Sunday, May 25, 2014

Better Angels

James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbinder, and Evan Peters in X-Men Days of Future Past

Although it didn't invent the mid-franchise retcon for movies, X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, directed by Bryan Singer) does better than previous examples, accomplishing the tricky marketing surgery involved with stitching X-Men: First Class to the previous series while also neatly excising both X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine out of existence if you feel like forgetting about those movies (as many fans do). It does something more than that, too. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it also tears down the grimdark superhero and rebuilds something less cynical in its place. No small feat for a film and a series that begin with visions of mass graves and extermination camps.

James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart in X-Men Days of Future Past

The story for this film is lifted from a 1981 story from the X-Men's glory days. It's the story that's slotted just after the conclusion to the Dark Phoenix story, and it's a change of pace. The Phoenix story occupied the title literally for years. "Days of Future Past," by contrast, was resolved in two issues. It's a compact masterpiece of a comics story of a kind that writer Chris Claremont rarely managed. Claremont preferred the epic. It seems ironic to me, then, that the film version aspires to be an epic. It also seems ironic to me that the film version appears mere weeks after The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I haven't seen ASM2 at this writing, but I know what's in it. It's the death of Gwen Stacy, the comic that arguably ushered in the grim and gritty superhero paradigm, a paradigm that The X-Men would perfect. The (famous) cover of The Uncanny X-Men number 141, the first half of "Days of Future Past," is a riff on the cover Amazing Spider-Man #121, which featured the death of Gwen Stacy, while the cover of Uncanny X-Men #142 gleefully advertises, "This Issue: Everybody Dies!" The story inside makes good on its promise.

"Days of Future Past" is a time travel story. The film begins in a dark future in which mutants and many of their human allies have been hunted near extinction by killer robots called "Sentinels." The few remaining X-Men have stayed one step ahead of the Sentinels by sending the consciousness of one of their number back in time four or five days to warn themselves of impending Sentinel attacks, but this is only a holding action. They're losing and soon, they'll all be dead. In desperation, they decide to send one of their number back to before the Sentinels were created to try to avert the world they live in. The only candidate for this job is Wolverine, whose mutant healing factor will enable him to survive such a distant time jump. He's tasked with reuniting Professor Xavier with Magneto in order to prevent Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask, the man who invented the Sentinels. Mystique, it seems, will be captured and her DNA will enable the adaptive technology that makes the Sentinels so lethal. Reuniting Xavier and Eric won't be easy, and not just because of the recriminations between the two. Magneto is being held in a prison cell beneath the Pentagon for the crime of assassinating President Kennedy. Also complicating things is the drug that Hank McCoy is administering to Xavier. The drug allows him to walk at the cost of his telepathic ability. Wolverine must convince him of his story the old-fashioned way. In order to free Magneto, Logan, Xavier, and Hank enlist young Peter Maximoff, a man so fast his life is an endless gallery of statues,* and whose love of gaming the system makes the whole mission seem like a lark. Mystique, meanwhile, is pursuing her own vendetta. Trask's research comes at the cost of the lives of captured mutants and when we first see her in this film, she's busy liberating mutants tagged as experimental subjects from an encampment in Vietnam. She gets wind that Trask will be at the Paris peace accords that will end the Vietnam war and makes plans to assassinate him there. For his part, Trask is fighting congress to preserve his funding and is using the peace accords to find new backers behind their backs. Our heroes converge on Paris and while the X-Men manage to stop Mystique, they don't stop the creation of the Sentinels or Trask's acquisition of her DNA. Xavier and Logan are stuck improvising a solution, and, of course, Magneto has his own agenda...

Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Daniel Cudmore, and Adan Canto in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The most obvious touchstone for this film is The Terminator. Back in the 1980s, writer Harlan Ellison sued the makers of The Terminator for its similarity to his Outer Limits episode, "Soldier." I've always thought Ellison was all wet in this matter (so does James Cameron, who refers to the writer as a "parasite"), because The Terminator is obviously plagiarized from "Days of Future Past" and Philip K. Dick's "Second Variety." X-Men: Days of Future Past acknowledges the relationship early, in both the design of the future and in a shot of a character moving through a landscape of skulls. The time-travel shenanigans here invite some amount of nit-picking, because there are unanswered questions in the film, though I'm willing to explain it all away with the notion that the future postulated by this film is an alternate timeline, just as the film's resolution is an alternate timeline. There are an infinite number of these and as the film demonstrates, characters can sometimes travel between them. And, really, if you think this film series is convoluted, you should visit the comics some time.

