Confessions of an X-Men Ex-Fan [Revised]

 When Mutants aren’t fighting for their rights… what do they do? Do they vacuum their apartments? Do they go to baseball games? Do they watch cat videos?

Or does the Mutant Experience require constant employment of powers against those who hate Mutants, or against those Mutants who abuse their powers?

I hate to say it, but X-Men: Days of Future Past and its four big-screen predecessors (not to mention spinoffs like The Wolverine) make Mutant life look absolutely miserable. For all Mutants.

Anyway… am I the only one feeling fatigue about the sufferings of these characters? Seems like every episode is another version of the same thing. More efforts to eliminate Mutants, more exhibitions of Mutant power used against their oppressors, more arguments about how to use that power. These things reflect important struggles that every generation faces regarding race, sexual orientation, or any other kind of basic human diversity. But sometimes these stories seem so fiercely focused on scenarios that require violence, I just stop believing. By dwelling on the clashes of power, we lose sight of what’s being fought for. In fact, we never see it at all.

When director Brian Singer’s superhero sequel X2: X-Men United opened back in April 2003, I was thrilled. Here was a sequel that surpassed expectations, delivering on the promise of a first film that broke new ground and made comic book movies seem relevant and exciting. The writing was smart and efficient. The cast was great. The effects were fantastic without being intrusive. And the heart of the whole endeavor seemed… human. It felt inspired by comic books, but it played onscreen like something more substantial.

I blogged that X2 was “the most rewarding big-screen comic book I have yet seen. Anybody working on comic book films — or Star Wars films — should be devoting themselves to understanding what makes the movies of Bryan Singer work.”

This all took place during second year of writing Christianity Today‘s Film Forum, where I was comparing and contrasting the views of other critics from Christian media and mainstream sources. I found a variety of opinions there. (The fundamentalist evangelical movie-morality-watchdog site Movieguide, true to form, used the opportunity to judge one of the actors for his sexual orientation, causing those Christian film reviewers who actually care about art to stand out in stark contrast.) In my Film Forum, I quoted my friend Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com: “Larger in scope and darker in tone than its predecessor, as rich in invention but expanding on it, X2 is the most ambitious, sprawling superhero saga to date. This is now one of Hollywood’s best and most promising franchises.”

With two strong installments, the developing series proved that it was possible, in a genre known for formulaic mediocrity, to make memorable, meaningful movies that could inspire thoughtful discussions. I couldn’t wait for the third movie.

Well, a lot has happened since then.

Bryan Singer left the series, as you probably remember, in order to make what turned out to be a highly disappointing attempt at restoring Superman to the big screen. Superman Returns felt like a mix of unnerving nostalgia (Brandon Routh looked like Christopher Reeve, but lacked the charisma) and failed chemistry (the romance was a flop). But what the Superman failure even harder to take was that Singer had done this instead of bringing his X-Men series to a satisfying close, which everyone believed he could have achieved. Instead, we got The Last Stand — director Bret Ratner’s crap-tacular ruination of the trilogy. What a letdown. In my X-Men enthusiasm, I visited the set of The Last Stand, and watched the sun go down while the crew raced around in the woods to film a clash between Wolverine and Magneto. Watching the result on the screen, surrounded by X-Men fans, was physically painful.

After several years of fan resentment, we cautiously approached a prequel directed by Matthew Vaughn — X-Men: First Class. It was an engaging reboot of sorts, led by a cast of up-and-coming stars including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence. But it showed signs of serious bloat, reaching for something even more epic, and losing the charm of the first two. It was an improvement, but it wasn’t enough to make me start watching movie calendars for a follow-up.

And now here we are with Days of Future Past, the fifth X-Men film, the first to combine the casts of both series, and the long-awaited return of Brian Singer to the controls.

While l I felt very little hope that Days of Future Past would stand out from the pack as exceptional, this video review from the tremendously trustworthy Steven Greydanus got my attention:

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Intrigued, I read his in-depth published review.

And that was enough to rekindle my old enthusiasm, prompting me to hand over more money than I should ever spend on a movie (almost 20 dollars) in order to join some friends for an opening-weekend show.

The result?

While I respect Steven’s devotion to the comic book genre and his discernment about what makes a good superhero movie and what makes a bad one, I just can’t muster more than a flicker of the enthusiasm he feels for this movie.

It would be easy to go on blaming Ratner for my X-Men disillusionment. But that’s not it.

