things have been set up so that anyone can really follow along: there is a single goal (stopping Mystique’s assassination of Trask) and the means to carry that goal out. One of the things I really liked about this story is that you could strip out the time travel/2023 elements entirely, and still have a workable plot for a sequel to First Class. There’s a very solid base to build things off of.

After a mostly light hearted introduction to 1973 from a dazed Logan, Days Of Future Past moves onto what will turn out to be its main focus: the relationship between Xavier, Lehnsherr and Mystique, that was oh so pivotal to making First Class really great. Those younger versions of well established characters form the core trinity of Days Of Future Past, with the main drama of the film being the warped relationship between an embittered (and suddenly walking) Xavier, a increasingly militant Magneto and an ever more uncontrollable Mystique.

Each of these three have their own arcs that intertwine with the others. Charles needs to make a defining choice between relative normality, with working legs, or embracing his former powers with everything that comes with that. Filled with hate and bile at the beginning of the film, he has to find some measure of forgiveness for the people who have, in his eyes, wronged him, so he can truly become the more pacifistic and wise character eventually played by Patrick Stewart. Those are difficult choices to make, and involve the sundering of friendships and the rehabilitation of others, but provides a good spine to Days Of Future Past, as the early glimpse at 2023’s Xavier gives the audience something to root for, for the younger Xavier’s eventual growth.

Fassbender remains an example of classic Hollywood cool in his role of Magneto.

Fassbender remains an example of classic Hollywood cool in his role of Magneto.

Lehnsherr is very different of course. His arc is that of the anti-hero, the smarmy villain we can’t help but like just a little bit, the Edmund to Xavier’s Edgar. Audiences appreciate a man of action, and so it isn’t hard to feel a bit more sympathy and support for Magneto in the early stages of Days Of Future Past than we do for Charles. The arc, for the audience’s perception anyway, is a reminder of the danger that Magneto carries, the intense dedication he has to potentially wiping out most of the human race in favour of his own kind. Magneto has to find himself again having been freed, and build up to his eventual “coming out” as an all-out villain, a role he will maintain for some time to come.

Then there is Mystique, who might have the most enthralling part of this trinity, maybe because she is the connection between the two men I’ve mentioned previously, and might be the only thing that can bring them together. Both Xavier and Lehnsherr have done wrong by Mystique really: Charles tried to get her to hide what she was because of his own issues, and Lehnsherr willingly set her on a more violent path. The Mystique who is trying to kill Trask is their dual creation, and only they can bring her down. Mystique’s journey is one of losing control, but then having to choose between the two philosophies of these two men, both of whom she has loved in different ways. One is a path of least resistance and relative peace, a rejection of murder and mayhem for the sake of revenge. The other is violent and final. Days Of Future Past isn’t shy about portraying a tale where violence is clearly not the answer, but Mystique character journey was still an enjoyable one to witness despite this moral framing.

The triangle between the three is effective and full of genuine feeling, making sure that Days Of Future Past has the right emotional core to go along with its somewhat extreme premise. Take away the world of 2023, the time travel, the giant robots, the mutant powers, all of it, and you still have something that, while being a well-worn tale, can make for entertaining drama: two men and a woman, whose lives intertwine and who irrevocably change the others in very fundamental ways, and who actively battle, figuratively and literally, over each other’s souls. But while there is an obvious romance angle to parts of it, it is a refreshingly platonic triangle, one where ideas and not sex are the primary battlegrounds.

Much of the other “X-Men” who appear – Logan himself, Beast, Quicksilver, Shadowcat, Iceman – actually appear more as hangers-on to the main three, but that’s OK: Not everyone can hog the spotlight in a film like this. Its just a reality that has to be accepted when the cast is this gigantic, and I actually applaud Singer for choosing to stick with that core trinity for the majority of the film, instead of trying to cram in as many viable sub-plots as possible. They have their action moments and scenes of good dialogue, even some effective characterisation as it goes, but there is no necessity for them all to get an even share of the spotlight from Xavier, Lehnsherr and Mystique.

