In all the annuls of X-Men history, no creative team is so beloved as the human one-two punch that was Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Between 1977 and ’81, those two turned a no-class, Rainbow Coalition of E-, F-, and G-list characters into the X-Men we know, love, and occasionally loathe today: the Gold Standard of Superhero Team Soap Operatics. And out of all the stories they made together – Claremont writing, Byrne drawing, both arguing over which character should die that month – none is more beloved than “Days of Future Past.”
Except, of course, for the Phoenix Saga. Which X-Men: The Last Stand fucked right up. Now, the screenwriter most directly responsible for that mess (at least, according to the WGA), Simon Kinberg, has teamed with the director of Superman Returns to bring us this. My cup runeth over.
Re-reading “Days of Future Past” in the lead-up to this movie, I was struck by how much it resembles Just Another X-Men Story. Apart from a few Editor’s notes and one in-joke of a cover – a jab at fans pissed off by Jean Gray’s then-recent first (yes, “first”) Death – it fits right in with the story immediately before it, where Wolverine caught up with his old friends on Canada’s federally-funded superhero team, Alpha Flight, because they were about to get a spin-off, I think. Or the story before that, where Dr. Strange dropped by to help the X-Men escape Dante’s Hell…and I’m talking full-on, Malbolge, Cerberus, “Abandon All Hope” on the door, Dante’s Hell. It’s fuckin’ awesome.
The story right after “Days of Future Past” – where Kitty Pryde fights a demon out to ruin Christmas for the whole mansion – is less awesome…but none of them have been referenced, ripped-off, or reconditioned near as much as…what I guess I have to call “DOFP” now. “Doffp?” Fuck that. That sounds stupid, even for me, and I know who Rachel Summers is/was/will be. From hereon out, the movie will be known as “X5.”
Dystopian futures where robots rule over blasted ruins were very much A Thing in the early-80s. Terminator’s just the first thing you remember…unless your bought Uncanny X-Men #141 off the shelf for its original cover price of 0.50 cents. Then you were four years ahead of the curve. Without the ads that both pay for and clutter the fuck out of single issue comics, X5‘s source material is exactly forty-four pages long. Embellishment was inevitable, since this is a movie – and the movies have done nothing with Kitty Pryde, despite casting Ellen Page in the role before she was an “indie darling” and/or Video Game Superstar. Since I watched the mid-credit scene in The Wolverine, last year, I knew Hugh Jackman would be the focal character, once again. And since I’m on Twitter, I knew we’d finally get the giant robot action they’d been teasing us with for over ten damn years.
My rule for adaptations is, “You’re gonna change something. I accept that. Even if it’s the same material, you’re working in different mediums, with different artists, blah-blah-blah. I know. It is inevitable. But is it too much to ask that you change whatever you’re going to change into something more interesting than what was originally present? As opposed to less?”
For example: if you’re adapting a story where your female lead’s possessed by a fiery, solar-system-eating god-monster from beyond the bounds of time…a being who’d make the Great Old Ones shit their pants even as they fell over themselves to propose marriage…you might not want to write all that off as, “Oh – that? That’s just her ‘bad’ side. An ‘evil’ personality. Yes, we’re making a female character’s Ultimate Power contingent upon her going Kill-Em-All, Batshit Insane. Because women, amIright?” Yes, no way anyone could possibly mistake that for a steaming pile of misogynist bullshit.
“Hey,” The Last Stand says, bristling at my use of a word that ends in -ist, “we’re equal opportunity over here at Fox, motherfucker. Evil Jean’s actually been with us This Whole Time. You just didn’t notice…because that kindly, avuncular father figure over there, in the corner, that you’ve been looking up to for two-and-a-half movies? Yeah – turns out he’s been a brain-rapist since the ’70s. Happy Trilogy!”
I was actually glad to see the X-franchise succumb to Prequelitis back in 2008…until I saw X-Men: Origins: Wolverine and a part of my soul died screaming. The howling void it left allowed First Class and The Wolverine to defy my expectations by being basically okay. I’ve since filled up the rest of that void with rum – the Drink of Holidays. So Happy Memorial Day! In this Issue, Everybody Dies!
In keeping with the “Boom: Holocaust!” way the best X-films have of opening, X5 opens in dystopian 2023, with humanity ruled over by giant, shapeshifting killer robots. Mystique (played, once again, by Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated their original designer back in the early 70s…which, of course, only gave Teh Gov’ment a perfect excuse to fast-track his Killer Robot plan…and, presumably, all the torturous shit Col. Stryker was up to in 1979, and/or whenever X2 took place. The “not too distant future,” if I remember correctly. First, they came for the mutants. Then, they came for anyone whose kids, or grandkids, might potentially be mutants. Eventually, they came for Grade-A humans, and by then it was too late.
