[Editor's Navel-Gazing Note: I remind all readers upfront and as apology for this extraordinarily longwinded review that the X-Men are part of Nathaniel's actual soul, having clung to them like actual friends and role models for his entire childhood and adolescence. Other comics were mere 'entertainment'. The X-Men were the loves of his young life. - Nathaniel]
The most visually intoxicating character in the latest "When Mutants Collide!" movie is Blink (Fan Bingbing). She has very little dialogue, if any, but linguistic skill is not a mutation ("Hey now...," protests Cypher, who the movies will surely continue to shun). Blink's highly effective signature move involves tossed off pink teleportation portals which she, her teammates, and their enemies jump, run, stumble, fly or are thrown through. Think of it as Nightcrawler's disorientingly rapid teleportation, if it involved all characters in a scene and could be used malevolently against some of them.
In the very exciting opening battle sequence of X-Men Days of Future Past we see this power used frequently and awesomely as she helps her teammates (Warpath, Collosus, Storm, Iceman, Sunspot and more) to surprise, fight back, and evade (for a short time at least) their attackers, an army of mutant-killing robots known as The Sentinels. But these Sentinels learn quickly, and are very good at their job: killing mutants. The tides turn and a mutant massacre begins... or does it?
Just then it's like someone's hit a reset button and the stage is cleared of all players. What the hell is going on here?
If you're a lifelong X-Men fan you'll know. But otherwise a smidgeon of backstory to get you acclimated: As it turns out we've joined the mutant hero team in a dystopian future where most mutants have been slaughtered and the human race hasn't fared well, either. The Sentinels, once designed solely to collect and kill mutants, have taken over and all is rubble. But our mutant heroes have figured out a fix involving time travel where they send one mutant's consciousness back in time to prevent attacks. It's a band-aid solution for heroes on the run since the root problem is further back in time... in 1973 to be exact. Think of it as an X-Men/Terminator mashup even though the storyline predates James Cameron's sci-fi classic about sentient computers and robot assassins.
And now, if you'll allow for a longwinded alternative universe rant:
In the comic books this time travel was accomplished by the then mysterious new psychic named Rachel who sent the middle aged Kitty Pryde's consciousness hurtling back to her teenage body to warn the X-Men and prevent the Sentinel apocalypse. It was a great David and Goliath twist to send the weakest, freshest, most impressionable and smallest mutant back to essentially save everyone. But the screenwriters take a different and less plausible route -- ummmm. You're going to plausibility in a time shifting superhero story, Nathaniel?) -- bizarrely and with no explanation granting Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) time travel inducing psychic powers (what the what now? Apocryphal Alert!). In exchange for this new power, she is sidelined from her whole original adventure. Rude!
The team determines that only Wolverine is strong enough to withstand the biological stress of mental time travel. "It's Science!" you can practically hear the screenwriters shouting with no conviction whatsoever. See, everyone with a brain knows the true reasons for the switch which are two-fold. First, the simple and pervasive fact that sexism is rampant in superhero movie culture or at least within the rooms of the decision makers in Hollywood. Women are NOT allowed to lead superhero stories. Second, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is popular and thus he must always play the leading role.
In these two particular ways, the X-Men movies -- yes, even the only two really fine ones X2 (2003) and X-Men Days of Future Past (2014) -- have been frustrating since the X-Men comics practically created superheroic diversity with their international interracial gender balanced teams. The movies continue to homogenize these heroes, robbing them of some of their specialness. It's always really bugged me, for example, that Colossus was robbed of his Russian heritage on film. Why? It adds nothing to the movies to make him more generic! Essentially the movie versions of this property are only really ever about three English speaking white guys: Professor Xavier, Magneto, and Wolverine.
And one blue lady.
This significant and pervasive problem would require time travel to solve so it must be set aside for future reboots that do not involve Bryan Singer or current Fox executives, since not a one of them cares much about fidelity to the comic book or, worse, about any of the female characters beyond Mystique. And, while I'm being completely honest, I'd like to propose that the only reason they care about her is because someone had the sly-dog idea to reinvent her as a completely naked lady back in 2000 and that was such a bold, weird, intuitively "mutant" and sexy move that it stuck. (Sometimes fidelity to the source material is overrated.)
Okay, that's off my chest. So back to the movie at hand. If you ignore the 'this is not my X-Men' problems, it's quite good.
