One of the bits of fallout that’s occurred since the massive success of The Avengers two years ago is that now all of the studios want a piece of that team-up action. They all seem to be wanting to build a universe of film like Marvel has. The bad news is it seems none of them wants to put in the work that Marvel did. Marvel made five movies that set the groundwork for The Avengers, but Warner Bros. seems to want to do it in two. They just announced this week that their Batman/Superman mash-up will be called Dawn of Justice, which leaves little doubt that they’re going to try to cram the entire birth of the Justice League into one movie. This puzzles me, because Warner Bros. is the studio that innovated the current trend of splitting the final book of a popular series into two films. (To be totally fair, Deathly Hallows probably did need to be two movies, but Breaking Dawn? Come on.) Likewise, Sony has announced big plans to expand their Spider-Man films to include a Sinister Six movie and maybe even a Venom or Carnage picture. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t exactly floundering at the international box office, but does anybody actually like it?
Fox seems to have the best shot of actually pulling this off with the X-Men for a couple of reasons. The first is the X-Men are more or less a cinematic universe in and of themselves. They present a world with both rich characters and rich themes. The second is Fox has already done a lot to build this world. Twice.
The big problem Fox seems to have is quality control over the years; it has been spotty at best. The first X-Men film in 1999 really kicked off the modern-day superhero film craze. It was solid, but not spectacular, but, more importantly, it showed that a movie that featured characters the general public might not have known could make money. The second film is, for me, still one of the very best comic-based movies of all time. Then, things started to go south. X-Men 3 was a troubled production that showed on screen. It was a huge mess. Worse was the first standalone Wolverine movie that appeared to suffer from a budget that couldn’t provide what the film needed. It looked cheap. Things picked up a couple of years ago with a reboot/prequel called X-Men: First Class which deemphasized Wolverine to a cameo (though it’s a spectacular cameo) and focused on the relationship between Erik and Charles, who were really well played by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. The film played out against the Cuban missile crisis, giving it a real-world feel and a bit of ’60s Mad Men historical zip. First Class was a very nice surprise. Last year brought us the second standalone Wolverine movie, and while it was a vast improvement over the first one, it still lacked a little something.
I get that Hugh Jackman has clearly been the breakout star in this series, but, as you can tell, Fox hasn’t really followed a very clear path on how to best utilize this property. They did some world building early on (The second film nicely expands on the first one.), and then everything becomes a hodgepodge of prequels and standalone films.
It would appear, on some level, that Fox is trying to get a handle on that with Days of Future Past. In a move very much like JJ Abrams’ recent reboot of Star Trek as a film franchise, this film uses time travel as a means of rebooting and (hopefully) setting it on a firmer foundation.
The film opens in a dystopian future (Is there any other kind of future?) in which mutants and humans who have helped harbor them have all been wiped out. The Sentinels have barely been hinted at in the series so far, but they are full on display here. Back in the 1970s, Mystique (now played by Jennifer Lawrence) kills a scientist named Boliver Trask (Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage), the man who created the Sentinel program. She is captured and studied, and her DNA has been used to create mutant-killing robots in the future who can adapt to the mutant powers they are fighting.
It’s believed that Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can send the consciousness of a mutant back in time to keep Mystique from killing Trask and putting the entire plot in motion. Of course, the only mutant with the healing ability that would allow him to make this psychic voyage is Logan. (Seriously, Jackman appears to have not aged since 1999.) His consciousness will awaken in his body in the early ’70s and then seek out Charles and Erik to help him. That proves easier said than done, as both Charles and Erik are in very precarious places, one psychological and the other physical.
The good news is Days of Future Past is a return of form for the original X-Men cast. It’s not as much fun as First Class was, but dystopian futures seldom are. That’s what makes them dystopian. What the filmmakers are going for is really more of a character study, and these are people that fanboys and fangirls love at face value and general audiences have come to love of the previous six films. When you combine both iterations of the cast, it’s just crazy how many fabulous actors are in a movie like this. By my count, there are six Oscar nominees and two winners present. The best news of all is there is no wink-wink irony going on. This isn’t quite as ponderous as the Nolan Batman overly serious movies became, but actors never act like they’re slumming to be here.
The bad news is Days of Future Past doesn’t really have a villain, though the futuristic versions of the Sentinels are admittedly pretty scary. I guess the default villain is Trask, but he’s not any kind of physical match for any of the mutants. So, there’s nothing here as visceral as the raid of the school scene from X2, and that’s a shame.
I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan going way back, and I have to say I am a little bit worried for him. It’s likely common knowledge now that both Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron will feature Quicksilver, since he’s both a mutant and a member of the Avengers. Here, he’s played by Evan Peters, and there’s no other way to put it: Quicksilver brings the house down. It always seems like the best set pieces in modern action films are somewhere in the middle with the big, CGI-infused grande finale that never really quite works. A jailbreak scene in which Quicksilver is a key player is stupendously fun. I’m excited to learn he’ll be back for the next First Class sequel. It’s going to be really, really hard for Joss to top this. The gauntlet has been thrown down.
I have a policy about time travel films that I don’t think too hard about the implications of fiddling with the past. Unless something is just egregiously stupid, I just roll with it. I’m sure somebody will point out all the plot holes sooner rather than later, but nothing stood out to me as offensive. As usual, the mutants themselves always stand in for the oppressed outsiders among us, and since 1999 they’ve been specifically symbolic of the gay rights movement. Here, we have mutants literally being hunted down and exterminated, which shares a kinship with Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart. We are now living in an era where several state legislatures were considering bills that would have made it legal for services to be denied to gay people based on “strictly held religious beliefs,” which basically meant a doctor could refuse to treat a gay patient or a fireman could allow a gay person’s house to burn to the ground. All these years later and the X-Men are still a powerful symbol of inclusion.
But, one of the best things Days of Future Past does is, like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, it resets the universe and makes it so the dreadful X-Men 3 never happened. This isn’t without its issues based on how stupid that film was. For instance, the Patrick Stewart version of Charles Xavier is alive when he was killed by Jean Grey. Old Magneto has his powers back. (I know what people will say, the end of that movie implied that Magneto still had the ability to influence metal and that Charles was somehow alive on some level. That’s one of the many reason why that movie is crap. There was no commitment to the stakes they were playing with. Were you saddened by the Professor’s death? No need to be, he’s not really dead. Were you intrigued by the irony of Magneto being forced to live the rest of his life without his mutant powers? Sorry, he didn’t really lose them. It was like a crappy TV series that never generates any actual suspense, because the game pieces are always back to their starting point by the end of each episode. Hit the resent button, and nothing’s really changed. But, I digress.) Yet, some of the characters who were killed in that film have stayed very dead.
It gave me joy to know that the carnage Brett Ratner wrought has all been undone.