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Sunday
May252014

X-Men Movie: Shades of Future Franchise Past

[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]

Daniel Cudmore as Colossus and Fan Bingbing as Blink

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? 

Kitty practices her new time travel powers on Bishop

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:

Wolverine wakes up back in 1973 (note the mustard drapes!). And yes, he starts this scene completely naked. 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 materialB- 
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. 

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Reader Comments (21)

Like you, I loved Blink's motif and powers, and loved even more how her powers made them work as a team. Same goes for Bishop, who needed a charge first before going into battle. The movie made their powers work in ways that complemented and helped the entire group, and they clearly know how each other operates. The Avengers worked more like lone rangers fighting a common enemy, which to be fair, made sense in the narrative, but I hope the Avengers sequel gets the team part of it right, instead of set pieces where they all smash things individually.

My favorite minor note in the movie lifted from the comics was the nod to the relationship between Kitty and Colossus at the end. I loved them so much together.

May 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterF

I have the same quibbles with the film that you do -- the insistence that Wolverine almost always be at the focus paramount among them. The "logic" that his *body* is the only one that can withstand the journey that his *consciousness* takes to the past was such an eye roller. There is such a breath of characters in the X-Men universe that to see the same few consistently at the center seems like a gyp. All things considered, I did enjoy the movie immensely, as it is pretty much everything I expected it to be.

May 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

It's (closer) to 9.5 hours, subtracting credits for the first four. (96 + 126 = 216 + 96 = 312 + 124 = 436 + 131 = 567.) I know that's way pedantic, but, there ya go.

May 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

is this a positive review? I honestly cant tell

May 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpoppy

Yes! Had been eagerly awaiting your thoughts!

I think your point about X-Women is very very valid. I would like Kitty Pryde to send me back in time to make Fox wait and let Brian Singer do the third X-Men film, because I have this faint hope that Singer would have done the Dark Phoenix saga justice. It turned one the comics greatest and most complicated female villains into a catalyst for Wolverines angst.

Would it be too much to hope for that this can still happen now that film has been erased?

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoFo

I give it a generous 7/10. Expected so much more.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

I enjoyed this movie on so many levels and for the change from Wolverine to Kitty Pryde I feel worked especially how the storytellers made it work. I will say a problem I have had with X-Men movies is how the focus is always on the male characters while the women are shafted. The difference with this film is really the film relies heavily on Mystique and for the first time I can say a female character worked completly for me. All I wish is that in future movies is that characters as great as Jean Grey, Storm and Rogue can be better realised. It was great to have Singer back as he brings such life to this franchise. The Quicksilver scene was so much better then I could have imagined and was very similar in my opnion to Nightcrawler in X2. Also I have high expectations for Apocalypse and hope they try hard to adapt the Age of Apocalpyse storyline even though it will cost a lot of money to do.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

Well, they technically also eliminate The Wolverine and X-Men Origins Wolverine. So: Yay! We can just leave those (ESPECIALLY X-Men: Origins) in the dust-bin as well.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Is it just me or does Jennifer Lawrence just not have the edge/intensity to play Mystique?

Other than that, i liked it. Didn't love it as much as I wanted to, but i liked it. James McAvoy definitely owned the movie. Quicksilver was an unexpected delight and even Storm wasn't that bad.

Honestly, i loved all the "future" scenes especially in the final moments. It was hard to not get emotional as they were fighting to the very end.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Derreck -- agreed on Lawrence as mystique. Rebecca Romijn was so much stronger in the role which is so weird to say since she's not half the actress that Lawrence is but casting is often everything.

May 26, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

About Mystique: Lawrence was not very good in First Class. Probably her worst performance. Rebecca was fantastic in the first two movies. NOW, Days of Future Past's Mystique is neither of these characters. She's a whole new Mystique. And I think Lawrence delivered this time around. Rebecca would not be able to play this version of Mystique properly. She's better as the silent, menacing mutant.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

Jennifer Lawrence was basically my one qualm with First Class and that stayed pretty much the same for this one. While it is regrettable that they didn't go with Kitty Pride as the time traveler, we all know how well being the exposition machine worked for Ellen Page in Inception (her worst performance by far), so in the end I don't care about that so much. I LOVED the Quicksilver scene even if everything about the character was SO wrong compared to the comic books.