After the close call of the first battle sequence, and aware that they can't run forever the nomadic team sends Wolverine back in time to the inciting incident that led to the creation of the Sentinels in the first place: in 1973, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) hunts down and murders a nasty piece of work scientist named Bolivar Trask (Game of Throne's Peter Dinkage) who has been performing experiments on mutants and has started designing hunter robots to enslave them. It's a pretty solid premise for outlandishly complicated sci-fi time travel drama. The movie runs with this scenario with great pacing and smart humor, but better yet it throws up multiple clever character-based complications to keep the film bouncing around playfully. This juggling act of characters, agendas, twists, and obstacles helps the action sequences play out with great style and suspense. Nothing feels as predetermined as you'd think for a time travel action movie. You're never quite sure what to expect as Mystique hunts Trask while the X-Men hunt her, hoping to stop her before she kills. Along the way the very tetchy reprise of the Xavier / Magneto frenemy dynamic pays off beautifully, and not least because it passes the baton.
If Michael Fassbender owned X-Men First Class as Magneto (and I'd argue that he did), this time it's James McAvoy's turn to shine as Professor Xavier at rock bottom. You could argue that he's dialed it up to 11, but time travel high stakes, drug-addled self-loathing, and personal betrayals are no time to dial your performance back. The biggest kick in X-Men Days of Future Past is the face-to-face (though really psyche-to-psyche) meeting of the two Xaviers, with the unusual thrill of watching both Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy do their thing as the same man, bringing all the movies in the franchise together at once. Well, except for the execrable X-Men: Last Stand. In the happiest development in the history of the X-franchise, that film is completely eradicated from the timeline. By jumping forward and then back, the franchise cleverly hits a reset button... but only on its ugly middle child. Hooray!
The movie is so fun and satisfying, actually, that it's easy to overlook all the ways in which it's aggravating. Like that uselessly brief stinger about Apocalypse (which will surely confound anyone who hasn't read the comic books), it's messy carelessness about powers and science (even in outlandish plots and genres, you should try to make a little internal sense and aim for consistency), the fact that it's still shunting interesting heroes off to the side to focus on the ones we've already spent 10 hours with (fresh blood please). The best way to illustrate this fun excuses aggravating effect is Quicksilver (Evan Peters). In every conceivable way that you could, they get the transfer wrong: He looks like shit ("How can a movie with this big a budget STILL not afford good wigs???" we scream into the abyss again and this time it's not Halle Berry's Storm that's causing the wailing); he is only very broad very obvious comic relief and dumped from the plot for no reason other than that he's served his plot purpose; he wears stupid goggles and rock band t-shirts; he has a little sister instead of a twin; and so on... And yet, Quicksilver is the movie's comic highlight. He arrives for just one sequence, a Magneto prison break, and stops the show. Literally. Nothing else moves when he's onscreen, to illustrate the speed at which he himself is moving. I was personally having so much fun with it that I temporarily forgot how annoyed I was that they didn't even try to approximate his look from the comic books (it's fine to reinvent if you're also improving -- see Mystique -- but this is just pure uglification.)
By the time the movie reaches its final warmly nostalgic post-crisis curtain call of sorts I was thoroughly satisfied even if I kept hoping Blink would return to throw up some portals and rid us off so many of the things this franchise doesn't need and got wrong, and let us keep the things it did beautifully.
Grade: B+ as a stand alone adventure movie.
Grade if you don't care about the comics: A-
Grade if you are highly evolved like mutants or Nathaniel and understand just how rich this franchise could be if I really "got" the material: B-
I've already beaten this topic into the ground but given the vast wealth of characters and storylines from the X-Men comic books and its focus on interpersonal and team dynamics involving all sorts of characters of multiple genders, races and nationalities it's really kind of alarming that we're 5 movies in (that's 10 hours of story, people!) and the movies have yet to show anything like an interest in any character beyond Magneto, Xavier, or Wolverine. The other characters -- yes, even Mystique -- are only ever the focus in that they can reflect or serve the emotional journeys of those three. It's downright weird at this point and nothing like the actual dynamic of the comic books.
Oscar Chances: Nope. Sorry 'bout it. But we're on the 5th movie (7th if you count the Wolverine pictures) and the grand sum of nominations for this franchise is still zero. Like the Emmys with long running TV series, Oscar voters don't come around later if they ignored you for the first few years.