Monday, June 2, 2014

These are the Days of an X-Men Renaissance

It's actually kind of amazing how much information we got about X-Men: Days of Future Past between when its production was announced in May 2012, and now. Of course, we learned the title, which immediately heralded back to the classic X-Men comic book storyline of the same name. We were disappointed that X-Men First Class director Matthew Vaughn was leaving the project to focus on other work, but then excited again when we found out that Bryan Singer - who had directed the first two wonderful movies - was returning to direct the newest installment of the franchise he helped build. We learned that it would combine the casts of both pre-existing X-Men storylines, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan playing alongside their younger character counterparts of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. We learned that Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman would once again be the face of the series. Empire magazine published their special issue about the film with 25 collectible covers. We were given what seemed like half a dozen full-length trailers, countless promotional clips and set pictures, and the sight of speedy newcomer mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) eating an X-tra Bacon, Egg & Cheese biscuit in a Carl's Jr. ad (yeah, that was kind of stupid). We also got some bad or potentially bad news, ranging from the complete cutting of fan favorite Rogue (Anna Paquin, whom the trailers had initially featured) to the current sexual assault allegations leveled against Singer. Point being, there was an almost insane amount of hype surrounding this entry to the X-Men film franchise, almost too much to actually hope the final product would live up to expectations. Well guess what? It lives up to expectations. And in some ways, it surpasses them.
Just promise me there'll be no singing.
Days of Future Past takes place within two disparate timelines. In a chaotic, post-apocalyptic future, Professor Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) lead a small band of mutants trying to avoid extermination at the hands of mutant-hunting Sentinels, robots built during the time of Xavier and Magneto's youth. Through one of the group's ability to send people backwards in time (because, you know, the story demands it), de-facto tough guy Wolverine's mind is sent back in time to his younger body to prevent the actions that have brought about the chaotic world in which our heroes live. When he wakes up in 1973, he must unite the two young mutant leaders, now at odds with one another, into a team that can halt the future war on mutant-kind before it ever starts.
... I'm sorry, was I saying something?
The best thing about Days of Future Past is that it combines the greatest elements of the X-Men films. For the old-school fans, you have the return of several classic franchise actors, including Halle Berry (Storm), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), and Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), not to mention Stewart and McKellan. For fans of the most recent First Class kinda-reboot, you have the the unique (for a superhero film) 1970's atmosphere, the best from the cast with McAvoy, Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult, and the main focus of the narrative. And of course, there's Jackman in the lead role once again, not that the casting agent would let you forget. Singer melds these disparate parts fairly well, mixing timelines and art styles with precision, flipping from young Xavier's private plane in one scene to Sentinels battering down a door in the future, and the transition works without any loss of cohesion. The fact is, if you liked ANYTHING from the previous X-movies, you'll find plenty to enjoy here.
One of these things is not like the others...
But Singer doesn't just rely on combining nostalgic elements when it comes to building his latest effort, and his newest additions make for a nice compliment to the preexisting franchise. Games of Thrones' Peter Dinklage is perfectly at home as an adaptation of classic X-Men villain Bolivar Trask, putting an appropriate face to the public discrimination and fear that has long been the dividing line the team from the likes of the Avengers or the Fantastic Four. And even Evan Peters' take on Quicksilver is surprisingly effective. Yes, that Carl's Jr. commercial was an incredibly poor marketing idea, and at first glance his costume is just plain silly. But when Singer actually uses the character in the context of the movie (in a slow-motion action sequence set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle"), it's such a thrill ride that you wish it wouldn't end. Sadly, the character practically disappears after this, but hopefully he'll make a re-appearance further down the line, if the directors can capture the same level of fun and excitement that Singer nailed in that one scene.
Fifty bucks on him gutting the hippie!
And that actually sums Days of Future Past up quite nicely; it's fun, and it's exciting. People haven't been enamored with this particular superhero franchise of late, from the spottiness of the Wolverine movies to the bad script elements of First Class to the plain awfulness that was X-Men: The Last Stand. But thankfully Days of Future Past rises above those faults. The cast is perfect - even Lawrence finally seems comfortable sitting in the bright blue skin of pseudo-villain Mystique after conquering just about every other role she's been handed - and the script is not just well written, but includes more than a few inside jokes for the lifelong comic book fans. In fact, that the story was based on such a well-known comic book storyline is a main reason this new entry was hyped so heavily, and so effectively. And yet this isn't just a pandering adaption, or at least if it is, it's hidden well enough to not be immediately insulting to those paying for tickets. Beyond that, the visuals are stunning, the dialogue and character development are amazing, and - especially important when Amazing Spider-Man 2 had so many jarring, bloated bits - it doesn't feel like too much has been crammed in to make the movie unwatchable. Instead, just the right balance means that you'll be riveted to your seat for the entire 131 minutes.
They act like they've never seen a man in purple armor and a cape before... oh, wait...
In closing, I think it's safe to say that after years of mediocrity and unfulfilled potential, the X-Men franchise is back on its feet and on a path to glory with Days of Future Past. Sure, the story has a few hiccups, some parts kind of rely on the audience remembering the plots and unseen characters of the previous films, and the ending isn't particularly clear how the universe will play out in future films. But despite the weariness the hype might have on your decision whether or not to see this in the theater, let me assure you that this is a superhero movie well worth a trip to your theater, even if you're not a fan of the genre. It might be one of the best of its kind in recent years, and there's no better way to celebrate that than seeing it on the big screen.

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