I still don't understand why Jennifer Lawrence is so wooden as Mystique. She even shows more personality as Katniss and that character is nearly all internal. Granted, finding anyone to play a young Rebecca Romijn would be nearly impossible, and maybe she looks the part, but girl just looks like she's floundering in these films, and it's sad to watch, especially since Mystique has been the largest female role for the past two X-Men movies.

Still, all that aside, it's my favorite blockbuster of the summer so far.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Nathaniel...these movies do get the material. Everything you're harping about is superficial (costumes) or unnecessary (familial relationships, character screen time).

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertony

I agree with everyone, I think Lawrence just doesn't work in this role and weirdly, I think she knows it. This is one of her rare missteps and I've been reading reports that she wants out of these films. They just add to her bankability, but I think she's probably over the franchise game after Hunger Games wraps.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

While X2 is still the best film of the franchise, I really enjoyed DOFP and it certainly ranks second. Unlike everyone else, however, I thought Lawrence was much improved with her performance in this film. She'll never be able to play it like R.R but she made this new version of Mystique work.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

I mean i'm willing to give Jennifer the benefit of the doubt in the sense that her Mystique hasn't progressed to the stone-cold solider of Rebecca Romijn's Mystique yet but there's still no edge to her performance. There's nothing threatening or menacing about her and her line readings are surprisingly off. Like Denny mentioned, she's great in the Hunger Games so it's not like she can't bring the emotion needed to play Mystique.

Rebecca may have had an advantage in that her role was largely silent and there was the subtle manipulation of her voice which gave her an air of intimidation. But Rebecca also brought a physicality to the role and a certain...i don't know. oomph.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

tony -- respectfully disagree 1000% that my qualms are superficial. I don't care that much about the costumes (though they've seemed pedestrian for every film but yes that's a superficial level of complaint) but the fact that the franchise only cares about 3 people is a HUGE 'not-getting-it ' problem. More than any other "team" in comic books the X-Men is about a community and a makeshift family and reducing that community to background color for the emotional lives and arcs of (literally) the 3 oldest white men IS missing the point. It's missing the point in a big way.

I like Magneto and Xavier and Wolverine as much as anyone but 9 and a half hours of screen time is more than enough to flesh out the stories of more than 3 characters.

bia -- but they're planning a solo films for her (sigh) which is unfortunate. I'd much rather get an X_Men movie every year that fleshed out the whole team rather than spinoff movies about the 4 characters that already have made the team movies their solo adventures ;)

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think Jennifer Lawrence is a talented intuitive actress and is most electric in comedic moments, but she's not especially technically skilled (movement, frequently stilted line readings). Rebecca Romijn was better suited to Mystique because so much of that character's danger and confidence is communicated through body language, which a model absolutely has to know how to convey. Manipulation of movement and body is the one aspect of modelling that overlaps most with acting.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKate

The female characters are so important in the X-Men universe and yet they are completely underdevelped in the movies. We need more of Rogue, Storm, Jean Grey and their complicated back stories.
I love Jackman but, come on, I've had enough of Wolverine. He can't bring anything new.
While watching DOFP I realized that I miss the original cast and everything it did in the first installments. Although DOFP and First Class are very good, they rely too much on popular faces.
The funny thing about Lawrence is that in several years nobody will remember her playing Mystique. She loses herself in the role and not in a good way.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel B.

I forgot to mention that I loved McAvoy's performance. He is such a good actor! Also - I loved the way the nature of the relationship between Magneto and Prof X is subtly alluded.

May 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel B.

Quicksilver: A+

my personal ranting: where is that elusive spin off for The Dark Phoenix?! -> easily the most interesting and powerful character in the X-Men Universe.

"X-MEN, NO LONGER AM I THE WOMAN YOU KNEW, I AM LIFE INCARNATE, I AM PHOENIX!"

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

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