Clashing Cultures to Change their Fate
In X-Men Days of Future Past, New York City is not blown up or destroyed. Well, that’s not entirely true. For a brief opening scene, Patrick Stewart, returning to the franchise as Charles Xavier, narrates over images of worldwide destruction by unbeatable and oppressive robots called Sentinels, which have necessarily made a sinister mess of New York City. The highly adaptive metal armies have killed many mutants and their human supporters. But the fact that we don’t witness this transformation of skyline into dimly lit rubble is a minor achievement. Comic book movie audiences have become so saturated with Manhattan being used as a ragdoll lately. That midtown desolation is only implied here indicates an encouraging progression for the million more Marvel movies to come.
But the X-Men movies have always distinguished themselves from the other Marvel ventures because of their focus on personal and social marginalization, and what they mean. They’re more blatantly allegorical- anti-mutant fervor standing in for xenophobia and homophobia. X-Men: First Class is in its own way a small treatise on the ideological rift between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The movies also like inserting themselves into history with Forrest Gump forays, some trivial, some culturally solemn, revising major events through subtle mutant maneuverings. In this movie, it’s a twist on the Kennedy assassination, while others have tinkered with nuclear war and, as the first X-Men began, with the Holocaust.
So the next era to explore with our mutant friends comes helpfully in a new time period, during the aftermath of the Vietnam War, 1973, to be precise. To get there requires some new characters, and director Bryan Singer, responsible for the first two films of the franchise, returns with his familiar cast. That includes aforementioned Professor X, Ian MacKellan as Magneto, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and Halle Berry with all but ten words to say, camped out in a mountainside temple somewhere in China, fending off oncoming Sentinel attacks. It’s newcomer Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) whose time travel ability- transporting people’s consciousness into the past- gives the movie its plot though. As Sentinels continue to attack, she transports various mutants back a few minutes into the fight to change the course of their present.
Xavier finally gets the idea to send someone back in time fifty years (we are in the near-distant future) to intercept the murder by Raven aka Mystique of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the man responsible for the Sentinels and whose death spurred on earth’s destruction. The person he sends, naturally, is Logan/Wolverine, the protagonist of the franchise who’s also starred in two solo movies in X-Men Origins and the less offensive The Wolverine. The convenient reasoning is that his body heals faster and the time warp won’t affect his brain as badly. But really, it’s just a good decision by Singer to continue anchoring films with Jackman, whose physicality continues to keep pace with Wolverine’s demanding persona.
He wakes up next to a lava lamp on a waterbed with a random woman and we know he’s successfully made the switch to 1973. Singer seems to enjoy playing with cultural set pieces and atmospheres, finding creative if not silly ways to inject mutant subplots into dramatic human events. He even films several scenes with a fabricated archival video style, only spreading three quarters of the screen. Like Matthew Vaughn’s directorial effort in First Class, Singer, along with writer Simon Kinberg, finds time for humor, unfortunately a rare element in superhero movies recently. In a landscape of self-seriousness and traumatic experience, the X-Men series appears to be the only one dedicated to alleviating the devastation with a laugh. At least for a little while.
Logan’s task to rejoin the mutant troops is a multifaceted affair. It involves struggling to convince the younger, more angst-ridden and drugged-up Xavier (James MacAvoy) to prison-break noted friend/nemesis Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). Gaining help from Beast (Nicholas Hoult), they enlist another mutant named Peter (Evan Peters) whose super speed quickly gets put to critical assistance. To help Eric escape from Pentagon lockdown, Singer nicely choreographs a sequence in Peter’s perspective, a slow motion scene similar to Clockstoppers that allows for some creativity and humor as Peter swerves nearly-frozen bullets away from danger.
The tandem is also in search of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who has quickly become an independent outlaw. In somewhat paradoxical nature, Lawrence receives more screen time in her full blue bodysuit and physical transformations than in First Class, but still feels underused. Most of her character, or body for that matter, is employed as a weapon, which is likely the work of some high-powered computer imagery. The same might be said of Fassbender, whose acting talents seem to outmatch Eric’s limited facial muscle movements. When he dons his metal helmet in a moment of rage, he just ends up looking silly.
The climax finds its way to Washington D.C., fueled by the curious uprooting of RFK stadium by Eric, who slams the circular seating around the White House. In these moments Singer juxtaposes Sentinel danger in past and present, a useful strategy thematically, though not as sound technically. But he’s got to make things tense with a limited narrative arc. It’s not a spoiler to acknowledge that the ending might feel like a copout to some fans. The concluding chapter is more an echo of a plot that achieves a lot, and yet ultimately very little.
That’s the Marvel blueprint, and a post-credit teaser will get you ready for the next episode. But while Days of Future Past doesn’t necessarily accomplish a satisfying narrative end, it still maintains its devotion to exploring its characters: The fundamental rift between Xavier and Eric, Mystique’s choice of moral paths, and Logan’s internal fight with immortality. Singer presents the darkness but he never forgets its complement. For all of the fear and prejudice that his cultural backdrops spawn toward these characters, the good in humanity seems to remain in the franchise’s conscience. Singer can see equality. He’s just waiting for us to catch up.