So, in the not-too-distant future, somewhere in China – Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Hugh Jackman (you know him), Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), Bearded Ice Douche (Shawn Ashmore), Storm (Catwoman…no, the other Catwoman) Collosus (Daniel Cudmore, in his third turn as the character, where he once-again gets practically nothing to do…Kitty least of all), and a few other random mutants we’ve never met before (unless we read comics) hatch a last-ditch plan to change history…by sending Wolverine’s mind back through time, into the body of his younger self. Safe in the relatively killer robot-free days of 1973, he can hook up with Young Professor X and Young Magneto (played by James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender, as they were in First Class) and save The Future. Assuming time is malleable, like in Back to the Future…and not fixed, like in Bill & Ted.
The source material wisely (for its own story purposes) left questions of temporal mechanics up to you, the reader – inadvertently throwing the door open for dozens of other Future Versions of Famous Heroes to fuck around with the space-time continuum, turning the Marvel Multiverse into a Koch Snowflake. These stories can be fun…when they aren’t causing brain-splitting migraines. And X5‘s is no exception.
Riddle me this, everyone: when the hell did Ellen Page’s Character gain the power to Quantum Leap someone with a simple laying on of hands? C’mon, movie – you could’ve thrown-in Rachel Summers without spoiling your beloved Twist Ending. Just call her “Rachel” – no last name – or, hell, call her nothing. Armies of short-haired redheads would’ve lined up for the chance to almost touch Hugh Jackman’s forehead. And given the armies of unnamed mutants with slightly familiar powers peppering the background of all these X-films, no one but we comic book nerds would’ve noticed or cared. Besides, following the J.J. Abrams School of such things, your twist ending is all anyone talks about as soon as they get out of the theater…and that’s probably on purpose. Nothing like a twist that negates itself, right Lost fans?
So instead of bringing in another random no-name only the hardest hard-core comic book nerds would’ve recognized (like most of First Class’ cast) you reduced Kitty Pryde – the POV character for an entire generation of X-fans – into a plot device. Again. That’s a fumble right after the kick-off, movie. Last time we saw Ellen Page’s Character in these films, she was running through walls and knocking out Juggernauts. Fine. But giving her Psychic Time-Travel Touch reeks of the dreaded “Gotta Give Them Something to Do” disease, which infests Superhero Team books more than most.
Admit it, X5: you only did that so The Pagemaster could have an excuse to be in your movie, and you could have an excuse to send her on its press junket. Getting all the fools like me excited that maybe, just maybe, you were going to do something with her after all this time. Like send her back in time so she could save the world. Then we remembered God is dead, no one cares, and Ellen Page could’ve been easily been replaced by a time machine in the corner of some lab…as she was in the animated adaption of this story I saw on Fox Kids’ Saturday Morning programming block when I was ten.
Ah, well. At least this movie’s better than a cheap-ass, Saturday morning cartoon from the mid-90s. Its cookie and gold star are in the mail. Let’s continue.
Once Wolverine’s mind gets sent back to the past, the film becomes a Five Man Band – the Charles, Erik, Wolvie, Beast and Raven Show – leaving a small army of other notables to stand around doing basically nothing until its time for some false tension. (Including someone who looks kinda like Bishop – there’s your shout-out, Adjective-less X-Men cartoon series fans. Hope you’re happy enough to ignore everything else…and the box office totals make it look like you were.) On the great chessboard of the franchise, they are the pawns. That’s why they get less than three lines between them. And maybe twenty seconds to show off before we’re back to the Highly Marketable Cast. Sad that this strict hierarchy of attention still defines “an X-Men movie” fourteen years and nine flicks on. But now I’m remembering why I was so scared everyone would fuck up The Avengers, before it came out and shut my mouth.
We’re falling into a rut, don’t you see? This is the second time in the series (after everyone’s beloved X2) a rogue mutant’s tried to kill a major American political figure, allowing someone in the military industrial complex to push through their nefarious, anti-mutant schemes. With the Paris Peace Accords of January, 1973, joining the bombing of Nagasaki, the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this is now the fourth time in a row the X-Men have involved themselves in some major historical event. Is that what the X-movies are now? Is this what they’re going to be, going forward? A crash course in How Mutants Fucked Up 20th Century History? How will that not wind up being a sub-par rip-off of Watchmen? We already have a bad Richard Nixon impersonator running around here, so…?
