The Issue With X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men_DoFP BannerI got goosebumps at the end of The Wolverine just like most X-Men fans. To see some of the cast reunited is something special in Hollywood. But reality isn’t always kind. The reason the cast of the original X-Men trilogy was back was to simply make another film. Sure, every now and then we get something grand. But in this case, we get a hurried script that benefits from the building of Wolverine over five of the six X-Men films, the past versions of the X-Men characters complete with a stellar cast, and the opportunity to have the originals bring in their own fandom. It’s a trifecta that surely will work in the favor of the box office but in this case it doesn’t benefit the film.

X-Men-DoFP TheatricalWhile I dislike the idea of dream casting the director for a film after it’s already been made, I can’t help but feel that Bryan Singer wasn’t the right choice here. Sure, he’s the reason the X-Men franchise exists now. Without his two thoroughly pleasing X-Men films we wouldn’t be here today. I have to admit, though, that I haven’t seen his films in quite some time and most indications are that they don’t hold up. In his absence there were some deeply flawed films to round out the trilogy and a dismal initial Wolverine film. Just when things were looking grim for this series, Matthew Vaughn came in with X-Men: First Class and suddenly the franchise felt fresh and lithe. There was the excellent cast, to be sure, but the setting, pacing, and general story were a pleasure. Additionally, First Class had some actual menace and characters were killed off for good. Truly, this was the kind of film that reinvigorated the franchise.

So while Singer is a competent director, he wouldn’t be someone I consider fresh or exciting. He gives us exactly what we might expect, rarely allowing surprises to seep in. It’s why the characters in this film feel so out of place, particularly the younger versions of Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Sure, it focuses on them. They’re the future of this franchise, along with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, who seems to get more muscular and menacingly veiny with each film), but whereas Vaughn’s First Class pushed the characters forward by leaps and bounds, instilling in us a reason to care for them, Days of Future Past mostly pushes them forward by the barest measure.

They’ve also managed to mix characters, a sign that the film is struggling with multiple writers and the effort of having a familiar face in an important position. For instance, Kitty Pryde (who has been played by three different actresses over the franchise history but most recently by Ellen Page) is in the future timeline with this new trick she never had in the comics: the ability to send people back in time. She never had it in any of the other films, either, so this must be a recent mutation. But nevermind all that. Sentinels, giant mindless robots with the ability to change their composition to better kill mutants of various abilities, have taken over in the future. The last remaining mutants decide to send someone back to the 70s to keep Mystique from killing Bolivar Trask (and getting captured and experimented on in the process), which sets in motion the current Sentinel program.

The best candidate for that role is Wolverine, who is both old enough (how old is this dude by now?) and has the ability to rapidly heal. So, his mind can handle the stress (so they say) though they’ve already established his mind doesn’t handle that sort of thing well, which is why he doesn’t remember anything when we first meet him in the first X-Men film. Again, nevermind all that! They’re notsending back the actual person, though, just his mindset. It’s a clever way of getting rid of the pesky doppelganger issue with most time travel scenarios.

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There’s even a quip about Wolverine not looking that much different in the past timeline, which garnered a knowing chuckle from a few people in the audience. So his task is to convince agneto and Charles to team up and stop Mystique. Thing is, when we left the characters in First Class, they were on very different paths and not exactly friendly. To make matters worse, Magneto is in a high security jail cell underneath the Pentagon. It’s like the script was tailor made to eat up screen time. In order to achieve this we are introduced to one of the most frustrating aspects of the film. Wolverine suggests they use a mutant known as Quicksilver, played by the hilarious Evan Peters, who has superhuman speed. He blinks around his bachelor pad in his mother’s basement until Wolverine, Beast, and Charles can convince him to help them. His hook? He gets to break into the Pentagon. What kind of mischievous youngster with superhuman speed wouldn’t rise to that challenge?

So we go about establishing just how quick he is through various scenes. In one, time nearly stands still as he runs around a room full of guards threatening to shoot the group and redirects bullets, tastes some soup, makes sure the guard’s hands are setup to punch themselves, along with more hilarity. It’s a wonderful sequence that is about as unexpected as it is fun and will definitely be long remembered after this film’s box office dust has settled. He’s definitely a highlight character and one that brings a fair amount of humor to a pretty humorless film. His job accomplished, there’s an awkward scene where he is basically dismissed by Charles and the group. Here’s this extremely important mission to save mutantkind and we just utilized a character that could dramatically alter the balance of that task in their favor.

But no. He’d make things too easy. So he’s simply told to go back home in a rental car without further explanation. This is the kind of lazy writing that is hard to fathom. You create a problem and use a new character that is perfectly suited to the task. Then once his task is done you have to get rid of him before he makes things too easy for the rest of the film?

My biggest gripe with the film out of the way, we’re back to establishing the wedge between Magneto and Charles that was the highlight of First Class. That film setup Mystique in a unique position. She was left with a choice to decide between Magneto and Charles. They saw her as the person best qualified to decide who was right and who was wrong. She was the turning point and she chose Magneto at the end of First Class, devastating Charles. In Days of Future Past she is without a compass and headed like a missile to kill Trask before he can truly cause destruction. She’s attempting to wipe him out but instead she’s the reason the Sentinel program has such devastating success in the future.

A key part of this film’s success is setting up Trask as a character but it’s fumbled. Sure, the ever excellent Peter Dinklage tries his hardest with the slimmest of character development. But he’s so one note that you never feel like he is anything more than a pawn in the film’s overall story. In fact, he’s entirely unrelated to the actual reason the Sentinel program ends up being the success it is. He’s expendable and it seems they do very little to give us a reason to root for his survival. Meanwhile, Lawrence is a one-woman wrecking squad out of the blue (I had to sneak one in there). She can infiltrate places well but I’ve never seen her as a character that can take on a room full of guards with weapons. But here she is wreaking havoc all over the place.

Sure, it’s a delight to have Lawrence on screen as much as possible. But again, her character is mostly underutilized. We don’t see the internal struggle she had in First Class. It’s just a mindless mission of killing Trask. She’s also relegated to mostly making glances at Beast, Magneto, and Xavier as if that’s all that needs to be said now. And, honestly, let’s not explore the awful character deaths at the hands of the Sentinels that are wasted dramatically. Just, don’t do that stuff.

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This is a film that relies on First Class and the groundwork laid there. Yes, we do explore the Magneto and Xavier angle more and that’s this film’s saving grace. They are the most interesting aspect of the film and it’s the only thing that actually works beyond Quicksilver. For a film that takes so much time setting things up they sure left a lot of empty space in terms of character development. It’s sad to see such wonderful actors that can carry their own films or shows outside of the X-Men franchise be given the barest of character development here.

Bryan Singer has returned to the helm of the franchise that made him into the name he is today. There’s a grandiose quality to having so many of the classic characters back on screen and I admit it was a joy to see them once again, even if it was in a bland and devastated future. It’s a surprise to me that Singer’s return doesn’t lead me to put my faith fully in this franchise’s future, but it’s still got a long way to fall before it gets close to some of the other fumbled comic franchises out there.