Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past (Alan Markfield/Twentieth Century Fox)
In the latest installment of the X-Men franchise, Bryan Singer takes us on a journey through time. The story is split between the past, 1973, and the future, an unknown era of dystopian destruction. In typical Singer fashion, the movie opens with an arresting action sequence, set in a future where the last of the surviving X-Men, friend and foe alike, have banded together to defend against the Sentinels – brutal, futuristic, mutant-killing machines.
From the get-go we’re introduced to an almost entirely new cast of characters and superpowers, something Singer takes full advantage of – stunning acrobatics in and out of portals leading in and out of each other, surrounded by sparks of metal fistfights. Even more impressive than the expertly crafted battle is the design of the Sentinels. Visually striking, they sport broad metal scales and empty concave heads, filled with an orange magma-like substance. They can morph and adapt to any environment or material they come in contact with and make sure not just to kill, but to obliterate their enemies (The kill scenes are quite gruesome.), setting the tone for a much darker superhero movie than we’re used to. But looking past their ruthlessness, it’s the faces – or lack thereof – that intimidate; open and cavernous, with long spindly tendrils unfurling from the edges, reminiscent of some bastard Lovecraft monster.
That said, for all the spectacle and precision displayed in the opening sequence, the rest of the movie lacks in immediacy. Things slow considerably after they travel backwards, as most of our time is spent trying to convince a younger, depressed Xavier (James McAvoy) to get back on (well, in this case off) his feet and reclaim his role as the Professor. The remaining story revolves around Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and how her actions shape the future that they desperately are trying to avoid. Though Singer does well to build on character relationships and dynamics, he may have overreached a bit.
At close to 2 hours and 15 minutes, I’m honestly surprised to say there wasn’t enough action. The two best and longest set pieces occur towards the beginning of the movie, followed by an inordinate amount of time spent arguing and bickering. Adding to that, the final action sequence is largely underwhelming and ultimately disappointing. Rather than cultivate more of the dazzling choreography and effects, Singer decides to explore more of the dramatic side of things. The relationship between the younger Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) was developed well, making sure to humanize Magneto as well as alienate us from Xavier, but beyond that, especially concerning Mystique, the drama falls flat. Clichés and half-inspiring monologues are force fed into the story in a way that isn’t really dramatic. People are upset, and there’s plenty of sighing and quivering eyebrows, but none of it carries any tension.
A good example is how hard Singer makes it for us to care about anything that happens in the future timeline. First of all, we spend most of our time in ‘73, leaving a scant 20 to 30 minutes of the 130-minute total runtime for us to connect with these new characters. These are mutants we know nothing about besides their cool powers, and yet they are the ones whose deaths we should dread. There is simply no time or effort put into that endeavor, and so I find it hard to care if they live or die. Secondly, if Wolverine in fact succeeds in their plan, then everything that happens in the future will be erased and a new utopian timeline will replace it. The tension lies completely in whether or not Wolverine succeeds, and, with Jackman already signed on for his next go around as the franchise character, the question is not “will he win?” but rather, “how will he win?” This begs the question: Are you really interested in a fixed fight?
That being said, as far as comic book adaptations go, X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the best, not just for the franchise, but for the genre in general. Though his attempts to flesh out the characters and plot aren’t entirely successful, I appreciate that Singer bothers adding depth at all. It seems like he is the only director in the franchise business who cares about, or has even read the comics he’s adapting, and it’s apparent. Singer fills the movie with references to other movies and characters, inserting them at just the right time and length. Just a nod here and a wink there provide fans the depth they desire from an already deep franchise and newcomers with an experience that isn’t confusing or exclusive to seeing the previous ones.
Now that it’s blockbuster season, superhero movies are in full effect – most of them terrible, some inexcusable. “What do you expect?” a friend asks, “it’s just a superhero movie.” Yes, it’s a superhero movie, but why “just”? This was a good movie, a great comic book movie and an even better X-men movie.
So what’s the difference? At times I find myself struggling with the terms ‘movie’ and ‘film’, the former used mainly for pictures like X-Men, the latter for “awards” pictures. Film or movie, it runs on a reel for about two hours and then it’s done. It’s an arbitrary distinction to help some of us feel a bit more intelligent than maybe we are. This leaves room for the great question: “Why can’t we expect greatness in superhero movies?” X-Men has its flaws, but its intentions are ultimately good, which makes up for what it lacks in execution. Though it may be just-a-superhero-movie, this installment tries to be more than that – it tries to be a film.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Twentieth Century Fox
Currently in theaters.
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).