Using the best elements of the past to give us the greatest X-Men movie yet
A stunning blend of past and future events, fusing together old and new franchises, working as a sequel, and a sequel to a prequel, as well as something of a retcon, reimagining and even reboot of a series which is now finally, definitively, back on track.There is a great deal that we should be grateful to Bryan Singer for. Back at a time when comic-book superhero movies were somewhat out of favour – Batman Forever and Batman & Robin had derailed that franchise; and Marvel’s counterparts weren’t even a blip on the radar – it was almost single-handedly thanks to Raimi’s Spiderman and Singer’s X-Men (with an honourable mention going to the Blade franchise) that things turned around.
Before long Nolan’s Batman set a new benchmark, and Spider-Man got more definitively rebooted – and the unstoppable Avengers juggernaut trampled over everything else – whilst the X-Men franchise never quite topped the opening one-two punch of Singer’s first two movies. Indeed it was a great mistake for Singer to abandon the series in favour of helming the false start that was Superman Returns. Perhaps he was content that Matthew Vaughn would do it justice (he certainly proved himself when he did, eventually, make his mark on the franchise) but unfortunately on this first attempt Vaughn dropped out.He was replaced by arguably the worst possible choice of director – well, besides Paul W. S. Anderson – Brett Ratner; who slaughtered half of the cast, botched the entire story, and left the series with absolutely nowhere to go. The film suffered from not only a complete lack of style, but an overwhelming lack of dramatic impact, despite the numbers of familiar faces that get vaporised along the way.
Vaughn’s attempted reboot/prequel, X-Men: First Class was, in part, a superb, dark and gripping tale of friendship, betrayal, obsession and revenge – the part which was, once, purely an origin story for Magneto, looking at his early years working alongside Professor X – but also featured an utterly extraneous and somewhat jarring montage-based side-story of new, throwaway recruits being trained to be the first X-Men. Despite its flaws, it was an unmistakable return to form – and a huge success – and Vaughn was set to make a sequel before dropping out to work on the upcoming adaptation of Mark Millar’s The Secret Service. And so Singer returned to the franchise that will probably always best define him.
Based on one of the greatest original X-Men comic book stories, Days of Future Past takes us to an almost post-apocalyptic future where mutants and their human sympathisers are being hunted, imprisoned in detention camps, or just outright slaughtered. With the mutant resistance dwindling to just a handful of fighters, the leaders determine that the only way to change things is to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to a past version of himself, so that he may stop the events that would, ultimately, lead to their future annihilation.
Singer uses Terminator-esque time-travel to rewrite history and undo mistakes made, both in the context of the narrative and the franchise.
Following suit from the stunning Marvel Avengers Phase 2 entry, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 20th Century Fox’s latest entry in the X-Men universe is yet another Pre-Summer Blockbuster which is likely to find itself towards the top of the list of the best films of 2014 come year-end.
Taking back the reins with both hands, Bryan Singer has forged a superior ensemble epic which brings together the old and new timelines seamlessly and does a pretty conclusive job at erasing the mess that was Ratner’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand, continuing the great strides made by Vaughn’s First Class whilst imagining a very different future for his X-Men – one which fans are almost certainly going to universally applaud.
The crux to what makes Days of Future Past work so well is that Singer does not go for the standard ‘big bad’ alien invasion or grand-setpiece-conclusion that even Whedon’s unprecedented Avengers ensemble eventually devolved into, and instead remains set upon a strong and clearly defined dramatic story arc in which the characters stay true to themselves. He builds to a past/future climax which still boasts fantastic effects and jaw-dropping action, but is not defined by them; he still threatens – and even outright kills – big characters along the way, but he sees them go out with a bang, fighting to the end, and given the significant, dramatic conclusion that they deserve. He knows how to treat these characters, these classic stories, and thus this franchise’s fanbase, with respect – and it pays off in dividends.
Certainly it’s great to see many of the old, familiar faces return to the franchise that they originally – and perhaps forevermore – defined, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen on fantastic form as the future Professor X and Magneto, working together now (as was promoted by the post-credits sequence in The Wolverine) to keep the last few mutants from extinction. Halle Berry’s Storm actually uses her powers in an impressive fashion, as do Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman and Daniel Cudmore’s Colossus, whilst debut characters like Blink and Bishop may a welcome entrance as now-veteran resistance fighters who have honed their skills through necessity and desperation and pull out all of the stops to face off against the deadly Sentinels.
Quicksilver's extended cameo provides one of the best sequences in the movie, certainly leaving him a character to keep an eye on in the future.
Hugh Jackman also continues to make Wolverine look ageless, although I’ve no idea how long he’ll be able to keep that up for. It’s also nice to see his Wolverine almost take a back-seat to the action, and instead become more of a vessel through which the narrative can unravel. Despite being great to have all these – and plenty more – old faces brought back into the fold, it’s actually First Class’s lead stars that stand out in this piece, with James McAvoy’s frustrated Charles, Michael Fassbender’s expectedly imposing Eric, and Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly-stunning Raven given a chance to shine in equal parts, facing off against legendary Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, who makes for a brilliant nemesis.
Each has their own great character arc; each benefits from a distinct – and refreshing – lack of predictability (although, eventually, Charles’s path becomes more obvious) and all three come together to form the core of a tremendous First Class follow-up, which, once again, brings in relevant historical events from the 70s and sets the stage for the already-scheduled 2016’s release of the 80s-set sequel, Apocalypse.
Of course, one can’t forget that Singer has had some great elements to build upon. Not only does he benefits from a Terminator-esque time-travel story arc “the future is not set...”, but he benefits from Terminator-esque unstoppable opponents, namely the T-1000-reminiscent Sentinels who deal out some serious pain. He has the unique ability to play around in two different time-lines, which allows him to offer dual-action, and dual-drama, as well as the best of the cast and characters from both the past and future to work with, many of which have had several films to become fully defined now (not wholly unlike Marvel’s Avengers build-up). All of which he handles with consummate skill. And perhaps that’s the point. Singer may have had the best ingredients to work with – a huge budget, seemingly limitless star power, and one of the best X-Men comic stories to found the story upon – but he was still in a position to do a Ratner. After all, Ratner’s Last Stand had arguably the exact same ingredients – including an even bigger budget – but still nearly killed the franchise dead.
Every event has significance - if Magneto picks up a stadium, it's not merely because the Studios thought it would look good in the trailer.
So Kudos to Singer for bringing us not just the best X-Men movie, not just one of the best superhero movies of the year, but one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best superhero flicks of all time. Action with impact, epic events with significance, stories with structure, and characters with depth. All in all, a blisteringly entertaining, breathtaking, and utterly satisfying blockbuster epic. Now, bring on Apocalypse.
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