X-Men: Franchises of future past

[Warning: modest spoiler material for “X-Men: Days of Future Past” follows.]

I saw the new “X-Men” film over the weekend and generally agree with John Nolte’s review, but I think my overall rating would be maybe half a star lower.  As a bit of franchise filmmaking, “Days of Future Past” is almost without equal, because it rescues a fractured continuity, pulling its franchise together like the pieces of a broken plate.  

The really great sequels – “Godfather II”, “The Empire Strikes Back” – took an already great original and made the narrative even better, elevating the story to the stuff of legend.  DOFP reboots some generally good films, cleans out a ton of continuity junk, and leaves its popular characters with a bright cinematic future (by which, of course, I mean an incredibly dark future for the characters, as anyone who sits through the credits of DOFP will get a taste of.  If you don’t understand the significance of that scene, ask the comics geek in your life to explain it for you.)

The continuity DOFP fixes was really messed up, so a round of applause is well-deserved for how neatly almost everything gets smoothed over by this film, with the arguable exceptions of the post-credits stinger in “The Wolverine” and the incomprehensible timeline of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”  I think the latter film gets beaten up more than it really deserves – it’s a fast-paced revenge flick with a fairly straightforward plot, cleverly re-purposing Logan as a Seventies action hero – but it’s overstuffed with half-baked supporting characters, and fitting it into the timeline established by the other films is enough to make even the casual viewer’s brain melt.  Maybe we can wave “Origins” off as one of those “time ripples” Beast talks about in “Days of Future Past.”  

But aside from giving the “X-Men” franchise a much-needed do-over and undoing some of the less satisfying story beats from the later installments, the new film works somewhat imperfectly as a movie in its own right.  It’s not structured as tightly as the franchise-best “X2,” or the original “X-Men,” which had the unrepeatable giddy delight of bringing beloved comic-book generation characters into the mainstream.  Without the charm of going first, or the exhilaration of a great story firing on all cylinders as in “X2,” DOFP is a less satisfying film.

Like so many movies these days, it’s too long (although this summer’s overstuffed butt-numbing chiropractor alert remains “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) and a bit too much of that running time is spent on conversations that rehash a few basic points.  The script feels like it needed one last trip through the editing process to tighten it up.  The whole movie needed to be as swift and sure as the show-stopping middle act with Quicksilver, whose outfit looked pretty goofy in publicity stills, but turns out to be far and away the best new character introduced into this franchise in years.  

I’d have shifted some of the running time away from the Seventies and back to the dark future, which is never established well enough to feel like a world in its own right (something the original comics took pains to do.)  The problem with limiting the future segments to a few minutes spent on two simple sets with less than a dozen characters is that it feels like a go-nowhere narrative that’s going to get trimmed away, rather than a living, breathing universe.  Meeting a few more of the people who live there – perhaps a brief scene or two with human officers, a scene that establishes that the terrifying Future Sentinels no longer really take “orders” from humans at all – would have raised the stakes, especially if one of those human characters was young and sympathetic, and we understood that his or her very existence was about to be erased.

It’s also disappointing that the original “X-Men” cast is reduced to extended cameos at best in their swan song.  I don’t suppose we’re going to see any of these actors in their roles again, other than Hugh Jackman, of course.  The others all did great work selling their characters to both a skeptical mainstream audience and demanding hardcore fans, but some of them scarcely get any dialogue at all.  (One of them literally does not get to say a word.)  This movie is best understood as a sequel to “First Class,” not so much the earlier “X-Men” films, although events from the unloved third film are referenced several times.  It’s not quite as dismissive of the classic cast as “Star Trek: Generations” was, but a bit more time spent in the dark future would have made it feel more like the crazy once-in-a-lifetime cast mashup it was supposed to be.  (On the other hand, you’ve got to marvel – pardon the pun – at a film that gives an Oscar-winning actress about twenty words of dialogue.)

The Sentinels are a bit problematic as adversaries.  They look great and certainly provide a proper sense of menace, but the unstoppable Future Sentinels are perhaps a bit too menacing – there’s somewhat limited dramatic potential in unbeatable adversaries who can kill any of our heroes in a matter of moments, without the good guys really getting to land a single solid blow in return.  (What, exactly, was the point of Bishop’s 100 percent ineffective weapon?  It didn’t even slow the Sentinels down.)  It certainly serves the plot purpose of the story, but judging this movie by itself as an action film, it bleeds off a bit of the excitement.

The Seventies versions really needed a bit more time to strut their stuff, given that some of the most iconic images from X-Men comics lore involve the team fighting those giant robots.  The third-act plot twist of who ends up controlling the Sentinels doesn’t even make sense according to the comic-book logic of building flying combat robots with Vietnam War-era technology.  (Nobody checked those puppies out before putting them on a stage behind the President of the United States, huh?)  A big finale in which the X-Men come together to battle the squad of prototype robots (and then Magneto pulls a dick move) would have been more satisfying.  This movie would have done well to heed the advice given by Ken Watanabe’s character over in the “Godzilla” film: “Let them fight!”

Don’t get me wrong, “Days of Future Past” is A-list material, but I’d have to grade it an A-minus – a far better treatment of a beloved classic storyline than “The Last Stand” was, to be sure, and the least of its sins were the changes it made to the details of the original story, in which Kitty Pryde is the one who travels back in time, not Wolverine.  It just didn’t quite come together into a tight package the way franchise standouts “X2” and “First Class” did.  It was an indispensable step toward getting the X-Men movies ship-shape for further installments, and say what you will about Bryan Singer, he really gets these characters – it’s great that he got one more (one last?) chance to prove it.  It’s still amazing that two such excellent casts have been assembled to play these characters at different points in their lives; James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender definitely belong on the same stage as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and they really hit the jackpot by catching Jennifer Lawrence at the right point in her career to handle Mystique.  

But so help me, how on Earth did the DOFP screenwriters get Hugh Jackman’s sole line of dialogue from “First Class” wrong during their big hilarious callback moment?