The main victim of all of that is undoubtedly Logan. Despite getting top billing, Hugh Jackman’s character really isn’t the main focus of Days Of Future Past, he’s merely the catalyst for the rest of the drama to unfold. Once he helps bust Magneto out of prison, thereby getting Lehnsherr and Xavier in the same room, his part is pretty much done in terms of real importance. Sure, they try and inject some life back into him by bringing William Stryker into proceedings – a little clumsy if I’m being honest – but Logan is basically just sharing a lot of camera time with the main players without really adding that much. Even in the finale, his role is mostly just to get tossed around by Magneto while Xavier is attempting the real heroics.

It’s a big difference from the last film in this franchise, where Wolverine was the main/title character, a story where he was the unrelenting focus and the driver of anything story-wise. That film had a post-credits scene that basically served as passing the plot carrying torch back to Xavier and Magneto, and so Wolverine is, for the majority of the running time, a mere spectator here. There’s also a really ridiculous ass shot of him when he arrives back in 1973, something that is such meaningless fan service as to reach the kind of standards J.J. Abrams sets himself, only with men instead of women.

Wolverine’s meet-up with Xavier and McCoy, languishing in a disused mansion with no purpose or direction, sets up what is probably Days Of Future Past’s best sequence, as the trio hook up with this franchises version of Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, a rapid moving teen vagabond who decides to help them out on their attempt to bust Magneto out of prison for no other reason than his apparent boredom. What follows is a fun, visually interesting set of scenes, as Quicksilver shows off his moves, notably in a Jim Croce scored moment when his abilities are showcased through slowing down time around him. Maximoff is barely on screen for ten minutes total, but he gets plenty of characterisation and opportunities to show off (not least when he drops a hint as to his parentage) and the entire part of the film that revolves around him is excellent. Aaron Taylor-Johnson already has a lot to live up to.

From there Days Of Future Past starts heading towards more serious territory, various crisis points in the timeline, as the four man band now intervenes in Mystique’s activities, but naturally makes things more complicated. The really interesting aspect of the Xavier/Magneto/Mystique trinity comes into play from this point, as Lehnsherr initially tries to kill his former protégé, then tries to join up with her again, demonstrating his sheer single mindedness at whatever goal he is trying to achieve at that exact moment. He can’t change his spots, and Xavier is left trying to pick up the pieces from a low-key, but quite exciting, mid-film set-piece.

Xavier’s whole purpose in Days Of Future Past now comes to the fore, as the use of his abilities is the only thing that keep hope alive. Xavier, this shell-shocked individual, doesn’t want to go back down that path, but needs must. This is him finding his direction once more, even though the attempt seems to cause him great pain. It takes a conversation through half a century, with his older self, to make him pull through. That was a great scene altogether, even if it was just a little bit of fan service, but this is the kind of story, that volatile plot idea of time travel, that calls directly for such things. Seeing Xavier pull himself together, inspired by the thoughts a of the man he would become, is a great twist utterly appropriate for this franchise, on the traditional way such plotlines are told.

Quicksilver's extended cameo is one of the films high points.

Quicksilver’s extended cameo is one of the films high points.

We move smartly on from there and deep into the finale portion, which is spaced outwith care but never feels like it drags. Magneto has his own plans, outside those of Mystique and Xavier, and is willing to enact them. Mystique still has her choice to make. And Xavier still has a world to save.

That third act, and that finale, is, like so much else of Days Of Future Past, remarkably low key. That might read a bit strange considering that Magneto lifts the entirety of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium off the ground to trap the White House, but that’s just an almost unnecessary piece of visual flair, much like Magneto lifting the Golden Gate Bridge in The Last Stand, that while destructive looking and violent, doesn’t actually involve a lot of people dying or breaking of the “carnage threshold”.

What follows is fairly basic. Wolverine and Beast take on one of the retro Sentinels, but that consists of just a few bashes. It’s the present where the real CGI finale is taking place, but even that is just the odd cutaway from the real drama and the real source of tension. That isn’t the Sentinels tearing into the Himalayan monastery, or Magneto tearing a Sentinel apart in 1973, or even if President Nixon is going to survive the next few minutes or not.

No, it’s just Xavier trying to talk Mystique down, even as he is pinned under a pile of rubble. That connection, built up since the first moment of First Class, is what is driving the excitement now, and it’s a credit to these prequels that such a tension has been made. From what we know about Mystique before and after this point, we can’t be sure what she’ll do exactly.

