Time Enough at Last (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014, Bryan Singer)
The X-Men film franchise started with success and high hopes in the early 2000s, where it managed to flourish for a few years in the early stages of the superhero movie boom before descending into sheer inanity. This makes the franchise a sturdy supporter for an entry where, on both a textual and subtextual level, the returning cast and crew of the original X-Men has to travel back in time to stop the worst from happening – the worst, of course, being X-Men: The Last Stand.
We open in the near future of 2023, where the world has become a very grim place for human and mutant alike. The shape-shifting, mutant hunting robots known as Sentinels have herded those mutants and mutant sympathizers that they haven’t already destroyed into death camps (the Holocaust imagery here feels a bit tasteless and unearned, much as it did in many of the comics this film draws from) and they’ve been giving the last remaining X-Men a particularly rough go of it lately, mounting a series of attacks that they’ve only escaped by the skin of their teeth via some last-second time travel.
I’m not going to spend any time explaining the time travel, being that the movie stops dead in its tracks about ten minutes in to do so through a particularly ungainly slab of exposition. Long story short, the team has decided that their last, best hope is to send the consciousness of ageless mutant Wolverine (ageless Australian Hugh Jackman) back into his body circa 1973, the year when mutant radical Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), igniting a firestorm of anti-mutant sentiment. There (then), he can find disillusioned mutant headmaster Professor Xavier (James Macavoy) and imprisoned mutant demagogue Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and together try to stop Mystique and steer humankind into a less extermination-happy future.
Being that this is a movie about traveling back into the past, I’d like to take a minute to talk superhero movie history: in the ’90s, Batman was pretty much the only game in town (having taken the torch from the Superman films after they plummeted into Golan-Globus lunacy). 1989’s Batman was a stunningly massive success, making back its $48 million budget almost ten times over, plus a staggering $750 million in merchandise sales. It was also, notably, the darkest piece of superhero media non-comic readers in 1989 were likely to encounter, something many viewers were uncomfortable with, even moreso after Tim Burton’s violent, bondage-tinged sequel Batman Returns. The franchise was then handed off to Joel Schumacher with the directive to make it more family-friendly. Skip ahead to 1997’s Batman & Robin, a gaudy vomitorium of camp excess and dopey one-liners that, despite turning a profit, was still considered a disaster big enough to nuke not just the Batman franchise, but possibly the entire superhero genre.
Marvel Comics, whose previous (and only) theatrical release had been the megaflop Howard the Duck, perhaps saw an opportunity in the death throes of DC’s big cinematic cash cow. After first testing the waters in 1998 with an adaptation of C-list property Blade, which became a surprise success, Marvel gave Usual Suspects wunderkind Bryan Singer directorial duties on X-Men, which became one of the highest grossing movies of 2000. Like the Burton Batman films, the double-whammy of Blade and X-Men was dark, violent, and clad all-over in black leather. Flash-forward to 2008, when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight came out and put the 1989 Batman to shame, both in terms of a truly staggering billion-dollar box-office take and a tone of such overwhelming bleakness as to make the darkest of Tim Burton’s visions look like something out of an episode of Sesame Street.
What I’m trying to get at (in an overly wordy, roundabout way) is that the big tone-setters across multiple phases of the superhero movie – a genre that, in its original medium, is more often bright, colorful escapism – have been dark, ultraserious affairs indeed. And many of the recent films that have tried to copy this po-faced seriousness have fallen flat on their faces in doing so – see Mark Webb’s dull, navy-blue tinted The Amazing Spider-Man or Zack Snyder’s ludicrous cacophony of disaster porn Man of Steel. And while I’ve already harped on the grimness of the future scenes in DOFP, the overall impression I had walking away from it was glee that a superhero movie had the courage to be wacky and out-there again, ground that hasn’t really been tilled since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.
And like Raimi at his best, Singer has a real knack for combining these wacky superhero concepts with genuine pathos without losing his footing. I’m thinking specifically of a scene where the young Xavier and the old Xavier (the always game Patrick Stewart) use the unstuck-in-time Wolverine’s brain as a kind of time-traveling Skype to allow the two Professor X’s to have a face-to-face chat – a scene that, against all odds, has a genuine emotional impact.
Then there are the moments that are just plain fun, the most instant-classic of which being the mid-film mini-arc dedicated to petulant speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and his breaking-into-and-then-back-out-of the Pentagon, one of the most purely entertaining sequences in a tentpole action film in some time. Really, all of the action sequences are top-notch, including a multi-mutant confrontation at the Paris Peace Accord and a final confrontation involving a football stadium crashing into the White House lawn (editor/composer John Ottman is in particularly fine form here, with some nifty splicing in of imitation Super 8 footage in the former and some impressive cross-cutting between the film’s past and future timelines in the latter). And the film’s laissez-faire attitude towards the mechanics of time-travel combined with its gleeful use of ’70s signifiers (the film does an altogether much better job of evoking the ’70s, from the costuming and set design to the cinematography and soundtrack choices, than X-Men: First Class did of evoking the ’60s) are altogether welcome.
Overall, while this is probably not the best of the X-Men films (I’d still hand that one to Singer’s last crack at bat, 2004’s X2: X-Men United), it feels like the most well-balanced. Singer’s always had a knack for creating well-etched, standout supporting characters – this is as evident in The Usual Suspects as it is in his first two X-films – but at times this has come at the expense of giving his leading characters things to do (remember how stranded Cyclops was in X2?). Not so here, where everyone gets their time to shine. It’s a huge-ass cast, so I’ll just give a few quick highlights: As mentioned earlier, Evan Peters steals the show with his amusingly impatient portrayal of Quicksilver, and if they haven’t locked him in for a bigger role in the upcoming sequel, someone messed up. Peter Dinklage gives a great villainous turn as Boliver Trask, an unusually layered take on the mad scientist figure, the type of guy who can profess genuine admiration for mutants and a burning desire to harvest their spinal fluid and brain tissue in the same breath without seeming to realize the contradiction (there’s a bit of Peter Cushing’s classic take on Baron Frankenstein here). The “most-improved” award goes to Jennifer Lawrence, who is much more comfortable in the role of Mystique than she was in her last go at the character, possibly because she’s given much more interesting things to do. And James Macavoy and Michael Fassbender maintain the level of excellence they brought to the otherwise middling X-Men: First Class.
As for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, while he’s still the nominal protagonist here, as he was in five of the six previous X-Men films, he’s given a somewhat scaled back role here, both in terms of his screen time and his importance as a plot-mover, that allows the rest of the cast room to breathe and helps keep this movie feeling like same-old-same-old. The time travel conceit even allows the movie to use a pre-metal-skeleton Wolverine for the majority of the running time, which works much better as a way to raise the stakes than the ill-defined healing factor loss in last year’s The Wolverine – seeing the character genuinely struggle to take down one medium-sized plastic robot is a bit bracing.
Anyway, I’ve rambled more than a little, so to be brief: this is clearly one for the fans. Much as with the comics, the labyrinthine convolutions of the plot are probably more than intimidating to the X-Men virgin (that is to say, virgin to all things X-Men; not virgins who like the X-Men, which is a very different demographic). Still, if you’ve enjoyed any one X-Men movie, chances are very high you’ll enjoy this one. It has a just about perfectly developed sense of what to keep and what to discard from previous entries, and the result is a superhero movie that feels lean and mean despite a nearly 2.5 hour running time. At this point, you know whether you’re in or not, and if you fall in the first category, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.