“It’s not their pain you’re afraid of. It’s yours, Charles. And as frightening as it may be, that pain will make you stronger. If you allow yourself to feel it, embrace it, it will make you more powerful than you ever imagined. It’s the greatest gift we have: to bear their pain without breaking. And it’s born from the most human part: hope. Charles, we need you to hope again.”
With the Academy Awards rapidly approaching on the horizon, we thought it made sense to go back and review some of our favorite movies from last year. Of course, this will include a few films that were nominated for best picture, but we all know that the Academy seldom gets everything right. And in the wake of the huge announcement regarding Spider-Man this week, I was reminded of just how true that can be concerning the movies that I appreciate the most. It will never receive any prestigious awards or recognition, but there wasn’t a film in 2014 that resonated with me more thoroughly than X-Men: Days of Future Past.
I vividly remember the day Kevin and I went to go see it. The weather was insane. A severe thunderstorm moved into the area and caused a rare tornado warning in Lakewood, Colorado, complete with intense hail and those frightening tornado alarms that you would hear in a movie like Twister. My family and I took refuge in a nearby Smashburger, which had rather large glass windows up front. Not exactly the best place to protect yourself from a tornado, I know (I never said I was the world’s greatest Eagle Scout, folks). Thankfully, the worst of the storm blew over and we were able to make the showtime that we wanted.
The opening credits kicked in and I immediately recognized a familiar tune: the main theme to X2: X-Men United, well-known as the very best X-Men film, hands down. A huge grin crept across my face and before I knew it, I was being transported via time capsule back to the year 2003, when Bryan Singer was the king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the X-Men were the coolest team of superheroes that we ever could have wanted.
You know what? 2003 wasn’t all that shabby. Don’t mind if I kick my feet up and stick around for awhile.
Ever since X2 came out and graced us with its sheer awesomeness, the X-Men franchise has been on life support. The subsequent installments were either terrible (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) or just didn’t quite meet the standards that X2 had set (X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine). Part of the reason for that is the mind-boggling ineptitude of 20th Century Fox, which in addition to producing the X-Men franchise has cranked out some real classics, such as Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Elektra and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Painful, I know. Another reason is that there was no clear direction for where to go next after X3, which spawned a seriously shitty Wolverine movie and a bunch of ideas for spin-offs that never went anywhere. They are JUST NOW getting the Deadpool film off the ground that has been in the works since Ryan Reynolds co-starred in Origins: Wolverine back in 2009, which was time enough for Reynolds to go and star in the abysmal Green Lantern for Warner Bros. and D.C. Yeah, way to go Ryan Reynolds’ agent. You da real MVP!
But easily the biggest factor in the declining quality for the big-screen adventures of our favorite mutants was the departure of director Bryan Singer after X2. I’m an admirer of Singer’s work. The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie are both immensely entertaining films and it’s hard to complain about anything he’s done, with the exception of the atrocious Superman Returns (Never leave Marvel to go do something for D.C., people. It just doesn’t work out.). For whatever reason though, whenever Singer gets his hands on the X-Men, he just takes his game up a few notches and becomes an outstanding director. When he isn’t behind the camera, the difference is highly noticeable. It’s like taking away Bill Belichick from the Patriots; maybe the Pats still get to the playoffs, but there’s no way they’re winning another Super Bowl with anyone else as the coach.
And once Matthew Vaughn dropped out during development, Singer decided that he was the only one qualified to helm Days of Future Past. My only regret is that he didn’t come to that same conclusion about 10 years ago, because Days of Future Past is more than a return to glory for the X-Men franchise. It exceeds the bar that X2 set so long ago and establishes itself as one of the most visionary and thematically rich comic book adaptations of all-time. In other words, Days of Future Past is one kick ass X-Men movie.
Set in a dystopian future, mutants are being hunted to extinction by an overwhelming group of machines known as Sentinels. Any humans who attempt to help the mutants are wiped out and the rest are rounded up and forced into camps. As I told Kevin during the opening, for whatever reason the future always sucks in movies. Not all is lost, however, as Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) hatch a plan that could save all mutants from this grim fate: they will send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, duh) back in time to warn their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) of the desolation that awaits them. They hope it will be enough to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bollivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Sentinels, but they don’t know for certain. And if Wolverine fails in his mission, it will mean the complete extermination of the entire mutant race. I know, it’s pretty heavy.
