Once and future friends and and once and future enemies Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) re-establish their old rivalry while a character conspicuously not called Quicksilver (Evan Peters) waits for them to notice his handiwork with a roll of duct tape in the, never mind best X-Men movie, very good superhero movie X-Men: Days of Future Past.
X-Men: Days of Future Past includes a slow motion action scene set in the Pentagon kitchen that’s one of the most thrilling and funny set-pieces yet filmed for a superhero movie.
It also includes one of the best ads for duct tape ever.
Both star supporting player Evan Peters as second-tier X-Man Quicksilver, who almost runs away with the movie.
Evans’ Quicksilver isn’t called Quicksilver, though, and he’s not to be taken as the same Quicksilver who’ll be a character in The Avengers 2: Age of Utron, except that he is.
Don’t worry about it. It’s business.
The thing to worry about---or I should say the thing I wish director Bryan Singer had worried more about---is that after the scene in the kitchen Quicksilver vanishes from the movie in a flash and with him goes most of the inventiveness and humor that up till that point had Days of Future Past on its way to being better than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which means on its way to being one of the very best superhero movies yet filmed.
After Quicksilver’s speedy exit, Days of Future Past settles down into a routine chase movie, with the narrative trajectory and hitting the same sort of plot points as any and every Daniel Craig as Bond-Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne-inspired action-adventure. The fights and stunts are designed to make use of the fact that the characters have superpowers, but the point is they don’t have to have those powers for the story to work. In a more realistic sort of thriller (more realistic as in more bound by the laws of physics and biology), Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique would be a quick change artist instead of a shapeshifter and the bad guys she kicked, punched, flipped, threw, and karate chopped would go flying only ten feet or so and not thirty; otherwise she would go about her business without any other changes in her part in the plot.
And our trio of heroes, James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, and Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, don’t need their superpowers for most of what they do in their attempts to hunt Mystique down and stop her before she accidentally brings about the end of the world. They’re like the teams from Mission:Impossible, Burn Notice, Red, The Seven Samurai, any number of Westerns and heist movies, or, as it happens, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which Cap, Black Widow, and Falcon get done a lot of what they get done without needing their superpowers. (Technically, Black Widow and Falcon don’t even have superpowers.)
This is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. The less a superhero movie is about the characters having superpowers and displaying them and the more it’s about the heroes (and villains) having to think and feel their way through their adventures and perils like heroes and villains in those more realistic action-adventures, the better it is as a movie, let alone a superhero movie.
That’s what I liked about X-Men: First Class. It wasn’t as much about the forming of a team of superheroes (and a team of supervillains) as it was about the formation and dissolution of a friendship between two extraordinarily talented and intelligent and principled men who happened to have superpowers.
(I was about to call First Class a reboot of the X-Men franchise, but Days of Future Past makes the word “reboot” an iffy call now.)
And what I really like about Days of Future Past is that it continues that story by showing how one of those men, the better but far more damaged of the two, gets over the heartbreak and self-pity that have crippled him emotionally (Ironically, he’s been “cured” of his actual physical crippling.) since the loss of that friendship by strengthening another old friendship and forging a new one with two other extraordinarily talented and principled men and how with their help he’s able to attempt to save the world from the Sentinels and in the process the lives and the souls of the two people he loves most, despite their not being worthy of his love.
Unfortunately, come the movie’s third act, Singer feels compelled to turn Days of Future Past into a more standard superhero movie and this means making a big, noisy mess in extended scenes of wanton destruction on a massive scale, with screaming crowds running back and forth across the screen wily-nily as debris rains down on them and things explode around them and an over-reliance on CGI.
This happens in Captain America: The Winter Soldier too. The difference is that the final battle grows out of the story, it’s not there just for convention’s sake, it’s set up throughout the course of the movie and unfolds exactly as it’s supposed to because Cap has a plan he shares with the audience before things turn messy and noisy, so we know where the fight scenes are headed.
