[27 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Let’s get something out of the way right up from. Yours truly didn’t “hate” X-Men: Days of Future Past. Not by a long shot. Do I have problems with it? Absolutely. Do I think it stands as one of the best installments in Marvel’s movie mutant mythos? Sure. Is it the number one film in the franchise? No. That title goes to its predecessor, First Class. Why? Well, I liked Matthew Vaughan’s approach more than Bryan Singer’s (still unsure of why this hit or miss filmmaker gets so much fanboy love), I’ve grown tired of the overuse of some characters, and am not sure what I was supposed to get out of the experience except it being a set-up for yet another in a long line of “planned” trilogies. Still, I was entertained, intrigued, and in the end, capable of recommending it to any who still reads film reviews as a reference guide. So, you may be asking, why the caveat? If you liked it, what’s the problem?
Well, for me, it’s two fold. First, the film currently has a 91% rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, higher than movies I liked a lot better (Godzilla, Captain America: The Winter Soldier)...and the weird thing is, that was more or less the number right out of the box. It seems like, at least two weeks before it opened, XMDOFP was sitting somewhere in the mid 90s, enjoying the raves from those capable of being in the studios good graces (read: trusted to start the early positive buzz) while not opening for us peons until the week of release. By then, the word was already out - this movie was fantastic, when something a bit more complex was the true reality. Oh course, opinions are just that. They’re not dicta or dogma and Fox is smart to use its sources to sell its product. Good for them (and those in compliance with them). But I was angry that the conversation was over before the discussion really began.
Then there is the issues I have with the movie itself. It’s far from perfect (frankly, no film is) and when I sit back and think about the plotting, the characters, and the overall idea, I start to get flustered. You see, XMDOFP wants to be an epic which draws together divergent takes on the classic comic characters to create a permanence within the X-Men universe. I won’t address whether they were successful (there are dozens of website picking apart the continuity as we speak) but I will argue over five things I found truly aggravating. The funny thing is, many of them go to the main reason the movie was made in the first place.
Talk about an expositional dump! When the movie starts, we are immediately shown a dystopian London where darkness rules and flying terminating robots (called “Sentinels” here) destroy both mutants and citizens alike. There are mass graves, ambiguous gloom, and a ragtag resistance. We quickly learn that a horrible event in the ‘70s triggered the US to fast track the creation of these murderous machines, and that inventor Boliver Trask used X-Men DNA to make them virtually invincible. Jump to a few of our heroes battling against these shape-shifting fiends. Then jump to the decision to send Wolverine back into the past. Suddenly, it’s the Me Decade, complete with less than American Hustle level realism and a whole lot of naked Hugh Jackman (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
The problem here is a little something called CONTEXT. We get the threat. We don’t get why the X-Men are the world’s only hope. We do understand that humans who have helped the mutants are equally persecuted, but why set up such a dismal bit of future shock and then more or less abandon it for a far off Chinese monastery. The final confrontation could have remained in the wasteland that once was the UK’s biggest city, but instead, we are stuck somewhere in the mountains. Oh, and how about those floating transport obelisks? Gonna explain those? Better yet, aside from utilizing Kitty’s suddenly new powers, how have the others survived? These Sentinels are pretty bad ass. It seems silly to believe that the mutants we see up front managed to avoid their hunting skills for so long.
Eventually, we learn that Raven/Mystique/a slumming Jennifer Lawrence is the mutant responsible for all this ruckus. She attends the Paris Peace Accords (where the US and Vietnam ended the war, in case you’re lax in your American history) and assassinates Boliver Trask? Why, well, because she knows what the mad scientist has been up to - mainly, going Dr. Mengele on her fellow X-Men. So imagine the burden this character carries. She knows there is someone out there willing to destroy her kind and she must do everything in her power to stop him. So she’s the main focus on the film, right? Her moral/ethical dilemma is the foundation for all that happens and we follow her emotional and often action packed journey…
...except not really. No, this is Wolverine’s film, because…well…because Hugh Jackman has hung in with this franchise for three previous ensemble films (we don’t count his F-bomb in First Class) and two solo outings (with more planned). You can’t expect someone like Lawrence to serve as the focal point (it’s also the reason that Kitty Pryde - Ellen Page - was not the one sent back in time like she was in the comic book storyline the movie was adapted from). She’s a girl, after all (all Katniss Everdeen aside). So big beefy one gets the call, constantly shoe-horned into the action so he serves a purpose other than making the fanboys (and girls) happy. This should have been Mystique’s movie alone. It would have been so much better if it was.
The signature of any great thriller is a truly evil villain. From James Bond to our recent glut of comic book films, a bold baddie makes everything better…and here, we have an excellent example of potential greatness undervalued and underused. Granted, I have a bit of a man-crush on Peter Dinklage, but the man can ACT! He has chops that half the cast wishes they possessed. Yet his character, the creator of the Sentinels and a scientist who desperately wants to continue his awful experiments on the mutants, becomes nothing more than a bit player along the back edges of the continuing X-Men catwalk roll out. Indeed, he is often pushed aside in scenes where his devious plotting should be front and center. Hate on First Class all you want but Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) was a ridiculously good monster. He wallowed in his own evil. We don’t get enough Trask to know if he’s good, bad, an opportunist or a true incarnation of malevolence. Too bad for the movie, and too bad for Dinklage. He deserves SO much better.
Okay, so because she kills Bolivar Trask at the Paris Peace Accords, the world decides to decimate the mutant population. They allow the Sentinel program to go on unchecked and unimpeded, resulting in the world destroying machines we see today. So, HOW exactly does this happen? Oh, that’s right - Trask is best buddies with Major Stryker…you know, the guy who gives Wolverine his Adamantium skeleton and claws? So why exactly would he do that if he is stepping in and completing Trask’s work? Or has Trask advanced his research far enough that anyone can just pick up and, with Mystique’s DNA, create the ultimate Sentinels? Who knows, and frankly, the film doesn’t care. It gives us the premise - the death of Trask sparks horrible dystopian future and then spends the rest of the movie trying to prevent same. A couple of conversations among rational X-Men would have actually come up with the best solution - go back to when Mystique was born and prevent her birth. She doesn’t exist, neither does the outcome. Or how about killing Trask instead? After all, he’s the one responsible.
Okay - Magneto is mad or something. He wants to show the world that mutants won’t stand for being the scapegoats for social and political unease. Yep - Singer is trying to reinvest the series with the Civil Rights subtext all the other movies have and is doing so with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. While setting up his own version of the main assassination (Mystique didn’t kill Trask so now Magneto is gunning for…Nixon? Halderman? Ehrlichman? Checkers?) Dr. Xavier gets into the Blue Girl’s head and tries to convince her not to act. Now, we’ve seen Mr. Metal Manipulator outfit the Sentinels with metallic wiring so he can control them. Why not use them against the President and his VIPs? Why lift RFK Stadium to create a turkey shoot when you can more or less outmaneuver all the metal-based US military with a wave of your hand? The answer is simple - levitating the sports center is COOL! Messing with the Sentinels is narrative payback. Giving Mystique a choice is a good way to end her arc. But in light of what’s happening back in the future, this banter is BS. It takes away from the threat, since we were already told that stopping Trask’s death would stop the Sentinel program.