Watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past”
“The Avengers” got a lot of praise for juggling multiple characters, casting good actors in key roles and possessing a smart and sophisticated worldview.
But you know what movie does all of these things, and does them a whole lot better? “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” This movie is one of the more intelligent and engaging comic book movies I’ve ever seen. It’s clever, thought-provoking and visually compelling. Like all comic book movies, it contains action, but it doesn’t conclude with 30-minutes of explosions, gunfire and fights. It’s less predictable than most comic book movies, which might explain why it feels so fresh. The climatic fight doesn’t boil down to the hero and the villain duking it out on an elevated platform while chaos reigns around them. In a creative and unusual twist, the outcome SPOILER ALERT! hinges upon the villain’s decision to walk away, rather than kill. And the villain isn’t really much of a villain at all.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is the first X-Men movie since 2011’s “X-Men: First Class,” which rebooted the franchise by traveling back in time and focusing on Magneto and Professor X as young men, discovering and developing their powers. “X-Men: First Class” got mixed reviews, but I thought it was fantastic — a provocative period piece anchored by two incredibly charismatic actors, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. In a stroke of genius, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” contains two parallel storylines set in the past and the future, which enables us to see Magneto and Professor X as bitter rivals during the Nixon Administration, and also as aged allies in a dystopian future. With both humans and mutants in danger of being killed off by a powerful breed of robots called Sentinels, Professor X and Magneto send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past to try to stop the event that leads to the creation of the Sentinals before it happens. Basically, this involves convincing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) not to assassinate the Dr. Mengele-like scientist (Peter Dinklage) who uses her DNA to make the killer robots.
X-Men fans will be delighted to see that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are back, playing Magneto and Professor X, respectively, and that Wolverine has returned for more than an uncredited cameo.
Under director Bryan Singer — helming his first X-Men film since 2003’s “X2,” and doing an excellent job — the film even makes time for tangents and secondary characters. The movie’s most entertaining stretch revolves around the mutant known as Quicksilver, seen here as a wise-cracking teenager energized at the prospect of helping Wolverine and Professor X break into the Pentagon and retrieve Magneto, who has been imprisoned in connection with the Kennedy assassination. Other characters are glimpsed too briefly. For instance, I would have liked to see more of Shadowcat (Ellen Page), and I hope the next X-Men film gives her a larger role. Frankly, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” has more good characters than it knows what to do with, and I often felt like I was on charisma overload, especially when Fassbender, McAvoy, Jackman and Lawrence shared the screen. Throw in the occasional leap into the future, where McKellen and Stewart get to hang out with attractive young mutants with amazing skills, and it’s almost too much to take.
Like the other X-Men films, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” celebrates outsiders and outcasts. The mutants all have incredible skills, but these skills are, at times, a burden, as when the mind-reading Professor X makes clear when he complains about the all of the voices in his head and how he just wants them to go away. The film suggests that each mutant must come to terms with being different, and that they respond to their outsider status — and the fear and fascination of ordinary humans — in different ways. While Mystique has decided to kill the scientist who experiments on mutants, Magneto has bigger ideas, and sees himself as part of a superior race that must band together against the humans and, if necessary, kill them. Professor X, meanwhile, believes in educating the humans and working for the common good of humans and mutants.
What’s interesting about “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is that it’s possible to understand and sympathize with all of these different views. It’s easy to understand why Magneto might respond to his and his fellow mutant’s mistreatment by humans by deciding that people are his enemy, and also relate to Mystique’s quest to liberate mutants from their human oppressors. The film doesn’t deny the legitimacy of their positions, though it ultimately sides with the more peaceful and optimistic approach taken by Professor X. And it doesn’t shy away from the idea that perhaps humans should fear mutants — that their powers are great, and can be used against the powers-that-be.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” doesn’t waste a lot of time on explanations and backstory, so it might not make a whole lot of sense to viewers who aren’t familiar with the franchise. But this is to its credit: Viewers who are familiar with the X-Men will be swept up in the fast-moving story and even moved by it. The love triangle between Magneto, Mystique and Professor X feels messy and real, as do the friendships and loyalties of the rest of the X-Men. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is more emotional than the average comic book film, and I look forward to seeing all of the characters again.
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