Friday, May 23, 2014

Zaki's Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

(L-R) Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, and James McAvoy
X-Men: Days of Future Past is the seventh entry in Fox's long-running movie series, which returning director Bryan Singer first ushered in with 2000's X-Men. It's also the best.

Serving as both a coda to the original trilogy of X-Men films (the first two of which Singer helmed) and a sequel to the 2011 prequel/reboot X-Men: First Class (directed by Matthew Vaughn), this time-twisting team-up tale (from a script by Simon Kinberg, loosely inspired by a 1981 four-color opus by Chris Claremont & John Byrne) is a testament to how thoroughly the superhero genre in general has assumed a place of sustained permanence in our collective pop culture psyche. Here we are seven flicks in, and while it's certainly had its creative ups-and-downs over these past fourteen (!!) years, X-Men can rightly be considered the granddaddy of the current comic movie boom.

Related: Zaki's Review: X-Men: First Class

As such, with an entire generation having now come of age with these characters and their extended universe, Days of Future Past is executed with the kind of easy confidence that comes from having played the long game for fourteen years, patiently building up a deep reservoir of audience goodwill. Beginning ten years in our future, film depicts a post-apocalyptic nightmare out of The Terminator, with Patrick Stewart's Professor X and Ian McKellen's Magneto heading up a ragtag group of surviving X-Men on the run from the Sentinels, mutant-hunting robots that can adapt to defeat their various powers.

With the entirety of humanity at risk of extinction, a daring solution presents itself when Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is given an opportunity to project his consciousness into his own self in 1973, where he can guide the decades-younger First Class iterations of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) toward preventing the chain of events which will eventually cause their future ordeal. At least one key part of this involves Jennifer Lawrence's shapeshifting Mystique, and her plan to assassinate the diabolical (if diminutive) Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the scientific genius who first hatches the idea for the Sentinels.

Related: Zaki's Review: The Wolverine

Given the volume of characters making appearances in addition to those noted above (Hey, there's Halle Berry as Storm! And Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde! And look, it's Shawn Ashmore as Iceman!), there are a lot of ways this thing could very quickly have taken an unfortunate detour down Spider-Man 3 lane, but Singer keeps the temporal machineworks humming along with remarkable ease, which only affirms just how much this franchise has missed him. You may recall that the Usual Suspects director bolted the Marvel mutants in '06 to head up Warner Bros. Superman Returns, a move that, given its swift disavowal and immediate reboot, didn't work out especially well for either him or them.

It also had the snowball effect of leading to 2006's Brett Ratner-directed X-Men: The Last Stand (which I referred to as "studio-mandated seppuku") and Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine in '09 ("vacant, inconsequential pablum"). In fact, I was ready to write this whole series off if not for the necessary course correction offered by First Class, which Singer produced and conceived the story for (and which he would have directed if not for his prior commitment to last year's mega-flop Jack the Giant-Slayer -- whoops). With Days of Future Past, he not only continues that course correction, but also has opportunity to fix some of the most egregious faults with those other flicks.

Naturally, with a cast like this, you know the performances are going to be uniformly excellent. As the only actor to appear in every single X-Men installment to date (which gives him the all-time superhero sequel distance record), Hugh Jackman's Wolverine has been the face of the franchise from the very beginning, and he's his usual dependable self. But what's most interesting is how his role, while still prominent, is part of a broader ensemble. Unlike some of the previous films, this isn't WOLVERINE! (and the X-Men). In essence, he's kind of like Marty McFly here, with his main job to prod the past-times version of his father figure into action rather than drive the action himself.

Additionally, even though the stakes are substantial, the scale is (somewhat) restrained (and it tells you something about how high the bar for visual stimulus has been raised that I'm describing a climax involving the destruction of the White House as "restrained"). But make no mistake, that's actually a relief. By plying our fondness for Stewart and McKellen as these characters and juxtaposing them with their younger models, Singer allows future and past to add texture to each other as we join McAvoy's Xavier, who's lapsed into despondency and drug use since we last saw him in First Class, and Fassbender's Magneto, secreted away by the government thanks to his involvement with an incident involving a certain "magic bullet" in 1963.

I honestly can't say how all this will play to anyone coming in completely cold, but one of the advantages of being this many chapters deep into a series like this is that you're likely playing to an audience that's already quite familiar with the particular internal vernacular that drives it. Days of Future Past is ceaselessly engaging, surprisingly emotional, and refreshingly smart. More than that, it makes many (though not all) of the disparate bits of the big screen X-Men franchise fit together as if they were conceived with this end in mind from the beginning. And while it signals the end (maybe) of one X-era, it also boldly points the way to the next.* A

*Speaking of that, it's probably a good idea to stick around through the credits.

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