She does eventually relent on killing Trask, leading to those characters legal down fall and the stillborn nature of the Sentinel program. She still doesn’t come back to Charles fully – off she goes to find her own destiny, one apparently involving Logan – but it still ties back into X-Men’s constant affirmation of Xavier’s viewpoint. Magneto’s desired conflict between humans and mutants will wind up destroying much of our world, and it can all spring from just one person choosing to take a life for the sake of revenge.  Xavier prevents that, by preventing just one act of violence. It’s a suitable end for a film of this nature, one about the rippling effects in timelines, but also a film that has been mostly about three very important characters and their interactions with each other. That key plot triangle gets a proper conclusion, and with plenty left unsaid in case of a sequel (which does appear to be going ahead).

There are some detriments to Days Of Future Past of course, nothing is ever perfect. For me, Dinklage’s role doesn’t allow him the same scope for being a villain as others have had in this franchise, or in other films of the same genre. He’s antagonistic, but doesn’t really get the opportunity or the screen time to be a proper villain. He seems more like an uncaring bureaucrat than a deadly threat to mutants, and even his eventual fate was finalised “offscreen”, a real sign that the production team just wasn’t sure what to do with him. His motivations are simplistic and rather uninteresting, and Dinklage, absent the sort of memorable lines that make Tyrion what he is, can’t really do a Game Of Thrones-style job here. Though, it is rather good that his size is at no point referenced, mentioned, or even made fun of by other antagonists, a surprisingly PC way of treating the issue that I did not expect.

The other thing, sort of mentioned already, is that you might get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of cameos, especially in the closing stages. It’s OK to throw them in I suppose, it doesn’t ruin the film, but it does give Days Of Future Past some negative aspects of fan service as well – plenty of these characters could be absent without Days Of Future Past suffering at all. I speak of the likes of Sunspot, Storm and Havoc, who might get a few lines but whose only meaningful contribution is in providing a vessel for a CGI sequence.

The last problem, or at least potential problem, is, for all intents and purposes, the reboot of the universe at the conclusion of Days Of Future Past, with all of the events of X-Men, X2, The Last Stand, Wolverine: Origins, and The Wolverine becoming null and void, out the window, with all of the associated character deaths and tribulations. The resurrection of Jean Grey and Cyclops especially surprises. A lot has been undone with this decision, and I wouldn’t say I was particularly pleased by that. It cheapens much of what we’ve seen before, an ending of such unrelenting happiness, and while it does give X-Men the chance to go to interesting places, its essentially just starting over, as if Logan just encountered the X-Men for the first time. There is an element of laziness to a decision like that, it’s undeniable, especially since it does not appear as if this is an ending to this branch of the X-Men story – Wolverine himself will be getting one more film in a few years, after another trip back in time with the First Class crew. They want more stories but could envision nowhere to go with the way things were left in The Last Stand, so the big red reboot button got a pushing. That’s a pity.

Of course there’s also a post-credits scene (sigh) setting up that coming prequel, to be set in the 80’s, with Apocalypse apparently to be the villain. Will they just move on to the prequel story entirely then? It wouldn’t be the worst choice, even if the entire ending is essentially predetermined by how Days Of Future Past leaves off.

So how about female characters then? Well, there is Mystique of course, and essentially little more: both Kitty Pryde and Storm have roles that are little more than extended cameos. But Mystique does a fine job as a character all of her own, a suitable advancement of her story since the end of First Class. There she walked away from Xavier and down the more militant path. But now she’s gone too far, too far for Magneto to even claim to have control on her, and the battle for her soul must begin anew.

Lawrence might not have the same level of material as she did in First Class, but still pulls of a great performance here.

Lawrence might not have the same level of material as she did in First Class, but still pulls of a great performance here.

But by the conclusion Mystique has grown enough where she can make her own choice for her own reasons, and then walks away from both Xavier and Magneto, rejecting both of them for trying to control her, even if Xavier was doing it to try and avoid a larger catastrophe. Mystique is so utterly alone in Days Of Future Past, that it’s not hard to understand why she is turning to the extreme option of murder in her quest for an identity – missing Magneto, her former allies killed by Trask and with Xavier dead to the world around him. She’s desperate and willing to lash out because of that. She gets back in touch with a few of these people in the course of Days Of Future Past, enough for her to realise that her planned assassination goes too far, even as she remembers just why she walked away from Xavier in the first place. The same logic applies to Magneto now. Mystique can make her own way, leaving Xavier and Lehnsherr trailing in her wake.

