There were a lot of points both going for and against the new release, the franchise's suspect history not withstanding. Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-movies, would be returning, and (recent real-life allegations aside) his involvement begged the question: would he be the Singer of X-Men and X2, or the Singer of Superman Returns (the movie for which he abandoned the X-movies to make in the mid-2000s)? In choosing the Days of Future Past storyline - one of the most beloved by X-Men fans like me - were they making a cagey move to maneuver the franchise past all of its bumps and bruises, or were they going to butcher the storyline and completely alienate the people who cared the most about where it went? And in combining the casts from all of the X-movies, would it remain balanced, or would it be even more hard to track which mutants were which and leave them all devoid of character development? It seemed like it might go either way up until the movie was released.
With all of these questions in mind, I was both cautiously optimistic and anticipatedly pessimistic about the movie's prospects. I anticipated that I would be disappointed by how Singer mangled the storyline - one of my favourites - but I also hoped that there would be enough good points about it that would allow me to enjoy the movie in spite of its (I assumed glaringly obvious) faults. I knew that I would see it either way, and that I needed to be a part of whatever it ended up being, so we went to see it within the first few days of its release. (It helped that I still had a BOGO coupon from Cheerios that had be used, so it only cost my wife and I $11.49 in all to see it in AVX 3D - not a bad deal at all.) And I was very pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Not only was I not disappointed by the movie, I was actually enthralled and impressed by it - so much so that I would consider seeing it again in theatres before its run is complete (which is a rare occurrence for me, only preceded by the first X-Men, the first and third Lord of the Rings, Inception, and maybe one or two other movies over the past 15 years). I found that I actually have a lot to say about this movie, so I've broken it down into five things I really liked and five things I didn't like as much, which all taken together should give a clear idea of what I thought about the movie.
[Obligatory SPOILER ALERT if you have not watched the movie yet.]
What I liked about Days of Future Past
Honoring the source material - The first reaction any fan like me had was mixed: "they're doing Days of Future Past! I hope they don't mess it up." (Spoiler: they didn't.) Choosing one of the most iconic storylines not only in X-Men's five decades but in all of comic nerd-dom seemed like a brave move after the butchering of the Dark Phoenix saga and the mangling of Wolverine's origins, but it paid off. The writers were able to create a storyline that embodied much of the spirit of the original while giving it its own spin within the context of the movie franchise. It was smart like the 1990s X-Men cartoon (still one of my favourites of all time), and it did not leave any gaping plot holes. I was completely satisfied with everything they changed, and they still featured Bishop in the future storyline. I have heard that the original comic authors were happy with the movie version, and they should have been.
Progression of the cinematic storyline - One of the challenges facing this movie was that the last two main X-Men have been uneven (to say the least), and they needed to find a way to bring everyone together and to do justice to both older and younger casts and to not have it feel as hokey as Star Trek: Generations (the inevitable comparison considering Stewart's involvement in both). Using the DOFP storyline allowed Singer to do so organically and meaningfully, and it really worked well as both a send-off for the first cast, a continuation of First Class, and a reboot for the future. He managed to acknowledge The Last Stand and to move past it, and the franchise is now in prime position to move into a future unfettered by its suspect past. In a smart move, Fox has already announced that the next movie - Apocalypse - will star younger X-Men and be set in the 1980s, so the older cast will likely only appear in random cameos (much like Spock in the new Star Trek movie storyline), leaving the action to an as-of-yet undetermined younger cast to join Professor X and Beast (with Fassbender's and Lawrence's characters allowed to exist on the periphery based on their character arcs in DOFP). They took an increasingly complex universe, made it accessible for anyone, and then made it even easier to adapt in the future. Like Xavier, I now have hope for the X-Men.
The acting - Consider, for one moment, the roster of actors who appeared in roles in this movie: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence (3), Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry (more on her later), and Ellen Page, who have been nominated for 8 Oscars between them with two winners among their ranks. Then add to that list the consistently underrated James McAvoy (much like his countryman Ewan McGregor), Patrick Stewart, only one of the most respected theatrical actors of his generation, and Peter Dinklage, and you have the second-best cast assembled for a superhero movie.
