I’ve had a fascination for X-men ever since I was a child. My first exposure to mutants, like many other 90’s kids, came from the animated television series. I’d wake up early on Saturday mornings, turn on the tv, and study the show like an anxious student the night before finals.
At school, I’d get in friendly debates over who the best X-men villains or heroes were and why. We’d imagine ourselves as the X-men , and go around beating up bad guys, shouting out our moves as we whipped the air with punches and kicks as if we were the real deal.
Who was I? Beast of course. I loved the color blue and who couldn’t argue with being both smart and athletic? I was a “gifted” kid growing up, but I was never that great at sports, so I guess I might have been compensating for something at the time.
Most of my friends, cousins, and siblings all “grew out” of the whole comic book thing. But for me it stuck.
I think it goes back to my childhood, battling Leukemia for a good part of my younger years. Sitting in a hospital for weeks or months at a time, those characters were often an escape from the uncertainty and fear I lived with. I felt trapped at times, having needles poked in my arms every couple hours, drugs forced down my throat, and hoping I didn’t have to share a room with someone I didn’t even know.
My mom was a saint. Every week, she’d take me down to the hospital gift store and let me look through their small selection of comics, picking a few to buy. We’d then slowly make our way back to the stuffy room where I’d return to my hospital bed. And there I’d lay, with my bald chemo head, quietly reading my books. Those moments, were some of the few times I felt peace, hope, and courage to get through the struggles I faced from the world around me.
So you can see why I cherish these characters and what they represent to me.
As such, it goes without saying that the X-men franchise, film wise, has been a bumpy ride. At times, seeming to make story compromises based on actor’s other commitments *cough* Cyclops *cough*.
Other times, the films strayed so far off course from who the characters really were, that it felt like we were watching our little sister slowly pulling out our favorite action figures then diabolically sitting them around a table for tea, among the unlikely company of teddy bears and Barbies. It was like we were being forced to watch this disgrace happen right before our eyes, while the puppet master grimaced behind the scenes, basking in our pain.
Okay that might be a little dramatic, but I don’t think I’m too far off track.
So when Brian Singer said in an interview with Bleeding Cool that Days of Future Past would, “fix a few things. It won’t be its primary function but there will be some fixing,” I was pleasantly hopeful.
For a while, we’ve seen Marvel successfully make box office records for the way they’ve handled their movies. Unfortunately, Marvel doesn’t have film rights for the X-Men franchise. And although the last couple of X-Men and Wolverine movies have been better, they haven’t been the same caliber as the films produced directly from Marvel themselves.
But after seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past this evening, I have a feeling the world finally got an X-Men movie that actually captures the true essence of these characters and the themes the X-men represent.
Sticking To the Source Material…As Much As Makes Sense
For those who haven’t seen the movie, hear’s a quick summary of the plot’s compelling premise.
In the near future, civilization as we know it has taken a much, much, darker turn. With radical mutants like Magneto terrorizing the “non-gifted” humans, something had to be done to protect humankind. That weapon was the Sentinels, a mutant hunting robot that could be mass produced to be a “sentinel” for human kind.
Unfortunately, not everything works out as smoothly as planned. Mystique learns about the weapons before they’re revealed to the public. She finds out that dozens of mutants were experimented on and killed in the process of making the Sentinels. Furious with what she uncovers, she decides to assassinate the man behind the creation of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask.
And this in turn, accelerates the fear and threat of mutants to humanity. Shortly after, the Sentinels are distributed across the planet, and Mystique is captured and experimented on as well. The DNA and genetics of Mystique are then applied to the Sentinels, giving them the uncanny ability to adapt to fighting any type of mutant, mimicking a library of powers against them.
At first the Sentinels perform perfectly as programmed, but eventually start finding patterns and genetics of humans that would one day parent mutants themselves. The Sentinels eventually start killing off these humans along with the mutants, starting a global war and leaving only the darkest humans in control of these machines.
When the movie starts, you see a small band of mutants fighting a hopeless battle to stave off extinction. The only reason they haven’t all died yet is because Kitty Pride keeps sending someone back in time to warn them every time their hiding place is discovered. That person wakes up in their past self, a day or so before they are discovered, and tells them the Sentinels are coming. Leaving them in a constant game of hide and seek.
