Monday, May 26, 2014

On the Big Screen: X-MEN:DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

Bryan Singer is bucking a trend in superhero movies. The trend is away from the auteurist approach that entrusts characters, if not whole "universes" to individual visionaries of the Christopher Nolan stripe. While Marvel Studios continues to entrust the Avengers to Joss Whedon, the industry leader apparently wants to avoid identifying any individual franchise with an individual creator. Just last week Marvel parted ways with Edgar Wright, who now won't direct Ant-Man after having lobbied with the company for years to have the film made. Wright's vision made an Ant-Man film possible, but in the end it looks like the "universe" imperatives of Marvel won out over whatever personal vision the director had. Meanwhile, Singer has returned to the X-Men franchise, a Marvel property whose movie rights are held by 20th Century-Fox, after a decade in the wilderness, and after the studio had apparently rebooted the series with the last team film, First Class. What else was Singer going to do? He hadn't set the world on fire with his films since X-Men United, though his misguided approach to Superman Returns is echoed somewhat in his new film. I presume that Warner Bros. really wanted a reboot of Superman, but Singer gave them a very belated sequel to Superman II that ignored the two intervening Superman movies while of necessity completely recasting the franchise. Days of Future Past has a significant recasting from Singer's last X-Men movie, though that decision had already been made for him in the previous film, and it ends up allowing fans to ignore some of the less-loved films in the series. The main thing it does is reestablish Singer as the guiding visionary for the franchise -- with a free adaptation of one of the best-known X-Men comic book stories, and also one of the most influential superhero stories ever written.

Comic book readers should by now have reconciled themselves to the fact that moviemakers are interested mainly in the characters in their favorite books, not in adapting their favorite stories. So there's no use making point-by-point comparisons of Simon Kinberg's screenplay with Chris Claremont and John Byrne's two-part comics story from 1981. The original "Days of Future Past" set the paradigm for decades of stories in which refugees from a dark future go back in time to prevent it from happening. The "Age of Ultron" story from which the title only, most likely, has been borrowed for the next Avengers movie, is such a tale, as is a new weekly limited series, Future's End, from DC Comics. Given the continued popularity of the trope, adapting "Days of Future Past" is a no-brainer, and from the moviemaker standpoint it's just as much a no-brainer to adapt it to the specifications of the X-Men movie franchise. Most importantly, this promotes Hugh Jackman's Wolverine into a more central role as the time traveler, although the film is fair to the First Class cast by taking Logan out of the action early in the climax. Fortunately, comics and film converge in making shapeshifter Mystique the antagonist whose history-shaping crime must be prevented, though in comics she's aided by a roster of Evil Mutants, while in the movie she's a lone wolf.

Were Jennifer Lawrence herself a mutant she would most likely be Juggernaut, but in movies she's stuck in a blue bodystocking most of the time, and never becomes the vicious badass Mystique has been in comics. That's because everyone wants to talk the poor misguided girl out of assassinating industrialist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a Seventies merchant of death who hopes to unite the Cold War world into a market for his anti-mutant technology. His murder is undesirable first because it will fulfill his prophecies of mutant hostility to humankind and provoke global adoption of his Sentinel program for mutant-fighting robots, and second because she'll be captured after doing the deed and her special DNA harvested to make Sentinels into super-adaptoids who'll spend the next half-century kicking mutant ass by mimicking their powers, as well as making the skies very dark. Also, both Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric "Magneto" Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) feel bad about misguiding or otherwise failing the impressionable blue girl. Xavier in particular feels bad about everything a decade after the events of First Class. Crippled at the close of that story, he's been cured by his remaining protege, Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), but at the cost of his psychic powers. So Logan, whose consciousness has been projected backwards through time, his future body lying helpless (though still dangerous!) as the Sentinels close in on the surviving mutants' Chinese sanctuary, to possess his past self, must talk Charles into talking Mystique out of killing the evil dwarf before he seals his Sentinel deal at the signing of the Paris peace treaty. And they've all got to fetch Eric out of a concrete bunker deep within the Pentagon, where he's been dumped, depending on who you believe, for assassinating JFK or for trying to stop the murder of our first mutant President. You take a chance letting him loose, of course, and before long he has the notion of (actually?) assassinating (another?) President, as if he can prevent the dark future with a preemptive strike on American power.

In some ways the film is an improvement on the comic books. In the original the time-traveler ends up in the dull present, while the movie gets to play with the sounds and fashions of 1973 in a far more effective manner than First Class's aping of 1962. Making Mystique a solo menace allows her to be more slippery and persistent; thwarted once, she survives to fight another day later in the picture. I can't tell you much, after more than thirty years, about the fight scenes in the comics, except that at one point Colossus uses indestructible Wolverine as a fulcrum and a steel girder as a lever to lift the allegedly immovable Blob off the ground. In the film we have two outstanding set pieces: the liberation of Magneto, highlighted by the sight-gag antics of super-speedster Peter Maximoff  (Evan Peters), and the chaotic scene in Paris when the fight with Mystique spills into the street. Singer nicely lends this a sense of historic immediacy by adopting "found footage" techniques, showing the battle through home-movie and TV news footage and demonstrating how the heroes' first intervention has actually made the historical situation worse. The film's weaknesses are typical of the genre. Singer can't resist the impulse to go big at the climax as Magneto surrounds the White House with an uprooted RFK stadium. It ends up less impressive than the Paris fight because its less light on its metaphoric feet. The action bogs down badly and finally grinds to a halt once all depends on Xavier finally talking Mystique out of murder.

The real problem here is bad writing. Wolverine is saddled with repetitive exposition, while Xavier's sappy cliches might convince you not to kill someone only if they provoke you into shooting him instead. Yet lazy writers constantly insult our intelligence by taking for granted that these banal appeals to peace and tolerance or vague notions of redemption are as persuasive as the story needs them to be even though no real effort is made to make them rhetorically or psychologically persuasive. This wishful thinking seems out of place in films dedicated to violence, especially when Mystique has just shot someone and it was a good thing. It's also dishonest to preach peace in a series of films that depends (or at least has depended) on the perpetual hostility of man toward mutant. If reconciliation really happened, there'd be no more need for X-Men movies -- or else the series will be forced in the direction indicated in the post-credits teaser, in which some dude telekinetically building pyramids in ancient Egypt is relevant to mutants somehow. Yes, I know who that is, but I read comic books, unlike most people in the movie audience who, if they stuck around, most likely took this scene as a teaser for the next Mummy movie, or took the man with the gray face to be an Ancient Alien. So Singer may have reclaimed the keys to the franchise just in time to jump the shark with it.

On its own terms Days of Future Past is entertaining enough to get by. It has its little extra movie-movie jokes: Ellen Page is shown teaching Architecture at the Xavier School, while James McAvoy discourses on the implications of bullets curving in mid-air. I promise vintage Marvel No-Prizes to people who get these bits. Jackman is his dependable self and I'm now more comfortable with the First Class versions of Charles and Eric, especially as the originals, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, have grown sadly superannuated. Lawrence and the writers haven't yet tapped the depths of Mystique's villainy, though the ending hints at more mischief to come from her over the next forty years. Peter Maximoff's exploits -- this is one character shared by the X-Men and Avengers franchises, though actors and other details will differ -- certainly set a high bar for next fall's Flash TV show in portraying super speed, while new mutant Blink (Fan Bingbing) has one of the coolest powers yet in purely visual terms. If aspects of the movie insult my intelligence, I suppose I'm used to that by now, and I can find qualities to compensate for that. Maybe I should let Peter have the last word on the movie: "It's cool, but it's disgusting" -- though I might change the order of the adjectives.

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