[For anyone curious about this claim, here are the others in my top three: In third, The Avengers with six Oscar nominations but no wins: Downey Jr. (2); Renner (2); Jackson (1); Ruffalo (1); Johansson (an inexplicable 0, but 4 Golden Globe nominations); and Hemsworth and Evans (0). In first, The Dark Knight, with 18 nominations and 5 wins for the actors in the two movies, including: Oldman (1 nom); M. Gyllenhaal (1 nom); E. Roberts (1 nom); Bale (2 noms, 1 win); Caine (6 noms, 2 wins); Freeman (5 noms, 1 win); and Heath Ledger (2 noms, 1 win for his role in this movie as the Joker), as well as Aaron Eckhart. (It gets the edge of Batman Begins, which 18 nominations and 4 wins, including nominations for Neeson (1), Watanabe (1), and Wilkinson (2) and TDK Rises, which had 17 nominations but 6 wins, including Hathaway (2 noms, 1 win) and Cotillard (1 nom, 1 win), not to mention Hardy and Gordon-Levitt, both of whom seem like they will inevitably be nominated someday. Of course, this all assumes that Oscar nominations are the entire measure of someone's acting ability; I know they're not, but it was an easy enough way to quantify my discussion with some numbers, and it still gives a pretty clear picture of the talents of actors in each film. Anyway, back to the point.]
The point is that the caliber of acting in this movie elevated it far beyond what it could (or maybe would or should) have been, and that it continues the generally high quality of actors in major superhero movies. (Call it the Nolan effect for now, but I like this world in which blockbuster franchises feature quality actors - as long as they also get to use their off-time to make the kinds of dramas that keep them sharp. But I digress.) There were many moments in which McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence in particular elevated their material far beyond what they should have been able to, and it is those performances that helped make the movie exceed my expectations. Some superhero movies work more or less in spite of or around the performances; this one would not have been anywhere nearly as effective with lesser actors.
The visuals and action sequences - The movie had a lot of exposition to work through, but it balanced it with some highly entertaining action sequences. The battle scene that starts in medias res was captivating and stunning at points, especially with the new-to-the-movies mutants Bishop, Sunspot, and Warpath along with Colossus, Iceman, and Shadowcat against the terrifying Sentinels. The movie's climactic battle with the Sentinels was a little anti-climactic, but still visually stunning, but it was some of the action between those two that made up for it, particularly the scene with Quicksilver in the Pentagon. I'm not so sure that the movie really needed to be in 3D for what it was, but it was still a treat to watch.
The overall tone of the movie - It seems like most superhero movies miss the mark in having a balance between the need for gravity and levity. The Dark Knight seems to have convinced many filmmakers to go as dark as possible, but that's not the best decision for every franchise. DOFP managed that balance well with enough moments of levity to set against the apocalyptic framing of the entire movie. Add to that the nods to nerds and fanboys throughout, and DOFP is an entertaining movie that does not take itself quite too seriously while still taking itself seriously enough when it needed to (though I could have done without Nixon). And that end teaser tag was beyond brilliant - but that's mainly because I knew exactly what they were doing.
The things I didn't like
Despite my overall positive reaction to the movie, there were a few things that I didn't like along the way. None of them were quite enough to override my general enthusiasm about the entire package, but they are each something that I did notice as I was watching or considering the movie.
The overly aggressive and uneven marketing campaign - Okay, so the posters of Xavier and Magneto were seriously awesome, and the teaser of Magneto being involved at the grassy knoll was a great little twist on history. They were almost enough to make me overlook the rest of the uneven marketing campaign - almost. This article on Vulture explains the entire sordid ordeal from start to finish, but suffice to say that it made me uneasy about whether the movie would be any good if they felt the need to sell it so hard. It felt more like a 1990s-style movie campaign, or one that might be associated with Transformers - just a really really hard push. I know for most of the movie-going public that there is no discernible difference between a franchise like X-Men and one like Transformers, but it just really seemed like it was a little too over-the-top, and it did more to make me question the movie than to make me want to see it.
The awkward exposition - For the first section of the movie (until Logan wakes up in 1973), the movie felt a little uneven, choppy, and forced. As mentioned earlier, I appreciated the in medias res beginning, but it seemed awkward for about ten minutes or so thereafter as the characters tried to explain just what was actually going on. I know they had a lot of material to exposit, they had to make a lot of assumptions about familiarity with characters, and that there was not much time to do either, but I still think that the dialogue and the editing on the second "scene" of the movie - the future after the initial attack - could have been written and filmed much more effectively. (Perhaps that will come with the extended cut on DVD.)
