Usually, I don’t do this. But…
For me, a good director knows how to tell a story with a camera and understands the source material he has to work with. For super-hero films, the best ones are when the director tempers the essential action sequences with humor along with dramatic character exploration and plot development. That quintessential aspect is where some of the films from the X-Men movie franchise failed me. The two Wolverine films and X-Men: The Last Stand were brought to us by filmmakers who seemed to have been granted carte blanche by their studios and just went wild, irrespective of source material or even established in-film continuity. 2011’s X-Men: First Class by Matthew Vaughn was a step in the right direction. Although I felt it was clunky in certain parts, it was bold enough to use second-stringer X-Men as the feature characters as well as capture the mores of 1960’s time period in which the plot took place (in retrospect, this film was a loose amalgamation of X-Men and Mad Men). While the 2011 film gave the franchise the kick-in-the-ass it needed after the critical debacles of the two Wolverine films and Brett Ratner’s take, the franchise still needed the man who directed the first two X-Men films (2000’s X-Men and 2003’s X2: X-Men United): Bryan Singer.
When Singer signed on to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past, I was ecstatic. Back in the director’s chair is a filmmaker who understands the plight of the X-Men and how they’re an extended metaphor for humanity’s predilection to shun or destroy anyone or anything considered “different”. Choosing to adapt the classic X-Men storyline of the same title was apt since it showed the end result of that predilection. But how does Singer’s translation of the storyline fair on the big screen?
The film starts off in a dark dystopian future where mutant-hunting robots known as the Sentinels have captured and exterminated most of the mutant population. Captured mutants in this future have been branded with the letter “M” over the right eye to identify them as such. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we’re introduced to characters like Sunspot (Adan Canto) who (in the film) can fly, shoot jets of flames and set himself ablaze like Johnny Storm from the Fantastic Four franchise; Warpath (Booboo Stewart), a Native American tracker with hunting knives and keen senses; Blink (Fan Bingbing) whose power to create teleportation portals is one of the coolest special effects in the movie; and Bishop (Omar Sy) who absorbs energy blasts from his comrades and re-channels it through the semi-automatic firearm he carries on him. The Sentinels in this future are programmed to adapt to any mutant power which makes mutant extinction inevitable. Ellen Page reprises her role as Kitty Pryde who, in addition to her ability to phase through solid matter, now inexplicably has the power to project her own or another person’s mental-self through time. Shawn Ashmore also returns as Bobby “Iceman” Drake and is finally utilized at his full potential. The team’s strong man, Colossus (played by Daniel Cudmore) is also included.
This nomadic group of mutants link up with this future’s X-Men consisting of Professor X, Magneto, Storm and Wolverine (respectively portrayed by Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellan, Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman). Using Kitty’s time-travel ability, they send this future’s Wolverine back to 1973 into the body of his younger self (mind you, he doesn’t age because of his healing ability, so he looks the same). His mission is to stop Mystique (reprised by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating a scientist named Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage). Trask’s death exacerbates humanity’s fear of mutants, placing Sentinels in charge of controlling mutants and results in that dark future. Wolverine enlists help from 1973’s Magneto and Charles Xavier (both played by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy), but finds the former is held in a federal prison 100 feet under the United States Pentagon while the latter is a shell of the character we’ve grown accustomed to. What happens afterwards are displays of power that are well-balanced with character insight and plenty of twists and turns.
As far as character portrayals, the stand-outs include the older Magneto, the younger Xavier, Mystique and even Quicksilver (Evan Peters). 1973’s Xavier lives in his family’s mansion and has become a drunken recluse, which is an interesting take on the character since he’s never sank that low before. Fassbender’s Magneto captures the anger, emotionally-charged, and stunning, displays of power while McKellan is wiser and more subdued, but no less dangerous. Mystique now believes more in Magneto’s view and will not harm a fellow mutant. She weeps at Trask’s deadly experiments on her people which only strengthens her resolve to kill him.
And Quicksilver? He was well-done. I’m glad they didn’t make him the arrogant high-handed middle-aged speedster that he is in the book. Showing him as a teen in the early 1970’s with total irreverence and full embracement of his mutant power was refreshing, as well as how his speeding power causes him to perceive the world around him as one of perpetual slow-motion. From what I saw, the most interesting characters in the film are the ones who actually enjoy being mutants instead of trying to remain in the closet. Mystique and Quicksilver exemplify this notion. Nicholas Hoult’s portrayal on Beast is the polar opposite.
But who’s the real villain in the film? Magneto, Mystique, William Stryker? Trask and his Sentinels? Trask is portrayed as a cold, clinical anthropological scientist who created the Sentinel robots with the aim of policing the mutant population. He doesn’t regard mutants as human beings, he refers to Mystique as “it” several times in the film. In the book, Trask’s was brilliant and misguided. His impetus for creating the Sentinel program was because his own children were mutants. That part of his history should’ve been included given the nature and context of the film. Fassbender’s Magneto wants to protect his people, but that’s just an excuse for him to subjugate anyone who disagrees or displeases him. Stryker was portrayed as a shady military officer while Mystique sees herself as mutantkind’s last hope. The climax of the film takes place at and in the White House, during that scene, the viewer has to decide who’s the real antagonist.
As a lifelong X-Men reader, it was easy for me to pick apart the film and be annoyed by certain elements the filmmakers tended to ignore. I don’t expect the filmmakers to translate every aspect of the comic book to film. If they did, it would be too confusing and all over the place for everyone, just like the comic book. The character nuances and subtle nods they made to continuity and creators were good in this film, from Quicksilver’s dialog with Magneto to Chris Claremont’s cameo at Trask’s Congressional hearing. The juxtaposition of the Sentinel battles in the future and the 1973 setting was well done, kind of reminiscent of the final battle in the first installment of 1999’s The Matrix. One of the biggest cast surprises happened close to the end of the film, but you have to see it for yourself without spoilers.
Some of the cons I had were within the film’s continuity errors, which, again kind of make it like a comic book. X-Men: First Class seemed more like a self-contained story with no connections to the previous three films or the two Wolverines. This one functions more like a loose combination of everything that brings it all full circle with Singer’s original. In comparison to 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers, the team chemistry isn’t the same and it doesn’t have iconic scenes or memorable dialogue. But is it a good film? Yes. For this reviewer, it’s been the best film of the series since X2. Four and-a-half Arnolds.
P.S.: Please stay till the end of the credits. Singer wasn’t lying about a sequel.
Sy L. Shackleford is a jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A UConn graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, hip-hop, et. al.