Saturday, May 24

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Directed by Bryan Singer

I remember as if it were yesterday reading my subscription copies of the original Uncanny X-Men #141 and 142, 'way back in 1980, only a few months after the shocking conclusion of The Dark Phoenix Saga in issue #137 and, unbeknownst to me, only an issue away from the break-up of the very best creative team ever to grace those pages. Writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne were at the top of their respective games at that point – in sharing co-plotting duties they created a whole that was considerably more than the sum of its parts – and I remained what I had been for the previous four or five years, a rabid “X-fan” during the only period of my life when I may well have been buying more Marvel comics than DC. My devotion to the franchise would slowly wane over the half-dozen or so years after the departure of John Byrne (his last issue was the tour-de-force #143), arrested only briefly during the tenure of Paul Smith (#165-175). Glee at the return of the “New” X-Men's inaugural artist from the mid-late 1970s, Dave Cockrum, with issue #145 quickly gave way to dismay that the artist whom I had long regarded as my absolute favorite had lost something in the interim – I found Cockrum's art much cruder this second go 'round, especially in contrast to the incredibly smooth, expressive draftsmanship of John Byrne.

One of the most homaged
covers ever
But as so often happens, I ramble on. The point is this: “Days of Future Past” (Uncanny X-Men #141) and “Mind Out of Time” (#142) – yes, it was a mere two issues, but in those days a typical issue of a comic book packed in as much story as a modern-day five- or six-issue story arc! – had an incredible impact on my late-teen-year-old self, and (I suspect) on others as well. Let's just say that in my opinion the commentary implicitly or explicitly attributing this new movie's time-travel plot – heroes in a dystopian future dominated by giant robots send one of their number into the past to change history and prevent the apocalypse (errr... Can I use that word?) – to Terminator have things as incredibly backward as those who ignorantly called John Carter [of Mars] a rip-off of a century of science-fiction cinema! I have believed that James Cameron had to have read Uncanny X-Men ever since I first saw Terminator in 1984. I've never seen that discussed, and I figure it's about as likely to be admitted as that Gladiator was a turn-of-the-century retread of 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Another of the most homaged
covers ever
… And there I go again....

Anyway, I have read and reread the original story many times – I have owned it in at least five different printings from the original issues (which I still have) to the most recent deluxe hardcover of the same title (X-Men: Days of Future Past) compiling the original story with thirty years of follow-up stories as Marvel could not resist going back to the “DOFP” well over and over again! I have been looking forward to this movie with my typical mix of anticipation and dread (my default attitude regarding upcoming comic-book movies) ever since it was announced during the unexpected success of X-Men: First Class several years ago. I began getting more excited about it a year ago almost exactly when I had the pleasure of hearing both Chris Claremont and Patrick Stewart express their own enthusiasm (which seemed genuine, but you can never tell how much is real and how much is just wanting to make sure their own paycheck is as big as possible) for the movie at Comicpalooza 2013 (LINK). As usual, the barrage of trailers and clips leading up to the big release this weekend looked good, but it's almost impossible to tell from those whether the final product will be an incomprehensible mess (a real danger with this type of movie compounded with the huge cast of characters brought into the story) or not. Nonetheless, this was a movie I had to see as quickly as possible.

And so, on its first day of release I was there for the very first afternoon showing. To cut to the chase, I really liked it. I don't consider it the best super-hero movie ever made, and probably not the best of the year, but it is without a doubt the best non-Marvel Studios effort at a Marvel Comics movie (don't get me started on the licensing issues) … and Marvel Studios is going to have a tough time living up to this film's achievement in one hilarious sequence where there is a unique licensing overlap between Marvel itself and 20th-Century Fox!  they have been thoroughly one-upped in advance, I feel.  It is, of course, the best X-Men movie, and reconciles (for the most part) the differences between Bryan Singer's first two offerings and the reboot/prequel First Class, while simultaneously wiping the slate of the unfortunate story consequences of X-Men: The Last Stand and in no way invalidating that film – time travel and alternate universes can be extremely useful! I think the X-Men franchise is perfectly poised to go forward from here.

(And going forward from here there may well be SPOILERS...)

For a time travel story with … simultaneous? … parallel? … narratives taking place fifty years apart – in the past of 1973 and the future of approximately 2023 (I don't think they ever specify, other than throwing out an offhand figure of “fifty years” – but taking that figure literally puts the future sequences exactly a decade later than the original issues' setting them in 2013 – which was of course 33 years in the future when the story originally appeared. It does not seem so long....), this movie is pretty coherent thanks in part to a bit of “technobabble” dialogue establishing that as long as Kitty used her powers to maintain the link between Logan's mind in the past and his unconscious body in the future the two time-lines would co-exist and run in parallel (or something like that). There are things that are left unexplained – how does future-Logan have the adamantium claws he lost in The Wolverine last year? – how is Professor X even alive in the future after being disintegrated in The Last Stand (his mind's survival in that movie's after-scene notwithstanding)? I can live with these glitches, though, and (although he came along after I stopped reading X-Men back in the later '80s), doesn't the villain Apocalypse (teased at the end for the already announced next movie) play around with time-travel and alternate universes and thus offer the opportunity for future explanation? (I can easily see the X-Men movie universe becoming as convoluted and confusing as the comics reportedly did in the 1990s going forward – that was barely starting when I dropped out, and I've read only a handful of individual issues since then. They'd probably be better leaving those questions conveniently unanswered....)

As part of that parallel narrative, I very much liked the appearance of so many of the original cast from the first two movies, and especially the heavier use of them, whom I'd figured would be no more than a framing device. It's a bit callous to put it this way, but this movie one-ups the original issue #142 – the cover proclaimed, “This issue: EVERYBODY DIES!” – by letting us see “everybody die” not just once but twice! That the deaths had no real emotional clout was inevitable given the structure of the movie, but the effect was paradoxically fun in a sick sort of way. And the second “mutant massacre” gave way to unexpected cameos [LIST] by even more of the original actors in what are probable their farewells to these roles – even Anna Paquin who gets unexpectedly high billing in the end credits, probably based on an extensive sequence that was reportedly filmed but ultimately cut in the interest of time [LINK] (I bet it ends up in an extended version, which I'll undoubtedly buy). As I said above, although this movie effectively wipes X-Men: The Last Stand out of existence, its events are acknowledged, both in flashbacks and by the time-paradox of leaving Logan the memories – which, testamentary to Hugh Jackman's acting skills, resulted in the most emotionally gut-punching moment in the film, when Logan wakes up in the changed, better future, and encounters first Jean Grey whose death had haunted him, then Scott Summers. I confess that tears finally welled up in my own eyes at that point.

There is plenty more I could comment on – the continued depth being added to the character of Mystique, the brilliant twist regarding Magneto's role in the Kennedy assassination, the wonderful subtlety embodied in the casting of Trask while never making explicit the obvious motivation for his genetic research without resorting to the simplistic explanation in the comics. I did find it a bit frustrating that they made us sit through the entireity of end credits that were so interminable that I started wondering if I would see my own name up there as one of the “readers of the original comics! – why not? They acknowledged everybody else! – just to see a brief glimpse of the Big Bad of the next film. But I did … even decades after I last read X-Men comics on an ongoing basis, I still consider myself something of an “X-fan.” During the late '70s height of that obsession, I fantasized about seeing these characters brought to life on the big screen. By and large, I've not been disappointed, by this movie least of all.

All in all, I thought X-Men: Days of Future Past was an excellent balance of spectacle and characterization, and if I keep writing I'm going to convince myself it is indeed better than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's very, very close....

Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!

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