Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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It’s hard to remember a time when comic book films weren’t all the rage in the modern studio era. A definitive starting point can likely be pointed to 2000, where the arrival of Bryan Singer’s X-Men gave comics a new cinematic lease on life after 1997’s Batman and Robin nearly squashed the entire enterprise. Ever since, the obsession with comics has yielded sequels, reboots, spin offs and team ups by the bushel. The X-Men franchise is already on its seventh film in fifteen years, and while it doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel for comic book cinema as a whole, it does serve as its own canonical phoenix. Indeed, if Days of Future Past is laden with some leaps in narrative logic, it transcends them with its grasp on character driven, propulsive storytelling.

In the near future, the mutant population has been decimated thanks to the sentinels, massive robotic assassins developed decades ago. Charles (Patrick Stewart), Eric (Ian McKellan), Logan (Hugh Jackman) and others are constantly on the run, but there is a possible way to end the conflict. Through Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) abilities of time travel, the plan is to send Logan’s consciousness back in time fifty years to before the creation of the sentinels. There he must find both Charles and Eric as young men (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively), and convince them to unite and stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the architect of the sentinel program. If you’re unacquainted with the mutants that populate the X-Men universe, it should be obvious that Days of Future Past will do little to bring anyone up to speed. However, there are some minor expositional notes that are glossed over, namely the existence of Charles Xavier in the future given his apparent demise in a previous film.

This installment is filled with characters, but wisely centers itself on the evolving relationships between Logan, Mystique, Charles and Eric. Xavier is given the strongest arc in the film, tormented by his mind reading powers to the extent that he forsakes them in order to have the ability to walk again. That, of course, is a minor goofy narrative concoction, but it does its job in setting up Charles’ fragile mental state, touchingly accented by McAvoy. Fassbender and Lawrence are also solid, even if their motivations are somewhat static. Jackman is dependable as ever, conveying Logan’s lurking decades of pain with ease. If there’s a show stopper here its undoubtedly Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose bolting speed and passé teenage attitude contribute a great dose of humor. Further, his role in breaking out Magneto from a prison in the Pentagon makes for one of the most memorable sequences in any comic book film. There are also a few scenes that seem too familiar to other moments in X-Men films, and the destruction of mutant population was a plot element in X2. Regardless, the investment in the characters allows for Days of Future Past to genuinely communicate the stakes and drama, particularly in its time hopping climax.

Bryan Singer is back as director of this franchise in over a decade, and his presence assures the overall proceedings of Days of Future Past. Films with time travel can get sticky and logically confusing in a hurry, but Singer is wise to avoid jumping around too much, mostly keeping the narrative set in 1973. Most superhero films also run the risk of either being too light on their heels or wallowing in self seriousness, but Days of Future Past is pretty exceptional in finding that balance. The production design and decor of the 1970s is initially spoofed a bit to start, but the film never draws too much attention to it. As evidenced by his work on the first two X-Men films, Singer is also a very strong orchestrator of action, always compositionally orienting the audience, and not relying too much on editing to create tension. Every action scene in Days of Future Past feels relevant, and Singer also tends to cinematically mold these scenes around the characters. The conception of a Wolverine action scene is much different to that of one with Magneto, for instance.

With no end in sight to the endless assembly line of comic book films, a series like X-Men deserves some credit. Though the franchise is certainly not without its shares of duds, the better films like Days of Future Past stand out for their relevant thematic concerns. In this universe, mutants are not blindly held in awe for their powers by humans as in other superhero narratives. Man is intimidated and fears his own extinction, and the planned genocide carries real world parallels. What we’re presented with is a more grounded worldview to legitimize the onscreen fantasy. Even with some familiarity and plot shortcuts, X-Men: Days of Future Past is thrillingly alive in its storytelling, setting an example for all comic book films to follow that beneath all the spectacle, there can be genuine meaning.

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~ by romancinema on May 24, 2014.

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