Here’s the real answer: I’ve overdosed on superhero movies. Theaters have become saturated with comic book heroes. New films and sequels seem to pop up every week or two. I’ve seen so many heroes, so many supernatural powers, so many transformations, so many explosions, so many big cities devastated by supervillains, so many showdowns, so many human bodies pummeled beyond what any real human being could withstand, that I’m exhausted. Going to the movies now feels like going to my favorite cafe for breakfast only to find that 75% of the menu has been taken over by sugary breakfast cereals: high on sugar, low on nutrition. Even a Grade-A superhero movie can make me feel cynical about the state of cinema in general. I read a lot of messages from readers who were frustrated with my non-review of The Avengers, but that was where I felt something snap inside of me.

I understand why Steven Greydanus is excited — he’s had a lifelong love affair with comic books, and I haven’t. His appetite for this stuff is ten times larger than mine. Back when superhero films were a new frontier — Tim Burton’s Batman movies were a hoot, Sam Raimi’s Spider-man had real spirit. Things really peaked with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which made as much or more of superhero source material than I thought possible, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which showed that the comic book template could be filled to bursting with handmade creativity. But now, steroidal CGI superhero films are a dime a dozen, each one aiming to be bigger and more intense than the last. They’ve lost me. I’m no longer a member of the audience that these movies are made to please.

When I look back at the history of superhero films, the only one that appears in my list of 120 favorite movies is The Incredibles. And that’s because it was a film that was about much, much more than fighting the latest oppressors, about standing up for rights or freedom or the American Way.

There are too many great films in the world that I have yet to see for the first time. Why spend valuable time on more disposable showdowns between mutants and aliens and people produced in a lab?

If I were to write a full review and then set it alongside Steven’s, you’d probably see a sort of conversation something like this…

Steven:

“[It's] one of the geekiest comic-book movies ever made — and one of the best. It’s easily the best superhero movie since The Avengers — and, like The Avengers, it plays as a triumphant climax to an uneven series of earlier films.”

Me:

Well, on the subject of over-long, overly loud, over-populated, exhaustingly paced, excessively convoluted, suspense-free superhero movies, I can’t disagree: This one is an impressive achievement. It’s relentlessly entertaining. Helluva ride.

Steven:

“… Days of Future Past brings together various strands of a franchise that sprang from a single source but has grown unwieldy over 14 years and six varying installments. … [But it] gracefully harmonizes these tensions, weaving together different timelines with older and younger versions of [the same characters.]“

Me:

I can’t imagine how difficult it was to write this screenplay. It’s quite creative in the way it sews the prequel cast and the original cast together, sure.

But, wow, it’s a challenge to follow. The importance of time travel to this script really complicates matters. Keeping straight who’s who will be easy for fans, but not newcomers. But even fans will be challenged, I think, as they try to keep track of the characters’ varying powers — some of which are different between earlier and later manifestations of the characters.

With so many powers available to Team Mutant, it’s hard for me to feel any sense of crisis. It seems there’s a superpower that can solve just about anything.

Steven might reply that longtime fans of the comic book series will already be familiar with “an influential 1981 storyline by X-Men chronicler Chris Claremont and co-plotted by writer-artist John Byrne” … a storyline involving the rise of the fearsome Mutant-killing robots called Sentinels.

To which I’d reply that I’m not one of those fans. Unfamiliar with 30-year-old comic book storylines, I thought that the Sentinels just seemed like Terminator-esque drones made up of the stuff of a dozen other movies. Big, loud, full of fire and bluster, they’re just the sort of summer-blockbuster explosion-generators that shoot down my interest in a movie.

I’m not going to try to talk anybody out of liking Days of Future Past. I can see why it’s getting such great reviews. It’s exactly what X-Men fans want: An even bigger X-Men movie, with even more of their favorite characters from the mythology. It’s full of adrenalin-rush action, standard-setting special-effects, and great actors. The film playfully engages with period-piece storytelling by visiting our heroes in the days after Kennedy’s assassination, and every few moments we see another superpower employed cleverly in a ploy, a jailbreak, or a fight. And it delivers, in bolder strokes than ever, the same ol’ X-Men message about “stop persecuting those who are different” — perhaps the most popular sermon being preached on big screens today. Best of all, it gives us permission to disregard Bret Ratner’s installment as if it never happened. Singer has devised exactly the comeback his fans wanted, and I suspect that they’ll forgive him that Superman Returns debacle.

If I really admired anything in the film, it was the dedication of the cast. The actors — James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Hugh Jackman especailly — look like they were forced by Singer to watch Sean Bean’s death scene from The Fellowship of the Ring every day and told “That’s the level of performance I want from you! In every scene!”  (Poor McAvoy. Just think about the last three or four films he’s been in, and think of how many times we’ve seen him spluttering and trembling and shouting and red-eyed and teetering on the edge of madness. He must be exhausted.)

