Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Update 2018: I was skeptical of this film when it was released, but after having read the phenomenally astute political Molotov of a comic book of the same name, with its observations on state privatization and racial incarceration all folded into a 1981 critique of neo-conservatism and neoliberalism as fascism, the movie’s neutralized, domesticated politics and thoroughly un-transgressive social observations feel all the more banal and negligent.

Original Review:

Final paragraph edited for clarity’s sake

X-Men: Days of Future Past is an ambitious project, attempting to bridge two timelines, a boatload of characters and numerous political positions and wrap them all up in a cohesive, action-packed whole. Furthermore, the film seems to realize how ambitious it is. It’s all fairly confusing, but it at least rightfully understands it really doesn’t need to, and in fact shouldn’t, get involved with logical loopholes. Explaining things, as Professor X does in an early scene, often makes things worse, dragging down and only opening up more questions the film inevitably won’t have time to answer. It’s better to keep things simple and streamlined in films like this, lest everything get too self-important.

What we are treated to then is a sort of pop-political project where, as per usual, characters get to rabble-rousing and smacking each other around and there’s all something vaguely meaningful and political about it all. The story-line is quite a bit complicated, but I’ll hazard an explanation. In a post-apocalyptic near-future, things have gone very clearly quite wrong. We’re not immediately privy to the fact that it involves Mutants, except of course, it’s all Mutant and the film is an X-men film, so we put two and two together. A number of mutants fend off an attack by mutant-killing robots called sentinels, only to seemingly lose when the film cuts to an earlier time and tells us that they can see into the future and warn their past selves about incoming sentinel attacks. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magento (Ian McKellen) and friends soon show up, seemingly bosom buddies once again, which means we further expect something is up. The gist of the film then begins in earnest: someone needs to go back in time to reunite their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and save them from self-hating alcoholism and the Pentagon respectively so that they can stop a young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating one Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a mutant-hating scientist designing sentinels as a way to unite a bitter, conflicted human world against a common cause. Naturally, because he’s the most popular character (or something about his pesky regenerative abilities the film drums up to save face), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is chosen for the trip.

So there’s a lot going on in the film, all of which is distinctly, and openly, about oppression and, unfortunately, the age-old cop-out to films about oppression – making the oppressed have to “prove” their goodness by not being violent. I’m notoriously hesitant to this, both politically and narratively – the film follows the path by having the “real” danger by Mystique for wanting Trask dead, even though it’s entirely understandable why she would want revenge on him for killing dozens of her friends and wanting to wipe out her species. If a film was made about a regular person seeking revenge for their crimes against humanity, and indeed there’s genre devoted to white-males-on-justified-killing sprees in the film world, we’d never criticize them for wanting to kill those who do wrong. The film world is built on this sort of angry vigilante justice, but we seem to be afraid to allow anyone who is oppressed (and isn’t a white male) do it. In fact audiences eat it up, scary in and of itself for its potential to support said guys-with-guns justice in the real world, and all the more-so because when someone oppressed not only by a single man but an entire human species, who has more of a claim to the need for violence, or at least thinking about it, we turn our heads.

There is a delicious bit of irony mid-way through the film where it turns out humanity is ready and willing to punish mutants whether Mystique kills Trask or not, but this is mostly abandoned by the end of the film when it realizes it has to appeal to a human audience and must pursue the viewpoint where the “other” is entirely valid in resisting oppression, but only if they resort to safe, socially accepted alternatives. Where-as predecessor First Class at least strived for balance, lending a human side to Magneto and letting us feel his anger at humanity, here the film wades the waters of murkiness early on by rightfully having him indict Professor X for his accomodationist desire to save the morality of humanity over his fallen mutant brethren. Eventually it finds his tired-footing in a clichéd pool of self-righteous “peace is the right way” mindset. Professor X is always right in the film’s world, the Mutant Cause’s Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, the figure everyone can rally around…except of course, both those figures did see (a swept-under-the-table) need for violence against oppressive systems which devalued their rights and wouldn’t listen to their attempts to discuss. The film, in its quest to oversimplify and present the two in conventional types -Professor X as the peaceful civil rights leader and Magneto as the violent radical – runs the tried-and-true cliché of needing to paint the radical as a villain due to his of-course-he-has-this-because-the-film-needs-him-to feelings of innate superiority to all humans. Naturally, if a revolutionary uses any violence at all, they must be evil and see themselves as superior to others. Imagine if we looked back on those much-loved civil rights leaders and told them their understandable violence against oppression meant they were innately evil and would stop at nothing but to rule the world?

