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Review: ‘X-Men: Days Of Future Past’ Proves Best In Franchise

Fassbender And McAvoy Are Key To Film’s Success

Above: Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine, Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto, and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier in "X-Men: Days of Future Past."

X-Men: Days of Future Past” (opened May 23 throughout San Diego) is the best film in the X-Men film franchise but that comes with a qualifier: I haven’t been impressed by any of the previous films.

I have to confess. I never read Marvel's “X-Men” comics but I did watch and love the old 1992 TV cartoons. Yes I know, the animation is atrocious by today’s standards but the scripts actually hold up quite well and in some ways conveyed social and political themes far more interesting than any of the Fox “X-Men” movies have managed to tap into. And that’s where my disappointment with the franchise begins.

Bryan Singer gave us hope with the first “X-Men” movie in 2000. The film had some spot on casting (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman) to hold our interest but the script was seriously flawed and we had to put up with Halle Berry’s Storm. “X-Men 2” did nothing to improve on the series; “X-Men 3: Last Stand” is almost in the “Godzilla 1998” mold of better off forgotten; “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was crap with no sense of who Logan was; and “X-Men: First Class” had a split personality with all the scenes featuring Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy being great and everything else being pretty much forgettable.

Credit: Marvel

Cover for the Marvel comic "The Uncanny X-Men" in which the storyline "Days of Future Past" ran.

So this brings us to the latest film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” with Singer returning to the director’s chair. It turns to a comic book storyline, from the 1981 “The Uncanny X-Men,” that fans have voted one of their favorites. The storyline was produced by the artistic team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin. It was a brilliant storyline that tapped into social issues, prejudices, and fear of the government and the military (it debuted the year Ronald Reagan came into office).

The film serves up a dark tale about a dystopian future in which an anti-mutant hysteria leads to the internment of mutants, and the creation of Sentinels that were designed to target mutants for capture and/or extermination. But the Sentinels go a little out of control, you know, bringing the world to the point of total annihilation. (I’d say apocalypse but then that’s really the next film, nudge, nudge, wink, wink). This prompts Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to use her powers to send Logan (Hugh Jackman returning yet again) back to a pivotal moment in history to try and prevent all this from happening. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) may both be on the same side in the film’s current timeline but unfortunately the point in time to which Logan is heading, their younger selves are not quite so aligned.

Video

Trailer: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

Once again, the best part of this film and the best thing to happen to the franchise as a whole is the casting of Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier. Stewart and McKellan, as the older versions of the characters, are also fine but they are not given much screen time in this film and were not given much in terms of good scriptwriting in any of the earlier films. Singer seems to have learned something from his “First Class” outing and that is to keep Fassbender and McAvoy on screen as much as you can. These two actors make you forget you are watching a summer popcorn movie. They take their roles seriously and make us completely believe in the reality of their situation. That’s no easy task. Selling a comic book world as real, as something you are so engaged in that you accept what’s going on as being possible with characters having emotions you can identify with is tough. It’s much easier to just go over the top and place tongue in cheek. But Singer and his two actors try for something a little more nuanced. You read right, I used the word "nuanced" in a review of a comic book movie. But it is true. Fassbender and McAvoy create characters that we accept as real people even though they have bizarre mutant powers. We never lose sight of their humanity and full credit goes to these marvelous actors. Props to the filmmakers for thinking outside the box in terms of casting, and to these British actors for accepting the roles. Don't worry, though. In addition to fine acting there are still massive special effects and things blowing up – all the genre trappings you'd expect from a summer comic book movie. But at its core, “Days of Future Past” has a pair of characters that we care about, that we feel are evolving, and that have emotions we feel are genuine. So kudos to Singer and scriptwriter Simon Kinberg (three others also receive story credit) for giving these two actors and their characters a little extra screen time to develop. It is these scenes that win me over and make this the only “X-Men” film that I’d be willing to own and watch again.

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in "X-Men: Days of Future Past." I've seen cosplayers with better make up.

Sadly, the rest of the film is not nearly as good as Fassbender and McAvoy. The Sentinel design for the robots in the 1970s looks like a reject from “I, Robot,” and the futuristic design looks like some experimental contemporary art sculpture. Neither being very impressive. Mystique’s and Beast's make up are embarrassingly bad. Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique has especially bad make up/costuming. She just looks like a cosplayer (and a bad one at that) in body paint with glittery latex adornments. Her transformations are all slick CGI and some of her fighting technique is fun but when she’s in her mutant Mystique form they should have kept the camera far away -- like in another galaxy. As my friend noted, she looked like she had non-slip bathtub stickers all over. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ make up/costume 14 years ago was more convincing. That's a sad comment on what studios are currently willing to spend time and money on.

Companion Viewing

"X-Men" (1992 TV series)

"X-Men" (2000)

"X-Men: First Class" (2011)

The script, outside of the main characters, fails to develop much for the other characters. There is occasional good humor and there’s nothing so bad that it derails the film but the narrative could have been better. It’s as if creating the Eric/Charles storyline took everything out of Kinberg and he had little left for the rest of the film. Tricky Dick Nixon (Mark Camacho) makes an appearance but Kinberg employs no cleverness at all with the historical reference. Although they do suggest an interesting spin on the Kennedy assassination. Kinberg and Singer also fail to endow the handful of X-Men in the film’s open (characters like Iceman, Colossus, Blink, Bishop, and Sun Spot) with much personality. If you haven’t read the comics or seen the cartoon, you won’t have a clue who they are. It's also unfortunate that they minimize Kitty Pryde's role but I suppose a white male and big star like Hugh Jackman as the pivotal time traveler makes more box office sense.

One scene – a kind of action set piece – does deserve to be singled out for praise and that’s Quicksilver’s effort to diffuse a violent situation. In this scene, Singer and his team display creativity and fun. The way they visually imagine the world through Quicksilver’s eyes is great and clever, and actor Evan Peters (of “American Horror Story” fame) plays it perfectly.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” (rated PG- 13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language) offers the best film in the “X-Men” franchise but it is nowhere near the caliber of films Marvel itself is producing with films like the first “Iron Man,” “The Avengers,” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” My comic book friends keep wondering what fans might reap if Marvel Entertainment ever got the rights back to its own characters of the X-Men and Spidey. Maybe we can have Kitty Pryde send someone back to the past with the knowledge we have and change the moment in history when Marvel signed its rights away... but wait. No one would ever let a women take on a role like that. Right?

Comments

Avatar for user 'rnidog'

rnidog | May 25, 2014 at 9:09 a.m. ― 5 months ago

Thanks for injecting your personal biases into a movie review. In this day and age of "white priveledge" conferences and uneven political commentary across news media and the like it is becoming very frustrating trying to find a blog without bias such as yours. Pendulum swings both ways and your intolerance hopefully comes does not come crashing back at you. If it does maybe you will remember your own prejudices (doubt it).

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | May 26, 2014 at 12:05 a.m. ― 5 months ago

Not sure what "personal bias" you are referring to but I am a film critic and this is a film blog featuring reviews so it is all about opinion and personal taste. If you want an unbiased synopsis of a film go to IMDb.

Thanks for comment.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 27, 2014 at 10:55 a.m. ― 5 months ago

Forget the director's chair, Singer may very well be sitting in the defendant's chair! Unless, of course, a deal is worked out, a la Michael Jackson.

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