What Thom Thought
It was worth it just for Iceman.
Let’s be honest with each other, you and I. For once in our lives.
Now when it really matters. If only this one time.
If only about the X-Men.
There’s never been a truly good X-Men movie. I’m not just zeroing in on The Last Stand or the Wolverine movies. While they all vary in quality, none of them are very good. First Class comes close, but it’s still a little off.
As one of the few people in the world who grew up with but never grew out of reading comicbooks, I’ve come into superhero movies already familiar with most of the groundwork being laid, and already aware of the continuities being established and messed with. And as GOO Reviews’ resident comicbook historian/nerd, I’ve thought about superhero movies a lot more than any one person probably should at any point in their lives.
For me, the true test of a superhero movie is how often I feel like cringing at movie moments that I’m prepared to accept, but that I don’t expect to play as well to an audience without my experience. And I’m not just talking about that awful “The same thing that happens to everything else” line that Storm gives to Toad after blasting him with lightning (thank you very much once again, Joss Whedon), I’m talking about Johnny Storm yelling “flame on!” or Mr. Fantastic using his stretching powers on the dance floor or a robber thinking an amateur wrestling show would make for the perfect score. Or Anna Paquin’s southern accent. Or Halle Berry’s acting. Or Tobey Maguire. To me, it’s those elements that separate movies like the Fox-produced X-Men’s and Fantastic Four’s or the Sony-produced Spider-Man’s from Marvel Studios’ Avengers franchise films, where I genuinely believe that Tony Stark is a real person, that Bruce Banner feels the need to help others to atone, or that the first meeting of Captain America and the Falcon (after their run) had believable dialogue.
So no. No, I don’t think there’s ever been a truly good X-Men movie.
And now we’re here.
I’ll let you in on a little theory of mine. I had hoped that Havok’s presence in First Class was actually a subtle hint of the soft reboot that the whole series needed. You see, as many of you may already know, Havok is Cyclops’ younger brother and he, therefore, couldn’t exist as presented as a’60s teenager (with Cyclops having already been presented in the movies as a mid-2000s adult). Sure, you can simply accept that Havok is just one of the many characters with a mismatched comic-to-movie background due to the X-Men movie producers’ casual disregard for the source material, but I was hoping they were going for something a little smarter, especially since part of First Class’s raison d’être was distancing the franchise from the devastation that was The Last Stand. I thought it’d be cool if First Class Havok, instead of just being yet another character whose comicbook history was ignored, was actually a time traveller who had gone back to the ‘60s as an early hint and integral part of the Days of Future Past storyline, and that everything we’d seen so far of the contemporary X-Men (including 1 through 3, Origins, and The Wolverine) was actually the messed up timeline that the Days of Future Past heroes are fighting to prevent (thereby invalidating The Last Stand and all the other stuff that doesn’t make sense).
So anyway, that’s my nerdy comicbook fanfic stuff out of the way.
Alongside the Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past is almost inarguably one of the biggest and most important X-Men storylines of all time. It’s really one that the producers had to stick the landing on, both for the hardcore fans and for the precipice we stand on in realigning the X-Men back into a proper movie franchise (or not), and so we’re back to Bryan Singer directing, we’re back to seeing the stronger actors in the series, and we’re back to the idea that these stories matter. There’s no godawful interpretations of fan-favourite characters that distract from the whole movie and ruin potential entries in other series (i.e., Deadpool), there’s no off-camera deaths of onscreen characters who deserved better (i.e., Cyclops), and the stakes have never been higher (for the franchise or the characters therein).