And directors Joe and Anthony Russo let Cap, Falcon, Black Widow, and the Winter Soldier lead us through their sequences in the big battle. Singer loses track of his main characters in the mayhem, giving us nothing to focus on in the mess and no sense this is taking the story anywhere, like, for instance, a climax.
It feels like it’s just going to go on and on.
It doesn’t, of course. And the movie isn’t ruined. It’s a let down, but Singer puts things right in the end.
And if he lets the big moments crash and bang to little purpose, Days of Future Past is filled with small touches, grace notes, subtle moments of humor, poignancy, and delightful surprise that reveal character, twist the plot, defy our expectations, and deepen the story while moving it forward in ways that keep things fun and, well, real.
The scene in the Pentagon kitchen is one beautiful small touch after another.
Quick plot summary: Sometime in the near future (the present being around whenever we’ve been left at the end of X-Men: Last Stand), an army of quasi-intelligent, nearly invincible giant robots called the Sentinels are waging an apocalyptic war against mutants and all humans who are their allies. Most of the X-Men have been wiped out. The last surviving X-Men, who include old favorites Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine, Storm, Shadowcat, Iceman, and Colossus (guest stars Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, and Daniel Cudmore) and some awesome newcomers to the movie franchise, Bishop, Blink, Sunspot, and Warpath (Omar Sy, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, and Booboo Stewart) have holed up in a temple in the Himalayas to make a final, forlorn stand.
But before the Sentinels arrive, they figure out that if Shadowcat can use a power I didn’t know she had to transport one of their number mentally back in time to the moment when the Sentinels were created, where with the help of Professor X’s younger self and any of the original X-Men who can be rounded up, they can prevent the mad scientist who invented the Sentinels from obtaining the knowledge and material he needed to invent them.
That moment was in 1973 and the X-Man chosen to make the trip back in time is Wolverine---Logan---because A. he was alive then and can occupy his own younger body and B. he’s played by Hugh Jackman and it’s Jackman as Wolverine that most of the audience is there to see.
Logan’s first task is to track down the forty year old Charles Xavier and convince him he’s there to transmit a distress signal from forty or so years in the future, a job slightly complicated by the fact that in 1973 Logan and Xavier hadn’t yet met and become friends and Xavier might not swallow a time-travel story from a grouchy stranger with weird hair and anger-management issues. The bigger complication is that Charles is an emotional wreck. Not only has he given up his great powers, he’s given up on the idea that those powers can be used to do the world good. His heart is still in the right place but he’s lost the will and his faith in human- and mutant-kind and in himself. It’s up to Logan to snap him out of it, and as Wolverine fans know, dealing with the softer emotions is not Logan’s strong suit.
This puts the focus equally on McAvoy’s Charles Xavier as on Jackman, but Jackman does something I don’t think he’s had to do in any of his previous movies, relegate himself to playing second fiddle. This is Charles’ story and Logan is its witness. Jackman keeps himself reined in, even in his scenes apart from McAvoy. He’s on the lookout as opposed to on the prowl, having exchanged Logan’s usual wariness for a watchfulness that reminds us that this is not abouthim.
McAvoy continues to do what he started in First Class, take the character of Charles Xavier away from Patrick Stewart the way Ewan McGregor took Obi-wan away from Alec Guinness. In my review of First Class (The superhero as the only adult in the room) I said that McAvoy wisely doesn’t try to play a young Patrick Stewart because Patrick Stewart was never young. What he’s succeeded in doing, though, is giving Xavier a young self that can be read into Stewart’s old Professor X. I would bet that Stewart, canny and knowing and generous as he is, is aware he’s now playing an old James McAvoy and has adjusted accordingly. In the one scene they have together, Stewart is clearly laying back to let McAvoy define their relative roles and we see McAvoy’s Charles as the real Professor X and Stewart as his shadow.
