Saturday, May 24, 2014

Future Shock

I thought the films of the original "X-Men trilogy" ranged from average to awful, and I never even bothered to see either of the two Wolverine spin-off movies. But the one X-Men story that I did quite enjoy was X-Men: First Class. And the goodwill that movie earned was enough to interest me in the newest installment, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Based on a "fan's holy grail" two-issue storyline from the comic series, Days of Future Past follows the attempt to avert an apocalyptic future by traveling back in time to prevent the key event that sent everything spiraling down. The film version seems to have been conceived in a rather callous money-grab way: let's use the original film cast (from the ones that made all the money) to try to re-launch our prequel film cast (from the one that was critically praised, but didn't earn as much money); and who knows, maybe we'll set up one of those comic mega franchises for ourselves in the process!

Well, maybe not everyone sees it that way. In any event, I'm glad to say that the film itself is far better than those possible origins. In fact, look the other way on one or two time travel quibbles (which you pretty much always have to do with time travel stories), and it's by far the best of the X-Men movies.

Days of Future Past really nails what so many other superhero movies miss, the human touch. All the larger-than-life heroics of these films often mask the lack of personality in the characters; that lack in turn means these movies often feel empty of stakes, a feeling that any of this actually matters to any of the characters on an emotional level.

In this movie, the characters have much more going on. The Charles Xavier of the past is so tortured by his abilities that he'd rather give them up. The Magneto of the past has been repeatedly punished for trying to do "the right thing," and has decided to no longer try. The Mystique of the past is adrift, no longer having either of the people in her life that provided any sort of emotional stability. The central hero, Wolverine, has more reason than anyone to be broken, having seen so many people he cares about die. And yet he finds strength in going back to a time before his friends helped save him, to discover they too once needed saving.

The film also benefits from the addition of a few new characters. Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters, makes the biggest impact, leaving you wishing he were in more of the movie. His frustration with living in a slow world has left him a borderline sociopath -- but a very entertaining one. (Indeed, I think it sets the bar quite high for the other Marvel film universe to handle the character well, when he appears next year -- played by a different actor -- in the Avengers sequel.) Visually, the character of Blink, played by Fan Bingbing, also commands attention. The script doesn't give her much of a personality, but some inspired use of her portal-making powers (quite possibly inspired by the Portal video game) make for some very cool action moments.

Really, the cast is great throughout. Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence are given the most meat, and make a proper feast of it. Nicholas Hoult (as Beast), Peter Dinklage (as Trask), and Evan Peters (as I mentioned earlier) inject some effective nuance into smaller, but still substantial roles. Patrick Stewart's role also isn't big, but he's strong in a key scene with his younger counterpart. And of course, there are plenty more people with still less to do, but who seem to have a lot of fun doing it: Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, and Shawn Ashmore among them. (There's also Anna Paquin, whose part in the movie was trimmed to a mere few seconds of screen time and no dialogue; she still receives billing over more than half the stars I named above.) 

Few superhero movies reach this level of emotional heft. The ones that do are my favorites, and are usually praised by the comic fans too. Days of Future Past is perched on the line of B+, but I think I'd nudge it just to the other side and call it an A-. It's well worth checking out.

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