Friday, December 19, 2014

X-men: Days of Future Past

This may be hard to believe, but the X-men movies have been appearing in theaters for fourteen years. The very first movie debuted in 2000, and moviegoers have been given installments of various characters and story arcs ever since. If you go all the way back to the first movie, you won't find it that hard to believe how old it is based on the graphics and the ages of the actors. In some ways, reviewing X-Men: Days of Future Past is reviewing the entire franchise because the events of this most recent installment both set up and unravel everything that has been previously established. The movie did what JJ Abram's essentially did to Star Trek: created a way to tell completely new stories that are neither influenced nor hindered by previous material, while still finding a way to allow the old stories to remain. Only sci-fi can do this, and X-men: Days of Future Past takes full advantage of this device. But be warned, screwing with time is always a messy affair.

Wolverine and Sabertooth with William Stryker circa Vietnam
William Stryker in 1973
First off, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a decidedly marked improvement from First Class, most notably by getting away from the 1960's spy thriller motif that plagued the first movie. The absence of Kevin Bacon's absurd James Bond style villiany furthers this departure. Secondly and most importantly, Days of Future Past operates with the hope that the audience will forget about X-Men 3: The Last Stand and certain events in Wolverine, or at least imaginatively fill in the plot holes themselves. No bueno. For example, in Wolverine, Logan meets William Stryker during the Vietnam War, where Stryker is about forty or so. From here the infamous Weapon X project ensues where Logan's skeleton is grafted with adamantium, changing his bone claws to steel blades. In this movie, the past timeline unfolds around 1973, and William Stryker is in his twenties. Therefore, Weapon X hasn't happened yet, so younger Logan has not been grafted with adamantium.Since Stryker didn't meet up with Logan and company in Vietnam, we have no idea where Sabertooth, Deadpool, or any of those guys are either. Another example is that at the end of First Class, Xavier and Eric part ways and Xavier establishes his school. But in X-Men 3: the Last Stand, the two are shown as older men visiting a young Jean Grey together to recruit her to their school. By the end of Days of Future Past, young Eric and Xavier have not reconciled, and they part ways again. So... did they make up again after Days of Future Past and become co-administrators of the school for a while? Or is this another detail that is presumably undone by the time reset?

Days of Future Past takes place at an undisclosed time in the not-too-distant future wherein some of the youths from Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters are now constantly on the run from the Sentinels-- mutant-seeking and destroying war drones. Clearly, a lot has changed since the conclusion of The Last Stand where mutants were freely existing in society. The small band of rogue mutants has died several times already it would seem, but Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat) has rewound time again and again to give them a chance to escape. Well, technically she transferred someone's consciousness into their past self so that the past self could warn them and they can all escape. Nevermind that she could only ever walk through walls before-- she has this power now, and how she came by it is apparently unimportant. There may have been a passing reference to her "evolving", which is awfully convenient if you ask me. Professor Charles Xavier's on-again off-again friendship with Eric Lensher (Magneto) is on again, and they are working together to save mutant humanity from genocidal annihilation. Try and forget that Xavier was disintegrated in The Last Stand and Eric lost his powers of magnetism. Yes, yes, I remember the end of credits scenes wherein it was implied that Eric's powers may return and that Xavier had successfully transferred his consciousness to a brain-dead patient. How he got his original body back is exactly what the film-makers hope you won't wonder about. To be fair, there is a post-credits scene at the end of The Wolverine (not to be confused with its predecessor Wolverine) that introduces the resurrected Xavier, but it still doesn't explain anything. Just as well.

Moving on, Wolverine essentially goes back in time to find a younger Xavier and Eric, to convince them to stop Mystique from doing something that will ultimately set in motion the demise of all mutants. At this juncture, a few years have passed since First Class. Xavier is in a constant drunken stupor, leaving Hank (Beast) to take care of him, and Eric is in maximum security prison for allegedly assassinating Kennedy. None of them are quite sure where Mystique is, but it is essential that they find her before she kills Dr. Trask-- the man ultimately responsible for the Sentinels. If they succeed, an unknown but presumably more optimistic future will write itself to replace the certain future that awaits them now. Yet herein lies another continuity problem. Eric explains that the catalyst to the Sentinel project was Mystique's botched murder attempt on Dr. Trask. She was captured, experimented on, and samples of her DNA, bone marrow, brain tissue, etc. were all used in the development of the Sentinel's ability to adapt against threat. If this had occurred in the way that Eric describes, Mystique wouldn't have been his sidekick in the original trilogy-- she would be either dead from experimentation, or at least in captivity. But beyond that, the idea that the Sentinel project was underway during the events of the original X-Men trilogy is completely incompatible with the legislative conflicts that are presented in those films. Why would there be a Mutant Registration Act, Stryker's raid on Xavier's school, or the entire war at Alcatraz if the Sentinel project was already functional? The conclusion of The Last Stand implied that mutants were free to live and operate in society. While I would understand that harmony turning sour after a few years, it makes no sense that the Sentinels have been operational and advancing in development since the 70's, but not used before the future events of Days of Future Past. 

Needless to say, this movie is laden with an extremely thick and ambitious plot that is only smooth for casual fans who won't stare at a blank wall when the movie is over, trying to wrap their minds around the implications of the conclusion (as I did). In many ways, Days of Future Past seemed to be director Bryan Singer's way of discrediting the events of all the movies he didn't direct. At the very least the movie made a very zealous attempt to undo various plot lines that may have written them into corners. My mind is still reeling over everything that was "undone" by this movie, and it really created more questions than it answered. Chief among these questions is, does the Logan shown at the end of the movie have adamantium? Aka, did Weapon X even happen? Least of these questions is, how did Bolivar Trask go from being a middle-aged dwarfed white guy in 1973, to an average height middle-aged black man in 2006 (as shown in The Last Stand)?

For a movie that exists in the same universe as previous X-Men movies, this one is riddled with plot holes large enough to run the whole thing through. The last two movies featuring younger versions of the cast are neither reboot nor retelling-- they are pieces that don't fit their own puzzle. To be entirely fair, as a movie, it's really pretty good as long as you either have minimal to no knowledge of previous movies and events. The younger and older versions of the characters are at least consistent with themselves, especially Michael Fassbender's supremely convincing performance as a young Magneto. James McAvoy's young Charles Xavier is not exactly the regal Professor X that we know and love, but then it is amusing to imagine that Professor X wasn't born a stalwart schoolmaster. As a comic book movie, the action sequences are stylish and entertaining, Easter eggs abound without being too blatant, and in the end all is well. In fact, in the end, all is arguably more well than it has ever been at the conclusion of any X-Men movie. As a movie by itself, it's fully satisfying. As part of a series... well clearly there are some problems.

The hardest thing to swallow about the whole movie is how much history has now been erased, and all the complications this creates. We don't know if Logan ever participated in Weapon X, if Dark Phoenix still lays dormant in Jean, what became of Magneto and Mystique, or any number of other things. And judging by current rumors about future movies, we won't know. Instead, we're asked to just accept that everything after 1973 was rewritten into a book we will never read, and be content that we've seen the last page.

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