Time travel plots are always hit or miss: either they turn out great or are a convoluted mess. Singer wisely avoids getting too far into explaining or analyzing how any of this works. He simply uses it as a device to propel his narrative forward and bring together the cast from the original trilogy and those who appeared in First Class. The tone of each time period is spot on too, as the future is hopelessly bleak while the past (1973 to be exact) is a wonderful recreation of an era in America when things were pretty simple and groovy. The Sentinels, on the other hand, are anything but. Not since The Terminator have any machines been this threatening and unstoppable, and watching them mercilessly butcher mutants left and right hits you right where it hurts. The thrilling battle sequences between the two groups is hopelessly one-sided, but Singer isn’t trying to bum us out. He simply wants us to sympathize with the mutants that much more so that we will feel a sense of urgency as time starts to run out.
None of this would matter though if all we got were a bunch of flat performances to build on all that drama, so thank God that Singer convinced the original cast to return for this one. Stewart and McKellen are as reliable as ever, reestablishing the dynamic between two mentors who have been at each other’s throats just as often as they’ve been friends. They united once more for the worst of times, but share a deep regret for how they wound up at this point. And for all of you nitpickers out there who hated the idea of Jackman hogging up more screen time as Logan, just know that he’s the one who holds the plot together. He makes the character fresh because for the first time, Wolverine is faced with a problem that he can’t fix by hacking and slashing everything in sight. It’s Jackman’s most relatable performance in the role that made him famous because he feels just as helpless as everyone else.
But as good as all the X-Men veterans are, it’s the trio from First Class that really deliver when it comes to dramatic weight. Fassbender as Magneto is a powerhouse mixture of rage and sacrifice, as he once again relentlessly pursues the idea of liberation for his fellow mutants. Dare I say he is even the primary antagonist? In a movie where the Sentinels dominate every scene that they are in, that’s a pretty impressive feat to pull off. Lawrence brings all of her Hunger Games fire to the role of Mystique, but don’t look for much of the compassion. Caught in-between the relentless aggression of Magneto and the enduring serenity of Xavier, she becomes a lone wolf who doesn’t know what to do with all of her pain, ultimately harnessing it to avenge her fallen friends. It’s the true evolution of Mystique as only Lawrence could capture it. And the credits will tell you that McAvoy is the young Professor, but I swear that we’ve never seen this man before. The vulnerability of a broken Xavier, grappling with the loss of so many students and his fractured friendship with Magneto and Mystique, is a brand new aspect of that character. For once, he doesn’t have all the answers and it’s a gut wrenching thing for him to deal with.
Oh, and the unsung hero of all this? That would be Quicksilver, the most entertaining newcomer to the group and the star of the most surprisingly well-done scene in the entire movie. All I can say is that Marvel will have a tough time topping that in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. What’s that? I didn’t talk about Peter Dinklage yet? You know that he’s good in this. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing a whore-mongering dwarf or a devious scientist, he more than holds his own against everyone else. He always does.
Singer has always excelled at directing ensemble casts and Days of Future Past easily represented his biggest challenge in that regard. Thankfully, it’s also his greatest success. The mutants of both the future and past are portrayed in fine form here, and I’m not just talking about the leads. Storm, Kitty Pryde, Beast, Colossus, Iceman, Bishop, Blink, Warpath, Sunspot and others lead the largest group of mutants we’ve ever seen in an X-Men film. I wouldn’t say they all get their moment to shine (that’s impossible with a cast of that magnitude) but they all join in on the action and use their powers as a team to create a truly authentic X-Men story. Can you imagine the smile on Singer’s face when he knew that he had an opportunity to restore prestige into his old film franchise and make amends for all the mistakes since he left? Then picture the deep swell of sorrow that he felt after realizing that all of the missteps could’ve been avoided if he had only stuck around in the first place. Oh well.
But as they say in the movie, just because someone stumbles doesn’t mean that they are lost forever. This is as poignant as we’ve ever seen the X-Men and as they try to find the courage to avert their own eradication, it’s the hope for a brighter future that keeps them from succumbing to that annihilation. Hugh Jackman may long to join Spider-Man in an Avengers crossover, but as long as Singer is around, the X-Men will be in good hands. Days of Future Past proved that once and for all.
Jesse’s Rating: 10/10