Days of Future Past opens in a horrific dystopian future (fun fact: the comicbook storyline, originally published in 1981, set the story in the future year of 2013) where several of the more exotically powered mutants are… I guess hanging out? You see the Sentinels, once giant robots only hinted at and easily dispatched by a mere Wolverine-Colossus fastball special in The Last Stand, will become a credible threat in ten to fifteen (?) years from now after they develop an adaptive power set derived from the genetic code of Mystique that makes them virtually unstoppable. Having hunted, killed, and otherwise oppressed mutants, mutant sympathizers, and any humans determined to have mutant genetic potential, the Sentinels have taken over most of the Earth, Matrix-style perpetually blotted out sky and all. After a truly thrilling fight scene, our disparate mutants — including hunter-guy (Warpath), fire-guy (Sunspot), portal-girl (Blink), steel-guy (Colossus), ice-guy (… Iceman), dreadlock-gun-guy (Bishop)… and Kitty Pryde (walk-through-walls-girl) — rendezvous with old-mans Professor X and Magneto, and Wolverine, now banded together under a common cause (also Storm’s there, but who cares?), and the group hatches a plan to send Wolverine back to 1973 (because it’s always up to Wolverine) to prevent this future from ever happening. I won’t go on and on about what happens from there (that’s what actually seeing the movie’s for), but the plan involves young(er) Wolverine, Jennifer-Lawrence Mystique, James-McAvoy Professor X, Michael-Fassbender Magneto, Nicholas-Hoult Beast, a young, pre-Wolverine-torturing William Stryker, and Tyrion Lannister Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinels.
So right there, that’s a lot of mutants and a lot of cool powers, with many more to follow, but make no mistake, most of these roles are little more than extended cameos. Days of Future Past is a young Mystique (Raven)-Magneto (Erik)-Professor-X (Charles)-Beast (Hank) story, even somewhat to the exclusion of perennial poster-boy, the Wolverine. Logan certainly has an important part to play, but for once he’s relegated to mere cast member rather than star, and the movie’s so much better for that choice. Given where the young mutants find themselves in 1973, and even accounting for the overarching Sentinels-destroy-the-future framing device, Days of Future Past is very much a movie about emotional journeys and things unsaid after X-Men: First Class. Raven has become a driven, prideful mutant who would do anything in the name of her brethren, Erik is truly regretful for the cost of his actions and not the megalomaniac he would eventually become, and, most important of all, Charles is a depressed and pale imitation of the man he’s supposed to be after losing his friendship with Erik, losing Raven (to Erik), and losing most of his school to the Vietnam War. Hank has now become the caretaker of the man who once inspired him, and it’s not until Logan shows up at the left over shambles of the Xavier School that Charles and Hank finally once again have a cause to rally behind.
And then there’s Quicksilver, the superspeedster mutant played deliciously by Evan Peters, who brings an immediate breath of fresh air to a movie with extremely heavy overtones. Easily more than any other X-Men movie (and probably any non-Marvel Studios Marvel movie), Days of Future Past brings truly heartfelt humour to the fore. Given the nature of Quicksilver’s powers, his casual disregard for the dangers all around him and the grave nature of what he’s fighting for winds up being a laugh riot (this coming from a guy who’s positively mortified by using a term like “laugh riot”), and his parts draw genuine laughs on the level of seeing Looney Tunes characters in real life. At the same time, for me, Quicksilver is a fundamentally troubling character to maintain in a long-term story if only because being faster than everyone else to the point that they’re almost standing still makes him virtually omnipotent. It’s a service to the story that they write him out of the film before the real danger starts, but it’s impossible for me to not see how keeping him around, particularly given the stakes involved, would’ve solved a lot of the problems our heroes face later on. Still, Quicksilver, for his attitude, powers, effect on the movie, and even his t-shirt, feels like a breakout star character. Or at least he would be if they kept him around longer (but hey, that’s what X-Men: Apocalypse is for). Now let’s see how Aaron Taylor-Johnson does in the role in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Quicksilver being one of the few fringe characters considered part of the X-Men and Avengers universes, his movie appearance admissible in both franchises).