“But Dave – Peter Dinklage!” Yeah…and? He’s practically wasted, only getting serious meat to chew on when he’s playing Mystique, playing him. He barely has anything to do otherwise…except cower in fear, like every other Homo Sapien in these flicks. This was a vacation from Game of Thrones for him, and the lingering shades of his Westrosi accent made that all the more obvious to the trained ear. “But Dave – Magneto drops a National Stadium on the White House!” So? Roland Emmerich blew it up – twice – and you didn’t see me Certify that shit Fresh. “But Dave – there’s more of that MaCavoy/Fassbender Show you liked so much in First Class!” …well…okay, you do have a point there…
“But, Dave! Blue Jennifer Lawrence! Doing kung-fu! When she busts a gat, motherfuckers take dirt naps!”…okay, two points. But even if Mystique likes being blue (la-do-de-da-de-da), I know actors who are uncomfortable working under heavy make-up when I see them and…Plus the last movie gave her a hell of a lot more to work with, too. She was the audience surrogate, forced to chose between Charles and Erik’s competing worldviews…which, thanks to narrative contrivance, was no real choice at all.
Now, she’s out for blood, looking to make life hard for a young “Bill” Stryker (now played by Josh Helman) and end it for Bolivar Trask (Dinklage)…who, it turns out, killed nearly everyone who survived First Class in the blank space between films, while Charles became a drunken junkie and Magneto tried to either kill or save President Kennedy, depending on whether you believe him or not.
Only one man can heal the wounds Charles and Erik’s bromance suffered during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The man who told them both to “fuck off” the last time they met. And so, against all reason, Wolverine becomes the X-men’s designated Voice of Reason. (Pause for effect.)
At least for awhile. Then Wolvie looses his happy thought…and I wish I were joking, but this movie’s version of time travel is dependent upon the traveler maintaining a Happy Thought at all times, in the best Peter Pan tradition. But once Wolvie, Charles, Young Beast (Nicholas Hoult, reprising his role from etc.), and a character who only exists so Fox can have a dick measuring contest with Disney/Marvel over his movie rights, break Magneto out of prison, Complications Ensue. Nothing too drastic, obviously – this isn’t the End of A Trilogy or anything. It’s the First Sequel to First Class, so Standard Trilogy Patterns call for this to be Darker and Edgier than it’s predecessor…but it really isn’t, except in the most superficial way. I know how the movie’s going to end – not just because I’ve read its source book over and over again for years – but because its Introductory Action Sequence flat out tells me.
And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is: at no time did I ever believe anything else was in danger of happening, no matter how desperately the film tried to convince me otherwise. And it tries! Oh, how it tires! At times – as when Logan’s forced to play Dr. Phil – it tries hilariously hard.
Logan’s solution – to have Young Xavier use his mind to tele-conference with his Future Self – reveals the awesome place where this movie could’ve gone if it’d had the cash, balls or sense. Imagine two Xaviers, united as one to change history…what? Too abstract? No opportunity for Hugh Jackman to take his shirt off or show you his ass? Well, I’m sorry, but Hugh Jackman’s been showing you his ass since 2000. Guess I’m the only one who’s sick of it.
Thankfully – for once! – Wolverine is not the deciding factor in a climactic battle. That comes down to…ya know…I actually don’t want to tell you, because it’s almost good enough to make up for the previous hour and a half.The ending is basically an X-fan’s Dream Come True. Christmas, New Years, and John Byrne’s return to the title all in one. Fanservice in the most blatant form you can find this side of anime. I expect it to make a billion a dollars. Clearing the way for the next three already-planned X-movies.
McAvoy, Fassbender and Hoult are awesome. Lawrence and Dinklage look like they’d rather be elsewhere. Jackman’s Wolverine is even more boring now that he doesn’t have Ninja Raggedy Anne on retainer. Everyone dies ugly but the power of time travel brings them back to life, so let your kids watch it. They need to see more decapitations.
Despite easily clobbering the films it feels the absurd (or not so absurd, considering those were Bryan Singer films) need to revere, Days of Future Past is a definite step down from First Class. Best I can say is…it’s okay. Again. For the first time in forever, I’m not actively dreading where the X-franchise might go from here. As long as they Keep Matt Vaughn and Jane Goldman on speed dial there’s a chance Fox will pull everything off…
…but someone should tell everyone else (in film as well as comics, where this idea originated) that spinal fractures are not a mutant power. You don’t come back from that with smack and whiskey, no matter how Super Scientific your smack might be. You come back from that with a M.A.N.T.I.S.