Best X Ever

X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer

I imagine the birth of X:Men: Days of Future Past was the result of blatantly cynical studio scheming. Some years ago a bunch of studio executives at Fox probably held a secret huddle to plot the future of the X-Men franchise. The trilogy–including the well-received X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003), and the widely-reviled X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) had been successful, though not spectacularly so, grossing $1.2 billion over three movies. Compared to the Spider-man and Dark Knight trilogies (which regularly popped $1 billion per movie), this was unimpressive. An effort to reboot the franchise with a new cast in X-Men: First Class (2011) resulted in the most well-reviewed entry but disappointing box office returns.

They had the right ingredients, including excellent actors and popular characters, but hadn’t found the right recipe yet. I imagine the executives asking themselves one question. “Wolverine is the most popular of the X-Men. Jennifer Lawrence is the hottest actress of the moment. How can we get the two of them in the same movie, retire the old cast, and set up the new faces for more X-Men adventures not captive to the old cannon?”

You’d expect the result of such ham-fistedness to be a clunky, contrived, crowded mess. Miraculously, you would be wrong. X-Men: Days of Future Past has just stolen the crown as the highest-rated X-Men movie and highest-rated superhero movie of the year, with (as of this writing) a 92 percent on RottenTomatoes.com, and it is almost certain to become the franchise’s highest-grossing film by far. What could have been a piece of tripe peddled by the studios for dollars it didn’t deserve somehow mutated into a terrific piece of entertainment and, almost, something beautiful.

I.

The X-Men films (and cartoons and comic books) have always leaned heavily on the theme of an oppressed people fighting for justice. It follows a group of mutated humans who, by virtue of having the “X gene,” evolve superhuman powers, like the ability to manipulate metal (Magneto), the weather (Storm), or other people’s minds (Professor Xavier). Normal people naturally fear the mutants, and some try to fight, imprison, or kill them. The films thus put the mutants in the position of Jews during the Holocaust or (as in Last Stand), gays struggling to win acceptance.

The mutants struggle to know the right way to respond to their oppression. Xavier is the Gandhi or Martin Luther King of the mutant movement, calling for peaceful coexistence and harmony. Magneto is the Mao Zedong or Adolf Hitler, explicitly calling for revolution in the name of mutant supremacy. This is already more moral intelligence in than most comic book movies.

Days of Future Past involves a plot contrivance we last saw in Star Trek (2009)–time travel by an original-cast member back to the time of the new, rebooted, prequel cast to shake things up–which, despite its obvious contrivance, is pulled off nicely. Thus, we get to see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine side-by-side with all the newbies–naturally including Jennifer Lawrence, whose costume, probably the sole reason for the film’s PG-13 rating, involves little more than a thin coat of blue paint.

Nevermind the plot. The film has energy, especially in its first half. We’ve all seen epic smash before (one of the complaints about comic-book movies is that they grow gradually indistinguishable as large things crash into other large things). Future Past keeps its action relatively lean until the finale, and thereby preserves its excitement. One sequence literally had my crowded theater in laughter and applause. When a movie moment elicits spontaneous clapping from jaded film-goers, its doing something right.

The movie is also funny. Wolverine revisiting the 1970s (when most of the movie is set) is played well. “I rigged a system to record broadcasts from all three networks,” says one character. “Wow. All three,” Wolverine replies.

III.

Most importantly, the film has heart, though not as much as I’d like to have seen. While Wolverine probably gets the most screentime and Lawrence’s Mystique has the most fanboys, Charles Xavier is the emotional center of the film. In his older incarnation (played by Patrick Stewart), he is Obi-wan Kenobi–the wise, avuncular leader who has the right answers to gently guide and mentor the younger mutants onto the path of justice. He was also kind of boring because he was too perfect. But his younger self (played by James McAvoy), is quite different. In First Class, he was brash, arrogant, and playful. In Future Past, he is broken, embittered, and apathetic. If the first dreams of your naive youth proved illusory (as they always do), how do you ever recover from the disappointment? How do you ever care about anything ever again?

The crux of the film is, naturally, a face-to-face encounter between the older and younger Xaviers (don’t worry too much how this happens; the plot required it, which is enough in a movie like this). The younger Xavier is a drug addict, wallowing in despair, afraid of his pain and the pain of the world around him. In a lesser movie, the older Xavier would spout some nonsense like “Just believe in yourself,” or “Trust your feelings.” Or, even worse, it would have the younger man fall in love with some pretty girl and regain his hope in life through romance (which, unfortunately, is what they did to Wolverine in his last film, reviewed here).

Instead, Old Xavier tells his younger self not to be afraid of his pain. “Allow yourself to feel your pain. You will grow stronger through it.” I was reminded of James 1:2-3, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness,” and 1 Peter 1:6-7, “You have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor.” Pain and trial and suffering are inescapable parts of life. What matters isn’t concocting strategies of escaping pain, but of responding to it with patience, through which pain mutates into character.

In real life, this takes time. The only false note in Future Past is the speed and ease with which the young Xavier overcomes his demons and regains hope, so fast that it undercuts the gravity of his earlier despair. Real fights can take months and years of slow evolution. But in the frothy-light world of science-fiction, one sudden realization is all it takes. The filmmakers could have leaned on this moment just a little more, allowed Xavier to follow his character-arc a bit more slowly and more fully, and it would have dramatically added to the emotional truthfulness of the film.

You might think I’m being too picky for what is, after all, just a silly comic-book movie. But The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 (the old one) showed us that these movies are only silly if the filmmakers don’t take them seriously. If they do, even great stories can be told in spandex.


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