With the return of director Bryan Singer, a lot of people hoped for a return to form for the franchise after its disastrous Last Stand. Ultimately, I don’t think that movie was as bad as people say, and I thought the image of childhood Warren Worthington trying to shave the wings off his back was a particularly horrific and on-point visual for the overarching X-Men allegory. But Jean was dead, Cyclops was dead, Professor X may have been dead, Rogue and Mystique and Magneto were depowered (at least somewhat), and there was a cure for the mutant problem in the form of a simple, easily weaponized injection. Added together with some truly terrible portrayals and interpretations of beloved, but non-central characters, where the best thing to come out of it was the perpetuation of an obnoxious meme, and you had a movie that reached far beyond its own merits, and arriving at a point where it ruined everything, scorched-earth style. Singer’s return would, hopefully, signal not only a return to form, but the opportunity to undo everything that went wrong.
Now pretty early on I claimed that there’s never been a truly good X-Men movie, and that’s a statement I stand behind even as I acknowledge that it is a good thing that Singer came back. His initial two X-Men films were certainly serviceable, but they very much feel like the juvenile, early superhero movies that they are. That’s not necessarily Singer’s fault, that’s just where these types of movies were, with X-Men and X2: X-Men United standing as two of the first entries in the modern superhero movie era. What I’m incredibly happy to say, then, is that, in a post-Avengers, post-Man of Steel cinematic landscape, Days of Future Past is at least the equal of any of today’s superhero movies, if not their better. It still occasionally suffers from a superficial take on people with powers rather than being a story about people with powers (like this scene, where it’s specifically written as an excuse to show everyone’s power rather than those powers necessarily contributing to the scene), but it takes place on a scale much bigger than any of its predecessors, both in the stakes involved and the characters onscreen. Days of Future Past trusts its audience, throwing us right into the action without the benefit of origin stories, over-long explanations, or concept introductions, applying superheroes against a sci-fi plot in a way that’s never been done onscreen before. More importantly, for once it feels like a movie about the people involved rather than about the concept it represents. The relationships matter here, they’re even the driving force in the central conflict. Rather than the plot simply dictating that this character hates that character or plainly stating that this person represents that idea, you feel what these characters are feeling, and they embody their thematic roles through their actions. Though this is all partially a product of a superior script and characters now being familiar, it’s also just what happens when you use actors as charismatic as James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael Fassbender. The whole movie just feels like a much bigger, more accomplished world when you actually believe in the characters and what they’re doing.
If you haven’t really caught my drift by now, I liked X-Men: Days of Future Past. Quite a bit. Up until now, even X-Men: First Class, the best of the X-Men movies in my mind, didn’t merit more than a 7.5, and most of the rest of the movies would fall between a 3 to 7 rating. But we’ve finally gotten to a point where superhero movies are allowing themselves to be good movies and not just movies that are decent, y’know, considering they’re superhero movies. The broader audience is familiar enough with the concepts to not need their hands held the entire way, and the best of the movies are finding traction in the strength of the core concepts. X-Men: Days of Future Past is about something more than just mutants, Sentinels, fight scenes and apocalyptic futures, it’s a movie about people we care about showing us why we would care about them, superhuman or not.
Plus ice-sliding. There isn’t a comicbook nerd alive who hasn’t been waiting their entire lives for that scene.
Thom’s X-Men: Days of Future Past final score: 8.5
What Grace Thought
It would’ve worked as a stand-alone story.
Thom’s already done a decent summary of Days of Future Past, so I’ll just press ahead by looking at some of the character development that we saw in the movie. Because yes, I’m the kind of person who sits down to watch a superhero movie and has to analyze why characters did the things they did rather than just appreciating the fight scenes.
I’m going to start with Raven/Mystique, since she’s the one who the entire movie revolves around. Right from the start, the whole point of the story is reaching Raven and making sure she doesn’t kill Bolivar Trask. But Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto have very different opinions about what “making sure she doesn’t kill someone” means. Charles wants to reconcile with her after the ten long years they’ve spent apart, but Erik wants nothing more than to put a bullet in her head (bad breakup?).
