I’ve been deliberately avoiding Marvel-related films during 2014 (this was the last one I saw) due to a general fatigue of spandex, special powers and smart-arse wisecrackery (I get enough of that in my night job as Coward-Man, Gotham’s most statistically-unsuccessful superhero). As such, this year I’ve ignored Captain America: The Winter Soldier (a blockbuster which appears to be held in high regard by most people who have seen it), the second Andrew Garfield-era Spider-Man film (which is fair enough as I haven’t seen the first one) and the current box office smash Guardians Of The Galaxy, which has been lavished with more praise in two weeks than Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi received in a lifetime. However my resistance has finally cracked in the face of this year’s overwhelming onslaught, and a couple of nights ago I decided to ease myself back in by watching the seventh X-Men-related film to date. It probably wasn’t the right one to pick.
Not that X-Men: Days Of Future Past is terrible, I hasten to add; it’s just that this particular attempt to tie-in Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner’s original superhero trilogy with Matthew Vaughn’s novel and enjoyable 2011 reboot X-Men: First Class is irritatingly confusing for the first fifteen minutes or so, plonking the viewer directly into a futuristic battle in which mutant leaders Erik Lenhsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen) and kinda-sorta-back-from-the-dead Charles Xavier / Professor X (Patrick Stewart) – best buddies on and off screen these days – are figureheads in the fight against mutant-slaying robots called ‘sentinels’. (The series has unfortunately missed an opportunity to fully explain how the two older versions of these characters have joined forces, even if the reasons for doing so are apparent. Incidentally, this opening battle – and indeed all of the story here that is set in the future – owes way too much to the two disappointing Matrix trilogy films as well as James Cameron’s first two Terminator movies.) A few more familiar characters emerge from the frenetic scrapping, notably Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page, in an Inception-like supporting role), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry, who is presumably wondering today why she bothered to show up for this instalment).
Eventually a plan is set in motion to send Wolverine back in time to 1973, where he must thwart an attempted assassination by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) on Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who initially developed the sentinels for deployment in the Vietnam War. Replete with brown leather jacket and with a Blaxploitation soundtrack predictably heralding his arrival on the streets of New York, Wolverine teams up with the younger versions of Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (James McAvoy), among others, and the distinctly wobbly alliance of mutants takes on the sentinels across two periods in time.
Once it settles down, X-Men: Days Of Future Past isn’t confusing at all. In fact, as it wears on it actually becomes both overly simplistic and maddeningly predictable, as it follows the series template of flirting with the theme of intolerance and lightly grappling with the subject of genocide before ditching all that serious stuff in favour of typical and underwhelming set-pieces (breaking out of The Pentagon, fighting on the White House lawn, and so on). Attempts to increase the tension are usually made via the near-deaths of the main characters, but we all now know that the likes of Xavier and fan-favourite Wolverine will never die (permanently!) as they are integral to the franchise, so the supposedly dramatic moments are never quite as gripping as director Singer or writers Jane Goldman, Vaughn and Simon Kinberg presumably intended. The mutants who do actually perish during the course of the story are resurrected by the end, and even more annoyingly characters who were offed in previous X-Men films are also miraculously brought back to life in time for the next instalment, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse. Why can’t we have a superhero film that ends on a massive downer, or one where dead characters stay dead? Marvel’s writers would benefit from looking at some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed TV shows of the past 15 years; people – even kids – love a surprise character death or two these days, but it definitely adds weight if the character remains six feet under afterwards.
Despite the generic, foreseeable Marvelness on offer there is still much that can be enjoyed. (The name Marvel is rapidly becoming a misnomer of sorts, no? (Although as stated above I am yet to see Guardians Of The Galaxy, which seems to have re-ignited many people’s interest in the genre where previously it had waned.) The movie rights for the X-Men reside with Fox, as opposed to Marvel Studios (which is responsible for the Avengers-related shenanigans), but there’s a uniform feel across all these movies that now seems to be far too deeply embedded to keep the public’s interest in the long term.) The movie succeeds when it taps into the same energy and spark found within X-Men: First Class (which is unsurprising given the input Singer, Vaughn and Goldman had into that previous episode), and for quite a while the interplay between McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and Jackman – all confident actors – makes for fine viewing; the first act, in fact, is the most enjoyable part of the movie and it relies heavily on this foursome. McAvoy and Fassbender are the standouts, the former even managing to inject some much needed edge into the film by playing a drugged-up, disillusioned and prickly version of the young Xavier, even though the character sadly dispenses with the ‘fuck offs’ and ‘piss offs’ when the action hots up. As for Jackman … well, he can probably play Wolverine in his sleep by now, but there’s still a degree of fun to be had watching his temper flare, and every superhero film needs its world-weary, hard-done-by cynic.
Many of the other mutants seem to exist on the periphery, merely adding to the sheer number of faces and special powers displayed on screen during the opening and closing battles. Nicholas Hoult as the young Hank McCoy / Beast and Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver have the juicier supporting roles, and the latter benefits from being the central figure in Days Of Future Past‘s standout moment, but many other characters seem to be present for the sole reason of appeasing hardcore X-Men fans, although seven films in perhaps that’s no bad thing. The over-stuffing does mean that excellent actors such as the aforementioned Berry and McKellen are woefully underused, but even they fare better than some: poor old Anna Paquin (Rogue) – an Oscar winner at 11, lest we forget – seems to get less and less time on screen as the series wears on, and it has now got to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-her stage, with at least one big moment apparently left on the cutting room floor.
That all said, it could have been worse. Singer and co wisely dispensed with many of the mutants introduced in First Class, including the fairly forgettable likes of Angel, Emma Frost, Azazel, Banshee and Riptide, so perhaps we should just be glad that Days Of Future Past only tries to cram in a couple of dozen. There’s a nagging feeling, though, that by bringing back characters who had died or lost their powers in earlier films, any subsequent entries in the series will be even more packed, despite the fact such backtracking and re-writing of history is commonly depicted in the comics (although this kind of about-turn always conjures up two words in my mind: “Bobby” and “Ewing”).
Dinklage gets a fair amount of time on screen as the supposed villain of the piece, although when compared with that of the cunning and clever Tyrion Lannister, his character in HBO’s Game Of Thrones, the part doesn’t really make much use of his talents; neither a megalomaniac nor a crazed military man, Trask is more likely to be found looking understandably spooked when a variety of high-level army or government meetings and pow-wows are interrupted by the squabbling mutants, and his demeanour often resembles my old, genteel economics teacher at school, a man who coincidentally refused to let go of his 1970s wardrobe despite the fact we were in the early 1990s.
Ultimately, Days Of Future Past feels like a mis-step, though it had a tough job following in the footsteps of the surprisingly good, and refreshing, First Class. There is fun to be had here, with long fights and superpowers-a-go-go, as well as some arch revelations, such as the mutant Lehnsherr’s announcement that the assassinated President Kennedy was ‘one of us’. The main problem though is that the older cast members have been brought back but the writers do not seem to know what to do with them – Wolverine aside – for much of this movie; though their struggles against the sentinels in the future raises the stakes for the 1970s-set action, their inclusion leaves a nagging sense of overkill, and talent is wasted. The flipside is that greater focus is placed upon the younger versions of the characters, and the film has plenty of vim while they are front and centre. The melding of old and new cast members did admittedly intrigue me for the duration, even if it is clearly a gimmick, but I do wonder now whether the series has become too sprawling and convoluted for its own good. Thankfully this particular two hours didn’t end up a complete mess, as it could easily have been a spectacular botch job.
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by: Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen
Running Time: 131 minutes