Mystique then is a well envisioned character, with the right motivations and ways of carrying them out, the right reactions to her surrounds and the right end point for what she has gone through. It’s just a shame that she is the only really good female character in Days Of Future Past, a film completely dominated by the male sex to a degree that is cringe-worthy even for Hollywood.

But in comparison with some of its more recent competition, Days Of Future Past is a wonder of complex story-telling told in an accessible and enjoyable way. It embraces its inner nature fully, without fear of losing audiences potentially confused by the myriad of characters or time travel plot. It tells a very basic story and then adds on all of the other elements around that, making everything shine all the brighter.

On the acting front, McAvoy’s conflicted Xavier is the real stand out star of the show, even if he isn’t top billing. McAvoy is one of those consistently good actors, who brings his all even to the lesser roles. But thankfully this isn’t one of them. McAvoy does spend a lot of time moping as Xavier, over his perceived abandonment and lack of controllable powers, but its a better kind of moping than Hollywood usually does – the kind that bites back on occasion and has a bit of life in it, indicating that maybe the moper in question might just be a bigger man than we realise. His anger in that showdown with Lehnsherr on the plane was great, and while some might quickly tire of all the pontificating that goes with the character, I felt that McAvoy carried it very well, right up to his final pleading with Mystique.

He is ably matched by Fassbender’s Magneto, who owns the screen whenever he appears, full of presence and gravitas.  Fassbeneder is an old school kind of leading man, oozing with charm and classic Hollywood cool. He’s under-stated, he rarely raises his voice – when he does, its only in exceptional and enthralling circumstances. But that’s Magneto: it takes an apocalypse to get him off his militant path, but even then you can’t but like him a little. I think Fassbender has made him, in these prequels, into a true anti-hero.

Lawrence doesn’t get as much good material as she had in First Class if I’m being brutally honest (I’m always more interested in origins), but still gives another memorable performance as the conflicted Mystique. It must be hard to emote underneath all that paint, and even harder when you spend half the time as someone else entirely. But Lawrence is one of the best in Hollywood today, and it shows in everything she makes. When “normal”, you can really feel the anger, bitterness and barely restrained rage dripping off her, even as she walks away near the conclusion.

Jackman’s always been a great Wolverine and while him getting top billing is fairly mystifying to me, he steps back into Logan’s boots with aplomb for Days Of Future Past, bringing all of the snark, aggression and action hero style machismo to the screen, which works well enough next to the more considered Xavier and quiet Magneto. But I prefer his Wolverine when he is unequivocally the leading man, and not just the audience surrogate.

Dinklage, as I have gone over already, is fine but just limited with the material he’s given. It’s a fairly big step down in terms of quality from Game Of Thrones, to be playing a mediocre comic book villain, and while he gives it a good shake, I never really felt that compelled by him.

Evan Peters as Maximoff (I would assume the production was legally restrained from using the “Quicksilver” title) is also great for the 15 minute sequence that he was involved in, full of teenage exuberance and dismissivness in the same breath. His inclusion and role were great examples of how humour can be brought into a serious scene, and while I understand why they couldn’t really have him in the rest of the film (he’s way too powerful a mutant when you think about it) it was actually sort of disappointing to see him leave so early.

Nicholas Hoult was one of the surprise stand outs of First Class but seems to have fallen in prominence since. Like Wolverine, he’s just sort of there for large parts of Days Of Future Past, having no sub-plot of his own of any real importance. His performance is fine, just kind of forgettable in the larger scheme of things.

From there we’re really into the minor roles. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Famke Janssen and James Marsden all appear as their original trilogy selves, but individually have, at most, five or so minutes of screen time, that is spent fighting Sentinels in the future. None of them are bad, just very limited in what they can offer.

Dinklage's role could be a little better, with no real sense of proper motivation to Bolivar Trask.

Dinklage’s role could be a little better, with no real sense of proper motivation to Bolivar Trask.