Raven has had an unfortunate past. The movies aren’t clear on why she turned up alone in Charles’s kitchen when they were little kids, but it’s not hard to guess that either A) she was on her own since she was born because she came out blue and her parents couldn’t deal, or B) she discovered what she could do and was forced to leave her home because of it, whether because of her family’s reaction or because of society in general.
That being said, she displayed a remarkable amount of control over her powers at such a young age by being able to convincingly portray Charles’s mother (even if she made the unfortunate mistake of showing up in the kitchen, a place where Mrs. Xavier would never go). So I’m gonna go with A, wherein she fended for herself from a young age and learned how to manipulate her appearance on her own.
After she meets Charles, everything is great for a while—at least, until she becomes dissatisfied with hiding who she is and what she can do. And then she meets Erik: beautiful, tortured Erik, who understands who she is and loves her for it. Unlike Charles, who wants her to keep her mutation hidden, Erik wants Raven to show herself to the world and never, ever hide from it.
So she’s forced to choose. There’s nothing harder, at least in my opinion, than choosing between the only family you’ve ever known and the person you want to be with. But it’s not just about Erik: it’s about choosing a life where she has the freedom to be herself. Essentially, it’s the choice between Raven and Mystique. And that’s where we come into the story. During the ten years they’ve been apart, Raven has seen her friends being tortured and killed by Bolivar Trask as he develops the Sentinels.
That’s a long time to nurture a deep hatred of someone. If anything, I’m surprised she didn’t try to kill him sooner. This is a woman who’s been pushed to the brink of what she can endure. Her family is gone, her friends are dead, and the man who professed to love her is, in her opinion, too much of a coward to support the mutant cause. Now it’s just her—in her head, she’s the only mutant who still cares whether or not they live or die. So if it’s the last thing she does, she’s going to avenge her fallen friends.
I don’t want to play the “I’m a woman so I understand how she feels” card, because that’s a card we can rarely play. Raven, like any woman, consists of layered emotions that weave together and split apart. This analysis of her personal character is just my interpretation of it. I don’t think even the people who wrote the screenplay can accurately say everything that was going through her mind throughout the film, because if she were a real person, even Raven wouldn’t know.
Emotions like rage and grief and love and fear and hatred can all blur together, and I think the only person who can understand that is Erik. He’s the only one who sees that their chances of reaching her are astronomically against them, which is why he decides that a bullet in the head is the best way to go.
Then there’s Charles. He is and always has been the optimist, the hoper of far-flung hopes, the dreamer of impossible dreams—at least until he loses the ability to walk and gets horribly depressed. And I suppose you would be, too, if you couldn’t walk, lost your sister/best friend/all your students, and could no longer handle all the voices in your head. So Charles borrows some of Hank’s serum, which Hank says is meant to keep his powers in check, and gets two results: he can walk, and his mind-reading powers are out of commission.
So here’s the question, because Thom and I couldn’t agree on the answer: what was Charles’s motivation behind taking the serum? To me, it sounded like he did it because he wanted to walk again, and the “losing his powers” portion came as a bonus. Thom, on the other hand, thought it was because he couldn’t handle listening to everyone’s thoughts, and being able to walk again was just an awesome perk that came with that.
But here’s the dumb thing. Hank made the serum to keep his Beast powers in check. It stands to reason that it’d do the same thing for Charles, right? Suppressing his mental powers and all. Charles even said it affected his DNA, which I suppose would be the point if you’re targeting the mutant gene. So Thom’s right on that count. But a serum that does that wouldn’t have any effect on his legs at all. No serum that targets DNA would have any effect on a gunshot wound. Maybe if it were a congenital defect it would be different, but Charles being paralyzed is a direct result of a frickin’ bullet to the spine.
