Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

I am the guy who has been known to complain about superhero movies being too somber and serious. But I don't think it's a contradiction to celebrate that same quality in the new X-Men film.

In other comic books and movies, superheroes were usually regular folks who acquired powers through happenstance. Even if they might struggle with controlling them or the implications of their newfound responsibilities, these stories rode an underlying fantasy about becoming special.

The X-Men were always different. They were mutants, born the way they were, and their powers were not a source of joy but an instrument for prejudice and even hatred. And the stakes were always higher: X-Men comics were the only ones I read as a boy where people died on a pretty regular basis.

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is based on the concept of a 1981 storyline in which a future was envisioned where mutants had lost the war against their kind, with most of our favorite characters having been killed by monstrous Sentinel robots. It also attempts -- quite successfully in my estimation -- to combine the original X-Men trilogy from the last decade with the 2011 "First Class" movie that depicted the nascent days of the mutant movement in the 1960s.

Pop culture aficionados will recognize this as "retconning," in which storytellers retroactively alter the mythology of a franchise to fit their new schemes. (They recently did this with the "Star Trek" flicks.) But this is the mother of all retconning, in which both the present and future of the X-Men, as established in the previous films, are cleverly made to go kerbloowie.

In tackling this ambitious new project, they brought back original director Bryan Singer, who along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg manage to make a movie that is at once entertaining and sobering.
There's a darkness and a grandiosity to "X-Men: Days of Future Past" that has been missing from these movies.

Initially set in the near future, we witness a world where telepath Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his few surviving students fight against the Sentinels, which can adapt to and even copy the powers of mutants. Losing seems inevitable, so they hatch a plan to send the consciousness of animalistic warrior Logan (Hugh Jackman) 50 years into the past, inhabiting his younger self in 1973.

There, he must convince a distraught Xavier (now played by James McAvoy) to join with his friend-turned-arch-enemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent the assassination of a power-mad scientist named Trask (a terrific Peter Dinklage) that sets off the war against mutants.

At the center of the mission is heading off Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), a shape-shifting assassin whose loyalties lie somewhere between the just-get-along sentiments of Xavier and the them-or-us creed of Magneto.

What makes this movie work is that even as we bounce through all these intrigues about robots and time travel and telepathy, the filmmakers never forget to focus on the characters. So the emnity between Xavier and Magneto feels personal, and Logan's battle between his berserker side and his better instincts has a tragic note.

Not that they forgot to include some terrific action scenes. Some of the best involve Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a super-fast teen who lives in a world that's almost another dimension, since he can do dozens of things in the blink of an eye. One scene where the team is breaking Magneto out of an impregnable prison is an utter delight.

Where do the X-Men go from here? Wait until after the credits for a (vague) glimpse. All I know is this movie blows up the franchise while also delivering the best film we've seen in the series.

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