Eventually, Professor X, Wolverine, Magneto, and Storm find Kitty Pride’s group of mutants and discuss a plan to stop this future from ever happening using Kitty’s powers. Kitty Pride explains that she can only send someone’s memories back a few weeks max because the damage and pain from the process is too much to handle going back any further. And that’s why Wolverine volunteers. Because of his healing factor, he may be the only chance they have of sending someone’s conscious back far enough to stop Mystique from killing Trask.
And that’s pretty much the setup of the movie.
There’s nothing flashy, new, or innovative about the plot of Day’s of Future Past. In fact, the comic arc it’s based on was written over 30 years ago. But that story, is one of the highest praised arcs in the X-Men’s 50 year history.
Interestingly enough, if you look at the top grossing movies of all time, one out of four are based on comics. Why do you think that is?
Joe Quesada, Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, explained it perfectly. When asked how the work of making readable comics fits with the firm’s flashier movie business, he simply said, “We’re the R&D for the company.”
Think about it. These characters have had thousands of stories, told across hundreds of books for several decades. Most of those stories were forgettable, poorly written, or rushed. But unsurprisingly, there were many winners as well.
With the history of the X-Men films falling further and further off the source material, it made perfect sense that the right move now was to come back to the source material that made them great to begin with. Ironically, choosing a time altering story line such as Days of Future Past, also made it conveniently possible to “fix” some of the problems of the past films. Essentially, killing two birds with one stone. Brilliant.
Returning to the Core X-Men Themes
What set the X-Men apart from other superheroes of the early 60’s was their problems. Unlike other comic book heroes of the time, the X-Men did heroic acts all while being persecuted by the public.
Any race, person, or class that was oppressed for nothing other than being themselves, could instantly relate to the struggles the X-Men faced.
Fifty years later, we still see bullying and discrimination in countless headlines. Throwing these characters back to the 70’s and playing out their own story of persecution was immediately relatable and made the characters emotionally appealing even if you had no previous knowledge of who they were.
What happens when a race of people try to protect themselves at the cost of subjecting a whole other race to persecution? And what makes the X-Men so willing to help mankind when they are so easily persuaded to wipe them off the planet?
These are all themes that have seen the X-Men at their best in the comics and it translates wonderfully on the screen as well.
The Fastball Special
Another thing the X-Men are known for is their ability to work as a team. In most solo superhero movies the characters are on their own to fight the villain, using whatever tools or powers they single-handedly possess.
But not the X-Men. By the time the X-Men make it to the grim future, they are working like a well oiled machine.
Bishop, a mutant that absorbs energy and then projects it out as a weapon, uses Storm’s lightning to power up. Then immediately blasts a sentinel to pieces. Blink opens a portal under Colosus and drops him hundreds of feet above the air. Hurling the metal giant at terminal velocity towards an approaching Sentinel. Kitty Pride grabs a fellow mutant, phasing through countless walls and debris as Iceman lays down covering fire…I mean ice…you get the point.
As far as action goes, there’s nothing quite like seeing all these synergies play out with such precision. It’s a pure adrenaline ride.
Letting the Characters Play Their Parts
One of the dangers of a movie like this is the amount of characters being pulled into a movie all at once.
In previous films, there were likewise dozens of characters taking up screen time, and many of them just fell flat.
Not so much here.
Every character felt like they had a purpose and role to play in the film. Some of the best parts of the movie, brought back familiar characters only to have them on the screen for under a minute. And it was perfect.
Another thing the movie did right was to let the characters tell the story. What I mean is, it felt like the creators of this film established the premise and then asked themselves, “How would ‘X’ character behave in this situation?” Then proceeded to write that.
A perfect example of this is with the character of Magneto. He is a crucial piece to stopping Mystique from killing Trask. But Magneto isn’t a hero at this point, so it’s not that simple. He has his own agenda and that’s exactly how the movie plays his character.
Some of the best moments of the movie happen when there’s no action occurring at all. Charles Xavier talking to his future self. Wolverine reversing roles and having to mentor Xavier instead of the other way around. There’s several other priceless segments of characterization, but I want to leave some for you to experience yourself.
Suffice it to say as the credits rolled all I could think was, “that’s how you do an X-Men movie.”