To me, the whole serum storyline is just a really lazy way to have Charles without his wheelchair. Think about it. Sneaking into the Pentagon would’ve been a helluva lot harder if he were wheeling in. He’d be far less helpful in the summit meeting, being completely unable to protect Raven from Erik. So this is just a nice little side story that depicts Charles as a bitter former professor unable to cope with the world. And that pisses me off, because there was a much better way to do it: just leave him in his wheelchair.
He’d already be upset now that he’s in a wheelchair, so by compounding that with losing Raven and Erik and his students, he’d be a broken shell of a man who needs Logan to bring him back into the world. Don’t get me wrong: I’m in no way saying that people in wheelchairs are always gonna be depressed. I’ve known a few, and they were some of the most cheerful and well-adjusted people I’ve ever met. I’m just saying that in this case, it would have worked well for Charles.
Because then, when Logan finally snapped him out of it, Charles would latch onto Raven as his opportunity for salvation and renewed hope in the world. He would view their mission as one final effort to prove to himself that his life is worth living and that he can still create change for others. And that would be a much more poignant message for him at the end when he finally manages to get through to her, especially compared with Erik’s belief that nothing more can be done for her.
Then there’s Bolivar Trask. He’s invested his life in developing the Sentinel technology, and now that he has a working prototype, he takes it before the Senate (I assume, anyway; I don’t really know how American politics work) to ask for funding. He backs up his work with a paper written by our very own Charles Xavier ten years earlier, the one discussing Homo neanderthal and Homo sapiens while drawing parallels to the modern-day evolution happening with the mutants. It’s all very scientific and legitimate… and he’s basically laughed out of the room.
But Bolivar is determined to protect the Homo sapiens. After all, he’s one of them, right? All he’s doing is ensuring the survival of his species while eliminating what he views as a threat to the world’s safety. And if we weren’t blinded by how much we all love Wolverine (and his butt—like seriously), we’d realize that yeah, having super powered humans running around is serious business. That was the major threat they addressed in the first X-Men movie. It’s been the entire point of the series up till now! We just haven’t taken it seriously because the issue has been attached to faces like Senator Kelly’s.
So maybe that’s why they chose Peter Dinklage to play Bolivar Trask. As you know, Dinklage is one of my favourite people for obvious reasons. Somehow he has the amazing ability to make everything he says carry actual weight. We actually look at the things he says and think to ourselves, “Yeah, all right, I can see why he thinks that.”
Only a couple of weeks ago, Tyrion Lannister said, “I did not kill Joffrey, but I wish that I had. Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores. I wish I was the monster you think I am. I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you. I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it!” And yet no one watching was scandalized by what he said. If anything, we loved him more than ever, because we knew exactly why he was saying it and that he was completely justified in doing so.
Peter Dinklage really does have that quality, and he brings it to Bolivar Trask. Rather than making him just another self-righteous scientist or politician who’s after the mutants simply because they’re different, he has that extra layer of complexity. He’s doing it for the preservation of his species, but he’s also doing it because he’s fascinated by the fact that mutants are different, not repulsed by it.
I’m sure some people could argue that Trask was partly intrigued by mutations because he himself had achondroplasia, a mutation that causes dwarfism, and I’m not gonna lie, that’s definitely an interesting point of view to take. Personally, though, I’m going to stick with the casting of Peter Dinklage, not because of his stature but because of the fact that people so strongly identify with him and genuinely believe what he has to say.
That makes for a complicated central villain, because even though a lot of his actions are questionable—a newspaper at the end of the film indicates that he’s been arrested for selling military secrets, although really that’s the sort of thing that should come up in a background check before someone appears in front of the Senate—there isn’t a single moment in the film that makes us hate him. And I honestly can’t think of another movie or TV show where that’s been the case.