The rest of the cast is fine too, but suffer from the same limitations of time and focus. Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto and Booboo Stewart, the new X-Men, don’t really have any lines of note, and exist just to fight (and die at the hands of) the modern Sentinels. Josh Helman is a little dull as a young William Stryker, as is Lucus Till in his brief appearance as Havoc.

Generally speaking, the cast is great with their performance and delivery. But it was inevitable that many of them would have to take a back step, or make do with the action sequences they are assigned. That was unavoidable, and I believe Singer makes the best with what he has to work with.

Just as with most of the other films in the franchise, Days Of Future Past has a great visual look to it. The CGI, especially the modern Sentinels, is very impressive, though I have a soft spot for the more “retro” models of the 1970’s. The 2023 versions are monstrous, scary but just a little too much. They don’t feel quite right, especially next to actual actors. Those fan-powered purple ones had some of the same problems, but at least up close they appeared to be using some physical animatronics.

There’s also something to be said for the films many understated action sequences – even its finale is relatively low-key, the tension driven by human drama over CGI spectacle – with the Pentagon kitchen sequence featuring Quicksilver in the first act being especially notable. There’s something to be said for just seeing Beast wail on Magneto instead of another building falling over. Other superhero films should take some notes.

It’s not all good. For every stadium being hoisted into the sky, there’s Magneto taking over the 1973 Sentinels on a train, a sequence I felt looked remarkably poor (and more than a little confusing). That, and the Sentinel fight in the future, at the end, just seemed like an excuse for explosions that weren’t really necessary.

For cinematography, it’s almost refreshing to see a film in this genre that’s as bright, colourful and well lit as this one is, with the usual dreary sombreness confined entirely to the “present” and its innate darkness. The world of 1973 is full of contemporary fashions, lava lamps and hairstyles that went out of fashion a lifetime ago, and it all just jumps off the screen in a really cool way. All of the 1973 action sequences are in daylight and a great use is made in some of them of grainy seventies style handheld cameras, that really do a great job of making you feel like you’re back in the past.

The script features some great wordplay and special moments when certain characters meet or confront the others, and I’ll always be entertained by the contrast between the elder and junior Xavier’s, the 70’s version being a foul-mouthed whiner – just as seeing him use his powers to hit on women in First Class was cool, so is seeing him tell Wolverine to “Fuck off”.

Simon Kinberg has a done a really stand up job here. He had the biggest task outside of Singer in trying to balance out the very large cast with the running time assigned. With those constraints, he managed to give everyone important a distinctive voice and to make the interactions between those key players some of the best in the genre. This could easily have been a muddled, cliché ridden mile a minute kind of script. But it isn’t. Its succinct, it’s smart, its witty when it has to be and serious elsewhere and it keeps things ticking over at the right speed.

But there is much more than that. The script is worth praising just for the Xavier/Xavier interaction (“Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn’t mean they can’t be saved”) or McCoy’s tortured caretaking (I told you, there’s no professor here”) or just the multitude of little bits and pieces: Logan and Magneto being similar because they are both “survivors”, Trask pontificating on the oft violent nature of evolution, Quicksilver’s sarcastic attitude (“Whhhip….Laaaash?”) or just Xavier opening and closing narrations, that are as good in the role of prologue and epilogue as they always have been.

John Ottman, once composer of X2, returns to add the right musical feel to this story spanning eras, with an appropriate use of a contemporary soundtrack throughout (most notably Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face” to introduce respective time periods and Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle” for Quicksilver’s big set-piece), even if the score, never really the a great strong point of the franchise if I am being honest, is a little lacklustre and rather forgettable.

The Sentinels of 2023 look scary, but I'll always prefer the more retro models.

The Sentinels of 2023 look scary, but I’ll always prefer the more retro models.

In terms of themes, Days Of Future Past falls back on the classic X-Men stuff, basically human fear of “the other”, those that are different in some fundamental way. The traditional allegory has been the X-Men representing homosexuality but by now you could really see mutants representing any number of oppressed minorities. Given the time period these prequels are set in, it’s easy, for example, to see a racial metaphor, especially in the case of characters like Mystique.

That fear of “the other” drives everything from the human point of view. Trask’s crusade is based around fear that these new entities will one day overthrow mankind. It leads down a dark and dangerous path of medical immorality, and one day it will lead the world into an apocalypse. The message couldn’t be clearer about the nature of bigoted hate. It defines the hater and only leads to greater destruction and hate in turn.