Fan Bing Bing in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The scenes in the future are populated by the film's most visually creative mutants, and watching them in a full-on superhero bout with matured powers is one of the film's signature pleasures. In particular, it's fun watching how Blink's powers work and how our heroes exploit their possibilities. It's also fun seeing Iceman's fully iced form and sliding transportation and it's fun watching Colossus get more than a cameo. Unfortunately, the characterizations in this part of the film are paper-thin, as is the world-building. The filmmakers seem disinterested in the possibilities of this setting and it results in a a curious lack of urgency as we revisit this future throughout the film. This is the part of the film where the stakes are bet, and it hedges, whether from timidity, lack of imagination, or just plain lack of resources. Still, it's fun seeing returning actors from the first batch of X-Men films, particularly Ellen Page, who gets more to do here than she did in The Last Stand. One wishes that the same could be said for Halle Berry and for newcomers Fan Bing Bing and Omar Sy, who look fantastic, but who have no characters to play.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbinder in X-Men Days of Future Past

The film's central narrative is a love triangle of sorts. The film is nominally centered on Wolverine, but Wolverine functions more as a point of view than as a central protagonist. He's the center of the panopticon that looks at everyone else. The film's gaze is chiefly concerned with Xavier, Mystique, and Magneto, which is both a personal drama and a struggle of ideologies. Xavier is very much the jilted ex-lover of both Eric and Raven, and James McAvoy plays this element perfectly. The split between Eric and Raven is less-well defined, and Magneto's disappointment with both Raven and Xavier is almost purely ideological. He's a true believer who's burned that his best friends don't believe what he believes. These conflicts, redefined and given a new set of actors by X-Men: First Class are toys that director Bryan Singer didn't have during his previous stint with the franchise and boy, howdy, does he love playing with them even to the neglect of his big action set-pieces. He's fortunate in the actors he's been given, because McAvoy, Michael Fassbinder, and Jennifer Lawrence are superb inheritors of their characters. Lawrence in particular elbows Mystique to the very front of the narrative by virtue of being an infinitely more gifted actor than Rebecca Romijn, and her Mystique has something that the Mystique of the original series didn't have: interiority. She's more than henchman in this film. She has agency of her own. I will admit to being marginally disappointed that the main thrust of the plot here revolves around two white men who believe that they have a claim on that agency. Basically, Xavier and Magneto are patriarchs who are trying to make a woman do what they want rather than what she wants. Be that as it may, I love how the film allows her to make her own choices in the end in a way that snubs them both.

Peter Dinklage in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The villain of the film is Bolivar Trask, whose Sentinels are the instrument of mutant extermination. Trask is the very model of a self-hating minority who has aligned himself with the oppressor. Trask sees himself as fully human in the film's taxonomy of humanity--he doesn't have the X-gene mutation, after all--but by casting Peter Dinklage as Trask, they've loaded the deck. Is his hatred and exploitation of mutants a result of being a more benign and less miraculous mutation himself? Dinklage plays it that way. He's a disappointment to himself and he's taking that out on the world. The film gives him a short speech where he says that he doesn't hate mutants, but rather admires them. He's wiping them out in the name of pragmatism. He's an intrinsically more complex character than William Stryker, the villain of X-2 and present here as one of Trask's disciples. The Stryker of X-2 was allegedly a mutant-phobe because his son was a mutant, but this film suggests that that was only a pretext. He was primed for hatred by Trask, but Trask seems born to it.

As good as the performances are in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the direction is only adequate. Of the first X-Men film, I opined that it doesn't suck, but it doesn't do much more than "not suck." That's been the case with all of Bryan Singer's X-Men movies, of which this is the best one. This doesn't suck. Parts of it are engaging in ways that superhero movies seldom are. But when it comes to superhero spectacle, which is one of the ostensible reasons to even make a superhero movie...well, Singer just doesn't have the aptitude for it. The big finale is mostly inert, with Xavier pinned beneath some rebar, Wolverine pitched into the Potomac, and Magneto hovering in the air gesturing. The Sentinels move, but they don't move with personality, if you get my drift. The set-piece at the end of the film finds Magneto lifting a baseball stadium into the air and bring it down around the White House as a barricade. This should be awe-inspiring, but it's mostly just puzzling. I mean, I can rationalize it as the action of a full-tilt diva who wants to be at the center of an arena, but that's a stretch. The film's best action sequence is the escape from the Pentagon and the creative way the film envisions Quicksilver's powers. Alone of all of Singer's action sequences, this one shows some measure of wit. It's almost like a silent comedy, which is high praise. This sort of wit and fun leaves the film with Quicksilver himself, unfortunately, but it stamps the film with a measure of good will that lingers through the film's third act.

Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: Days of Future Past

If the object of the film's gaze isn't spectacle, then it's on the ethics of action. This is a film whose denouement depends on Mystique's action or non-action, on violence or non-violence. These are the poles of the film's ideology, between Xavier's hope for the future and Magneto's fear. The film's plot weights the choice, true. If violence is the solution, then the world will burn to the ground, the film says, but, importantly, the character who is the crux of the film's choice is not swayed by that argument. She has no first-hand knowledge. She's driven, instead by a sense of grievance, of justice needing to be done. Regardless of which choice she makes, she has the moral high ground. This is the X-Men's most pointed racial allegory, because Mystique is consistently the most visible "other" of the X-Men's universe, unrepentant and unassimilated, queer, racialized, visually resplendent. Xavier would have her follow the better angels of her nature. To war or not to war, that is the question. The film is persuasively pacifist, which is so rare in an action idiom where men often are forced to do what men gotta do. But then, perhaps that's what tilts the film to where I can forgive its flaws, because Mystique isn't a man and she isn't having any of their bullshit in the end.

*apologies to Alan Moore, who once used this line to describe The Flash. 

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