But in the whole film, I found only one sequence particularly memorable: one involving the heroics of a newcomer called Quicksilver. He stole the show, upsetting a showdown in the Pentagon with a demonstration of power that is distinct for its playfulness and humor. But (maybe I missed something) why does Quicksilver disappear after that? Why doesn’t he follow our heroes through the rest of their adventure? Seems to me that his could have solved all kinds of problems in the second half of the film. Instead, he was… well, what was he doing?

Soon after that scene, I just gave up trying to care. I find that any circuitry I ever had to enjoy this kind of movie was overloaded and melted down by two Spider-man franchises, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Rises, and a half-dozen other heavily merchandised blockbusters. So many variations on the same things. So much effort invested in topping what was done last time. So many frames overstuffed with more action than I can hope to track with my eyes or my intellect.

I enjoyed last year’s Wolverine movie more than Days of Future Past because it had a sense of pacing, a far more human scale, and it modulated its intensity so that there were real rises and falls, crescendos and decrescendos. This movie is all crescendo, and sometimes several crescendos at once.

And frankly, I’m tired of hearing the mutants complain about their plight. I think the people, the neighborhoods, and the environment all around them that suffer the consequences of their violent clashes… well, I have more and more sympathy for them all the time. I don’t come to care for Mutants by watching them fight back against villains. But I might come to care for them if I saw some storytelling about who they really are, and what it’s like to live like one. How many times must we hear a Mutant moan “Humans hate us because we’re different, never mind that we’re laying waste to their cities and armed forces and police squads and famous buildings in movie after movie after movie”?

Before Days of Future Past ended, I found myself thinking about Star Wars, and, well… I have a bad feeling about this.

I suspect that Days of Future Past shows us where Star Wars is going next: More and more of what the fans want, more and more climactic and explosive conflicts. The stories in the original Star Wars trilogy could be told. That is to say, you could read them in a fairly simple storybook and follow what was happening. The first two films in the X-Men series were somewhat similar that way. But I fear that, as with the Marvel Universe stories and the Abrams Star Treks, we’re going to watch the Star Wars storylines become blackberry vines, spreading wildly, becoming impossibly intertwined, knotting themselves up until we spend so much time talking about trivia that we’re no longer thinking about what these stories once meant to us. At some point, it stops feeling like storytelling. Instead, it feels like we’re watching rounds of some massive multi-player game where characters’ powers can be juxtaposed and combined in endless variations. Moments of real gravity and imagination will become rarer and rarer in the sprawl of More, More, More. They’ll become elaborate, overly self-referential, expanding and exhausting variations on Yoda’s sermons: “Anger, fear, aggression… the dark side are they.”

I would so love to see screenwriters set free to explore new storytelling territory, asking new questions, allowing Star Wars to grow in quality, not just quantity.

Deep into Days of Future Past, Professor X gives a short homily about the power of hope. Patrick Stewart delivers these lines with dignity and emotion. And they sting all the more because it was hope — hope for some real vision and imagination — that led me to hand over almost 20 bucks to see this movie. If anybody’s ever going to restore my hope in this genre, they’re going to have to catch me off guard. They’ll have to draw me in with reports of poignant storytelling and unforgettable images.

That is to say: depth over sprawl, revelation over rehash.

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  • BeaverTales

    What kind of evil would you prefer mutants fight? Violence and brutality lends itself well to the deployment of superpowers involving claws, strength, and manipulating weather, etc. The common banal and daily evil of casual bigotry and demagoguery does not usually make for good cinema…but they tried to incorporate that in DOFP and I think it went fairly well.

    This is the marketplace of ideas…even dumb ones. If people want brutes who are in dizzying action scenes, then that’s what they get. If people supported intellectual movies with complex character development and spiritual themes, that’s what we’d get. I get what you are saying, but these studios are in the business to make money by meeting market demand for certain types of films.

    If that’s the kind of movie you want, support that kind of cinema. Make it pay for the studios. Those of us who value good cinema and writing have a duty to do this.

  • SirThinkALot

    The X-men movies still arent nearly as bad the comics, which havent been worth reading for almost 20 years now. Decades of team change-ups, status quoe changes, characters going from good to evil and back again, mutants losing their powers, only to regain them again, has just mad everything one gigantic, tangled mess that doesnt work anymore(and hasnt for a while) Not to mention the whole ‘mutant persecution’ makes absolutely zero sense in a world where they live and fight right alongside Thor, Ironman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, et al(which is why I think the X-men not belonging to Marvel/Disney is a great thing and should stay that way)

    Its a bad sign when the ‘main’ X-men title revolves around bringing the original team up to the present. While I’m not always a fan of reboots, the X-men needs one desperately. Well it needs something to bring it back to basics and eliminate all the noise.


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