Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Children of the Atom, Part 7: X-Men: Days of Future Past

            Exposition Infodump: The Movie.

            Bryan Singer makes his triumphant (?) return to the series that helped define his career with this, the seventh installment in the X-Men franchise, and he certainly has his work cut out for him. Acting as a sequel to no less than three films as disparate and disconnected as X3, X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine, Singer and co. definitely have their work cut out for them. I’m sad to say that they are not entirely successful in that aim: X-Men: Days of Future Past is possibly the most confusing entry in the series thus far, one where characters are often not much more than vehicles for the film’s many exposition-heavy dialogue scenes or action figures for the many effects-heavy set-pieces. But, in spite of the film’s many flaws and inconsistencies, the filmmakers step above all of that and manage to deliver a pretty engaging movie regardless.

            One reason the film winds up working so well is the rather excellent cast. In spite of supposedly being ensemble films, the X-series has been almost exclusively the All-Wolverine show, and considering the storyline has been altered from the source material to swap Wolvy in the main character slot from the original Kitty Pryde, the film version of Days of Future Past would seem at first to be more of the same. But although Hugh Jackman is once more the main star, here he takes something of a backseat and gives the other players a chance to shine. Which he kind of has to, what with sharing the screen with Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and the rest. There’s still way too many of them, and several get maybe an entire line of dialogue between them, but at least the ones who get development are handled fairly well.

            Possibly the most successful element of all the films has been the relationship between Magneto and Professor Xavier, something that all but held First Class together, and once again is the best element of the movie. Fassbender and McAvoy provide a weight and gravitas to their performances that the script quite frankly lacks, taking some rather questionable lines and motivations and making them work in spite of themselves. McAvoy especially gets a chance to shine (not that he wasn't great in the last one, but First Class’ best moments were all about the Nazi-hunting Fassbender), here setting a rather broken and beaten-down Xavier on the path to finding his footing as a leader. Through a magic drug/hackneyed script device, Xavier is able to walk once more and dampen his telepathy, resulting in a character who’s basically given up on life and divorced himself from all responsibility. And as lame a device as that magic drug is, it still provides the film with its strongest subject matter as Xavier has to once more take on the burden of both his powers and his leadership, which - in fine Marvel Comics tradition - also robs him of the use of his legs. McAvoy is excellent throughout, especially in a standout scene that sees him face-to-face with his future self in Patrick Stewart (that, once again, is accomplished through some rather lazy and contrived plot mechanics).

            In comparison to his costar, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto comes off as a little one-note - whatever complexity he had in the last movie is completely gone, replaced with a zealous anger that pretty much consumes the character whole. Fassbender is still an engaging screen presence, and couldn’t phone it in if he tried (and he does seem to try here, in moments), but Magneto is the overall “villain” of the series, and so he must always revert to his villainous ways - no matter how forced such turns make his motivation throughout the film. He switches between wanting to save and kill his protégé Mystique so often it becomes a bit jarring, and although the script provides reasons for these turns (however forced they may be), the effect is certainly whiplash-inducing.

            The script is a mess of exposition and over-explanation, but one thing it gets right is the thematic depth of the character work between Xavier, Magneto and Mystique. The entire movie more or less is about change, and trying against all odds to control that change (fitting, as that’s what the X-Men franchise boils down to), which is most obviously exemplified by the time travelling plot that sees Wolverine sent to the past to change the horrid events of the future from taking place. But represented on a more personal scale through the tug of war that takes place between Erik and Charles over Mystique’s soul. Jennifer Lawrence returns to play the blue-skinned shape-shifter, her actions in the past leading directly to the desolate future depicted in the film, and here shows a confidence that was lacking in First Class. I guess the Oscars she won in the intervening years since have bolstered her to become closer to the femme fatale Rebecca Romijn played, and Lawrence handles the big budget action nonsense with aplomb - always mindful of the human element despite being covered in blue paint and doing kung fu left and right. More importantly, the triangle between her, Xavier and Magneto comes to a satisfying finish, as Charles realizes he can neither control nor change Mystique, but rather must accept and believe in who she is.

            The thematic content is sound, but still the script is a minefield of wasted potential. Side characters like Blink, Bishop, Sunspot and Warpath in the movie pretty much exist to show off their powers, while franchise stalwarts Storm, Colossus, Iceman and Kitty Pryde (more involved due to her new, totally out of nowhere time-shifting powers) show up and get a moment or two before fading into the background. Not even Peter Dinklage can muster much excitement on the villain front, as the actor is essentially left hanging high and dry by a script that doesn’t do him any favors.

            There’s a lot within X-Men: Days of Future Past that shouldn’t work, but through some miracle (i.e., an incredible cast) still manages to pull it off, regardless.        

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