The reaction to such bigotry, which borders on dehumanisation, is key as well. There is the militant path of Magneto and the more conciliatory path of Xavier, very much mirroring some elements of the Civil Rights movement (in so far as two white men, played by European actors, can represent it. Maybe we should think of Northern Ireland at the same time as a better example). One advocates a destructive reprisal, and eventual domination by force, the other, working together and creating a harmony. The latter path seems illogical given the sheer scale of the barbarity aimed towards mutants – even Xavier stumbles in his beliefs at key moments – but Days Of Future Past is clear in what is the better path in the long term. The promotion of understanding and mercy is where the relationship between humans and mutants needs to look for salvation, not at the end of a gun. But, as the X-Men will find throughout their history, this is all easier said than done. The other big lesson of Days Of Future Past is that it doesn’t matter what the era is: there will also be bigots and the hateful, and they will always have some kind of voice.

There’s also a bit of a theme of evolution. I know X-Men is always about evolution in a literal sense, but I’m thinking a bit deeper. Maybe lineage might be a better term. Days Of Future Past is a story about how things change. Its set over two time periods and draws distinct visual comparisons between things in both (like Wolverine’s wake-up alarm). And while its true when Trask talks about the down fall of the Neanderthal at the hands of new cousins, it’s also true on a much smaller level, in that trinity that I discussed earlier.

With the direct contrast between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr as old and young men, Days Of Future Past is a story about character evolution, the inner character of these two men. Days Of Future Past shows how they became their older selves, what set them on that evolution, for both positive and negative reasons. Xavier is a broken down wreck as Days Of Future Past begins in 1973, but is brought back to seeing the dangers of the war he is allowing to be waged right in front of his eyes. On a personal level, he sees what is essentially a sibling about to walk past the point of no return. That galvanises him into action, and into change. This makes Days Of Future Past a partial redemption story as well, with the older Xavier an example of the kind of person we can become if we make the right choices.

Magneto sometimes seems to stray into Charles’ realm of passivity, but he sees the same things as Xavier does and chooses to fight back. He has less growth: he merely remains the same man as he always does. His evolution is to become even more militant in 1973, in a megalomaniacal fashion, and we see the end results of this in 2023 as the last of mutant kind is about to be defeated: Magneto’s own nightmare, set in motion by his own actions.

Before I move on, I’d like to mention Days Of Future Past’s recurring motif/theme of reactions to the Vietnam War. The story is centred around the negotiations that (sort of) ended the conflict, at least from an American perspective. For many Americans, summed up in Trask’s views, the treaty being signed is a signal of defeat for the United States, a very rare repulse, and all at the hands of another “other”. We see the war up close, and how its ugliness pervades into the human/mutant issue, how mutant soldiers are segregated for experimentation and how drafts destroy the fledgling school that Xavier created.

But its more about attitude at large really. The end in Vietnam is a low moment for the United States, and will be followed by a succession of low moments in the near future, many surrounding “tricky Dick”. The self-esteem of the nation is struggling and such things invariably lead to some lashing out if they don’t find a positive outlet. The mutants will be Trask’s targets to try and re-establish the dominance of the United States, even though, on a smaller level, he is perfectly willing to play ball with her enemies. I suppose Trask is also willing to exploit the weakness of the United States in the aftermath of Vietnam then, and such things will also feed back into a hatred of “the other” – African Americans, homosexuals or mutants – which in turn will tie back into older conflicts, in whispers of a “stab in the back”.

Days Of Future Past is a seriously impressive comic book film. It balances the immense cast to the best possible degree and focuses on a more interesting human drama over any flashy computer generated battles or skyscraper carnage. Its cast is great, the visuals are mostly outstanding and the script is a delight. There are those who may turn their noses up at a somewhat convoluted premise and some other minor flaws, but I’m not one of them.

I feel that Singer has done his level best with the difficult adaptation of the source material, with the creation of a very accessible human drama at the heart of the larger time travel epicness. This is not only the best comic book film of the year so far, far outshining anything other Marvel properties have come up with, it’s also just one of the best films of the year so far. It’s everything this genre should be.

A truly excellent film.

A truly excellent film.

(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).

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5 Responses to Review – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

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