The lack of strong female characters - This X-Men adventure was much more of a testosterone fest than previous editions, and I doubt it would pass the Bechdel test (a method of evaluating the meaningfulness of female presence in any movie). After all, the only meaningful female character in the movie spent most of her time naked in blue paint, seducing men, or just plain impersonating them to get anywhere. Others were reduced to very limited roles (a very under-utilized Ellen Page as Shadowcat, Storm, even Blink) or in peripheral cameos (Rogue and Jean Grey in the future denouement). The X-Men have a rich history of strong female characters - arguably one of the best in comics - as well as in diversity, but this movie mainly just featured white guys, which was a little disappointing. I really hope that Singer brings back the strong women and diverse people in the future.
Halle Berry - Let's face it: the cast of X-Men has always been a mixed bag. Some of the casting was great - even necessary - as Patrick Stewart was the one and only actor who could have played Xavier, Ian McKellen brought the necessary gravitas (see what I did there?) to Magneto, and the previously unknown Hugh Jackman did not allow us to imagine another Wolverine (which apparently would have been Dougray Scott, if not for Mission: Impossible II going overtime in its filming). Some were middling - not great, but not terrible: Anna Paquin as Rogue, James Marsden as Cyclops, and Famke Janssen as Jean Grey; the actors did well enough in their roles, but I still could easily imagine other actors doing better with each of those parts (the inevitable question of "then who?" is difficult to answer, since it was cast fifteen years ago, but I stand by my evaluations).
Then there's Halle Berry, the black hole of the franchise. Granted, she was at the top of her game when the X-movies were released - there was a span of a couple of years in which she was an action star displaying her "talents" in Swordfish, she was in the X-movies, she was a iconic Bond girl, and she won an Oscar - but she was still terribly miscast as Storm, who is meant to be mysterious, lithe, and African - in other words, not Halle Berry at all. Though her violent death did seem somewhat cathartic for people who have held this point of view for fourteen years (arguably intentionally so by Singer), her presence - muted as it was - still annoyed me.
Violence - I know the X-Men series has had a penchant for violence since Wolverine first skewered a soldier in the X-kitchen in X2, but I did feel like this edition was excessive. I was surprised that the movie received a PG-13 rating given the number of gruesome deaths experienced by the characters, but then I read that the MPAA - the organization that delivers the ratings - considers deaths of "mutants" to be like other sub-human characters (such as orcs in The Lord of the Rings), so it was deemed to be okay to melt, rend, rip, and otherwise mutilate them in visceral detail onscreen. (I suppose anti-mutant prejudice is real, after all.) I think it would have been easy to not show them as much as it was to show them, and I really didn't need to or want to see those deaths - especially in 3D. It's a minor complaint, but it's a valid one nonetheless.
In the end, my complaints were mostly related to the issues around the movie, rather than the movie itself, which I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated as a movie on its own merits and as a version of the Days of Future Past storyline. This has easily been my favourite X-Men movie, and I will definitely watch it again. I really do hope that they amend the issues of diversity and gender in the next sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse (though I'm not holding out for less violence). But for now, I'm just glad that they did justice to the characters, spirit, and depth of the source material, and even though I think they could have pushed some of the themes a little further, it wasn't heavy-handed or unbearable (as the franchise has been in the past). I definitely recommend this movie on its merits of acting and writing, as a fun summer spectacle, and as a salvaging of a wounded blockbuster franchise.
Which, while we're on the subject, seems like it will work with the future of the X-Men movies: out with Magneto, in with the most brutal mutant ever known to humanity, Apocalypse, as well as his four horsemen. It is one of my favourite episodes of the animated series, and I'm looking forward to what they do with the Angel storyline (thus redeeming it from the aforementioned bungling of The Last Stand). Channing Tatum has been announced as Gambit (ehhhh...), and there are many internet columnists already making the case that Lupita Nyong'o should play Storm, which I would echo vociferously. But with only Professor X, Beast, and Havok remaining of the younger cast, there is lots of room to add more iconic characters in new younger iterations: Colossus, Iceman, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, Psylocke, Dazzler, Jubilee...okay, well those last two are kind of same-y, but you get the point that the list could easily go on. The X-Men are back in form, better than ever, and ready for a new start, and I am now on board with their vision. I also have two years to rewatch the Animated Series in the meantime, bub.
What were your thoughts on Days of Future Past? Leave your thoughts in the comments.