Considering everything, this worked really well as an isolated story. You wouldn’t have even needed any of the other movies as backstory, which I guess was sort of the point, except then seeing everyone in the school at the end might not have had such a huge effect at the end, because we wouldn’t have known who any of those people were. (Although seriously, I could’ve done without seeing Rogue back together with Bobby, because barf.) Basically this was a great self-contained piece that didn’t depend on other plot lines. And that was great, because I found the other movies to be entirely forgettable.
Overall, I’d say X-Men: Days of Future Past does something that no other superhero movie (except possible Captain America: The Winter Soldier) has done: it builds on the relationships between its characters in a believable way. For the most part, the characters are complex rather than flat, and I think that’s a result of the fact that this film had a much more limited cast than most X-Men films. There was a small group in the future and an even smaller group in the present; apart from that, everyone else was just extras to paint the world around them. That gave the writers the freedom to pursue real character growth that didn’t depend on love triangles or huge global threats.
Yes, the Sentinels wiped out humanity in the future. But when it counted, when the fate of the human race hung in the balance in a single moment, it rested with a single person and the choices she could make. And just by flipping that switch and making a different decision, the whole world shifted into a completely different future.
I know that Thom’s thrilled about the transition into an alternate timeline (at least, as thrilled as he ever gets, which means I think I caught him cracking a smile at one point). I’m pretty excited, too, because this means that we might—might—get more character development and fewer fight scenes that exist just to show off superpowers.
Although really, who am I kidding? I frickin’ love those fight scenes.
Grace’s X-Men: Days of Future Past final grade: A-
- Thom: It may have only been mentioned off-handedly, but it really bugs me that Banshee’s dead and that the time-travel/continuity-fixing aspects of the movie won’t change that.
- Grace: That opening scene was straight out of The Terminator. Seriously, a barren wasteland after a war with the machines? Giant mechanical beings rolling over mountains of bones? Straight-up homage right there.
- Thom: I am incredibly happy that Cyclops is alive again, though.
- Grace: Why did Anna Paquin get close-to-top billing in the closing credit sequence when Rogue only appeared for like a second? For some reason this bothers me an unreasonable amount.
- Thom: For a team with a teleporter, the future X-Men sure did a terrible job of getting away from things.
- Grace: Seriously, what’s the deal with Professor X? How did he survive? Why did they just completely skip over that at the end of The Wolverine? There’s a theory that he jumped into the mind of a younger guy, but that just begs the question, why in the hell would he do that to someone else. A better answer would be that he just projected himself in front of Jean and she destroyed that projection, and then he just faked his death so he could do some behind-the-scenes work for a while… but if that’s the case, what was the deal with him and Moira at the end of X3?
- Thom: I wonder if we’ll ever see Rose-Byrne Moira MacTaggert again?
- Grace: And on that note, she is looking good for her age, considering that when we last saw her it was in X-Men: First Class, and that was a good 40 years ago. (Also: I loved that actress in Dollhouse.)
- Thom: Even though young Charles wasn’t really in his right mind when he saw the future, I’m sure he was appalled to see old-man Erik with a full head of hair and his old self completely bald.
- Grace: At first I wondered why Kitty Pryde suddenly had this ability to send a consciousness back in time, but my roommate raised an excellent point: when we first met her, she could manipulate physical mass in space. Maybe in the time since she’s been on the run, she figured out how to manipulate non-physical mass in time. Same principle in a different application, I guess. But much as I love Ellen Page (seriously, how great was Juno?), it still seems weird.
- Grace: Also, I loved Quicksilver. I thought he added a much-needed sense of youthful chaos to what otherwise would’ve been a pretty heavy film.
- Thom: Y’know, the whole mutant thing might’ve been just the distraction Nixon needed to finish his second term. Just imagine the ripple effects that may have had on the new timeline.
- Grace: Raven should’ve had a much harder time going through Trask’s stuff in her usual form. She’d have to bend over a lot to reach everything. And seriously, why wouldn’t she just stay in his body? That is literally the worst possible way to create tension, because the real Mystique would never be that stupid. That is all.