Thus, the films politics are not only problematic but narratively muddled (way too much going on) and overly-simplistic – we’ve seen all this dozens of times. On the positive side (and the film has many positives), the performances are consistently above-average, bordering on great. Even when the film doesn’t want us to, it’s easy to sympathize with Magneto when essayed by a powerful actor like Michael Fassbender. He gives us frosty Shakespearian seething like few others. McAvoy is better here than in First Class, nailing a complicated character and selling Professor X’s transformation from melancholy apathy and hopelessness to humanist leader. For their parts, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart seem, of all things, tired and calm, but it fits their beaten-down characters, who here have seemingly rekindled their friendship, quite well. And Jackman, whose played this character seven times now, perfectly balances the standoffishness he presents on the surface with the cracks in his character, revealing he really does, after all, care.

The only major player who isn’t given enough to do is Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/ Mystique, a shame since her motives are the most complicated and she reflects in her actions the film’s only potential middle-ground between hero and villain. It’s a shame the film uses her only as a means to set in motion the two male children’s playground fight over her, because while they soon enough approximate types, she remains the most damning thing of all: a character of potential complication who the film sort-of throws aside.

Elsewhere, Singer’s direction is strong. He delivers the action with aplomb, especially an early scene where he gets to highlight a variety of mutant powers new to the film – we get the sense he’s finally been let loose in the toybox earlier special effects didn’t allow for. There’s a later scene where Magneto, in plain clothes, infiltrates a government building with an icy cool, highlighted in his G-man get-up by Singer’s odd camera angles which cut on motion rather than on-standstill. Especially successful is a mid-film scene where Singer utilizes grainy ’70s handheld cameras to depict a fight scene as it would from the perspective of onlookers. Here, more than anywhere, we feel the film’s commentary on the “other” and understand what it would be like to feel different and out in the open when normative onlookers fix their gaze to you in shock and confusion. The film, for its narrative flaws, should also be commended for at least exploring its premise, if superficially, and giving its characters significant complication in its first three-fourths, before things need to be concluded in hasty fashion with a big action scene that fits its two major players into neat types, even bordering on character assassination. So if the narrative doesn’t function cohesively as it might have, there are a boat-load of standout scenes to choose from.

The film’s best scene though lies, curiously, in stark opposition to its surroundings. While the film mostly deals in world-weary futility and melancholy, it’s when it decides to dabble in the playful attitude of comics past when it strikes gold. I speak about a scene highlighting Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a feisty young mutant who lives in super-speed and remains not yet mired in the more serious, political issues related to mutant-kind. In the kitchen of the Pentagon, confronted with numerous guards wielding bullets and ready to shoot, we’re treated to elegant freeze-frame work as we see how he literally passes his time by revolving around the world around him (if that makes sense). He doesn’t just solve the problem though – he takes the time to reach out with his index finger and drink just a hint of orange juice frozen in the air, before amusingly rearranging the guard’s fists to knock themselves and each other out and stopping to move the bullets, like playthings, away from his friend’s heads. Here, his youthful energy rings true, the world at his disposal, kind of like a young mutant would likely feel before being confronted with the depressing cynicism of a world out to get them and the need to hide themselves. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to (his very power gives the appearance of never having done anything suspicious), and he’s having fun with it. The music for this scene, which I won’t spoil, is uncommonly cheeky and wonderfully sly.

This kind of cheery, wide-eyed optimism is what comics used to bring to the world, before they got mired in self-seriousness and the need to be Important films. Not that tackling serious issues is a bad thing, but when the message is presented with the muddle it sometimes is here, maybe the pendulum could stand to swing back a little. The other mutants all have their way of approaching problems, but we’ve seen most of them done better elsewhere. Quicksilver, however, brings another one: teenage rock n’ roll recklessness. It’s not useful all the time, nor is it ideal, but it serves its purpose and it seems to have been forgotten. It’s the least filmmakers could do for this cynical world, if only occasionally: standing defiantly against it rather than struggling to find a place within it.

Score: 7/10

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