Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past - My favorite superhero movie in years

X-Men: Days of Future Past is my favorite comic book movie since the summer of The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Or since Persepolis, depending if you count that wonderful adaptation. Days of Future Past juggles a lot and does it all well, which is too rare in this period of two-hour genre movies. Why does Legendary's Godzilla need to be two hours? Hell if I know. But this movie is about a war spanning two generations, with time travel, crazy mutant powers, conspiracy theories, and the politics of building giant robots. Not only did every minute feel worthwhile, but I eagerly waited after the credits on a full bladder for just thirty seconds more of a teaser for the next one.

In a future extended from X-Men 1, 2 and 3, the last surviving mutants fight off Sentinels, robots that have ravaged the planet to exterminate them. They send Wolverine back in time to stop the creation of Sentinels, to the 1970's of X-Men: First Class, where Xavier, Magneto and Mystique have split three different ways. Future-Wolverine must unite them in order to prevent the Sentinel program that will otherwise kill them all.

Remember the best part of First Class? It's a whole movie now.

It's the first time since X-Men 2 that the series has felt like it had both its heart and ability. Mutants are serving in the Vietnam War and being sold out by their government; Xavier is struggling with the loss of his legs and loved ones. The visions of Sentinels wiping out people in the future are genuinely disturbing, and so you'll think it's purely a heavy movie, yet you know you're in good hands because it maintains a sense of humor and humanity. Wolverine's first pop into the past is awkwardly hilarious; Quicksilver, who can run at Mach-5, deconstructs a gunfight in bullet time to "Time in a Bottle." The funny and quiet moments ground us in a sense of why the past is worth preserving. It's not just Terminator-like fear of a painful future, but preservation of the good in life.

The best part of the movie is its subtlety.
It helps that the actors are leaps improved from First Class, and that they get to play off of Jackman, who is still a snarky godsend as Wolverine. Fassbender has gravity as Magneto, more certain than ever that fear is necessary to cow the human population. McAvoy's Xavier feels like less of a put-on, now consumed with his injuries and losses, becoming a junky for a drug that suppresses his telepathy while letting him walk; he can either cut himself off from every mind on the planet and pretend to be physically able, or open himself up to both physical and mental pain in order to grow. It amounts to a brief scene that half the commercials have spoiled, speaking to his future self, and in agony, realizing he might someday become the sort of person who could help himself. As someone who's been in excruciating health lately, it quickly became one of my favorite uses of time travel in cinema.

Mystique is one of the high points and the movie's big problem. On the one hand, it's great that X-Men hierarchy is challenged by a woman who agrees with neither Xavier nor Magneto, becoming a third pillar whose importance to the past I won't spoil. She's the movie's only lead female, as opposed to the three lead males, and of the four leads, Jennifer Lawrence is essentially wearing blue paint. That comes to feel gross and male-gazey, and the movie tries to skirt it by occasionally shapeshifting her into someone else who has more clothing. It wasn't so onerous in the first movies because she was alongside leads Rogue, Jean Grey, and Storm. Now she's on screen more and there are times when it seems producers are photoshopping shadows onto her to hide butt crack.

My sister asked if the blue lady was in this one.
Jennifer Lawrence seems much more natural as the character, who's written as both super-spy and the dissenting third opinion between accommodating-Xavier and militant-Magneto. There is a moment where a single tear from her means as much as all of Xavier's wailing. Mystique also has that sweet fight choreography back from the early films, swinging around her opponents like props in ways that embarrass any battles in First Class. Before this movie, I didn't get rumors of a Mystique solo picture. Afterwards, I was begging for it. It's just that her being borderline naked feels unfair (although you do see more of Jackman's flesh than you'd think.).

One hopes that with Singer back in control that gender dynamics will smooth out in future films. It's not as though X-Men is suffering from any shortage of great female characters (bring in Dust whenever you like). Perhaps that's Days of Future Past's greatest gift to me: as my favorite superhero flick in years, it also left me feeling like they'd get better from here.
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