X-Men: First Class was more Magneto’s story than Xavier’s which made it more Michael Fassbender’s movie than McAvoy’s. Singer has maybe overcompensated this time out, underusing Fassbender to the point that he might as well not be in there and Magneto’s whole part handled by stunt doubles and CGI, which, I’m pretty sure, is often the case. And Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t have much to do as Mystique except look sly before a shapeshift and smug afterwards. But she carries off her various 1970s fashion ensembles well and in fact looks more authentically 70s than she did in American Hustle.That’s possibly due to the lighting or, rather, to Days of Future Past being lit. American Hustle is mostly shadowed. It’s hard to remember, but the sun did shine sometimes between 1970 and 1980. Nixon didn’t cover up the sun, and Reagan didn’t bring it back out.
Speaking of Nixon, he’s a character in Days of Future Past. That’s not a warning, just a fact. He’s a character. Not a statement. Not an irony. Not a joke. Not a political comment. He’s simply President Nixon, temporarily distracted from Watergate and achieving “Peace With Honor” in Vietnam by the sudden and unexpected threat posed by giant robots and mutants with superpowers. While Mark Camacho does a good job of playing Nixon as a character out of a comic book, as opposed to out of a Herblock cartoon (although he’s a bit stocky for the part), the best thing about his being in there is another one of Singer’s grace notes---an explanation for the 18 1/2 minute gap in the tapes.
As the young Hank McCoy, Nicholas Hoult is suitably insecure and even unnerved in the face of his own mutant powers, suggesting Hank’s future lusty embrace of his great intellect, ferocious strength, and luxurious blue hairiness as the X-Man known as the Beast by his chagrined resistance to all that. Peter Dinklage embues Bolivar Trask, the creator of the Sentinels, with the most frightening form of madness, complete sanity. And, as suggested up top, Evan Peters is a joy to watch as Quicksilver when he slows down long enough to let us catch sight of him.
I was never of a fan of the X-Men when I was comic book-reading kid and the first three movies left me cold. So I’ll leave it to fans to sort out how Days of Future Past fits in with the books and the other movies and how it revises and alters the continuities. It looked to me that it takes us up to the beginning of the original trilogy, which would mean, unfortunately, that X-Men: Last Stand is still part of the timeline. But then so is The Wolverine, which takes up where Last Stand left off. So that’s good. But Oliver Mannion says that it erases all of the first three and he has a list of clues, which I won’t repeat because they amount to spoilers, that support that conclusion.
He may be right.
But know what?
I don’t care.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is now the best X-Men movie. But that doesn’t matter. Days of Future Past, like First Class, is enjoyable for its own sake. You don’t need to have seen the other movies or even know they exist to get into them. It’s a good superhero movie, a very good superhero movie, falling just short of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on my list. (For the record, the best areIron Man, Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and The Winter Soldier with Supermanand Superman II occupying a special pride of place.) And here’s the thing about very good superhero movies.
They’re like very good westerns and very good war movies and very good thrillers and very good romantic comedies.
Genre doesn’t signify.
They’re just good movies.
Logan has gone through plenty of hard times and rough patches in his long life---World War II, for example, was no picnic for him. See The Wolverine. I mean it. SEE The Wolverine.---but the 70s don’t seem to have been particularly miserable for him. Mostly he seems to have forgotten them. Still, this isn’t a nostalgia trip for him. Returning to what Doonesbury eulogized as that “kidney stone of a decade” is a series of reminders of irritations and annoyances, which sets up one of my favorites of Singer’s grace notes.
Coming out of the cheap hotel where he’s just awakened inside his 1970s self and in bed with a gangster’s girlfriend, Logan tries to pick out from among the many cars lining the street the ride he’s “borrowed” from a thug who no longer needs it by pointing the keys and pushing the button he immediately realizes isn’t there because remote-controlled door locks haven’t been invented yet. He looks momentarily annoyed, making a note to himself why he doesn’t miss these particular good old days, then does an instantaneous bit of detective work worthy of another perpetually angry comic book hero.
Which made me wonder.
Have DC and Marvel ever teamed up for a Batman-Wolverine crossover?
X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer, screenplay by Simon Kinberg. Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellan. Rated PG-13. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.