I’ve spoken often of my status as a lapsed comic book geek. My adolescence was spent making the weekly pilgrimage, first to the cigar store on Pack Square (back in cool green Asheville) with my grandmother and then later to a series of independent comic book sellers (my favorite likely being one tucked away on Wall Street). By that later point, I was older and on my own, thus able to while away far more time, perusing the new releases for the choice picks. I was certainly a Marvel man – the DC titles were iconic, but from The Avengers to the Fantastic Four through all the individual solo heroes down the line, Marvel Comic had more edge (not that I could have defined what was “edgy” in comics back in the early to mid-1980s, but you know what I mean) – and I wholeheartedly pledged my allegiance to the mutant X-Men. Comics were cheaper, but money was harder to come by, which meant that I scrimped and saved my precious coins and dollars up for only the best that money could buy.
I had an enviable collection too, but not for the sake of collecting. I loved the stories. What kid wouldn’t long to have unique abilities, especially a Southern black nerd whose only special talent seemed to be a penchant for reading and enjoying all kinds of books and stories. At the time, that just didn’t seem to place me at the pinnacle of the power pyramid.
Of course, reading the X-Men hipped me to the fact that life wasn’t always so great for those endowed with the X-gene either. They still struggled in their interpersonal relationships and as part of a society that wasn’t always able or willing to understand them. Pretty simplistic stuff, when you boil it all down, but there truly was something uncanny about their ongoing escapades and the melodramatic twists and turns of their incestuous histories and interpersonal exchanges.
Back then I never would have considered making movies out of those frames. The characters and stories already had a multi-dimensional quality even, and especially, their adventures took them to the farthest reaches of space and time. Jean Grey as the Phoenix consuming a star and destroying the planets orbiting it – how could a movie do justice to that – or the battle waged on the dark side of the Moon to attempt to save Grey? Nothing could ever top those riveting comic book panels.
And yet, here we are, years (decades) later, with a seventh live-action X-Men movie descending upon the multiplexes. It should be noted that Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s X-Men: Days of Future Past is no small tale in the overall saga. For way back fans, it stands alongside the complete Dark Phoenix Saga (which would have to include the Hellfire Club lead-in) and even Xavier’s drafting of a new team of X-Men to rescue the original team as a signature event in X-History. So why do I find myself a bit muted in my excitement?
I’ve spent the last few years sneaking around on the Internet and in the public library, catching up on all things X-Men that I’ve missed in the intervening decades, my time wandering among the non-comic book readers. Change is everywhere. More titles, higher prices. Darker story lines, morally compromised heroes. It’s hard out there for a good guy/girl. Do you register your powers and make your identity public? Do you continue to dream when the world has become more nightmarish? Do you fight – of course – but if so, who do you fight – your brothers and sisters in the X-gene family, your friends in the superhero community, humans who you’ve sworn to protect, but who despise and fear you?
The geek in me has lain dormant for some time, but he is strong, and he’s rising up to challenge what should be my rather high expectations for Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Arriving as the follow-up to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class and as Singer’s atonement for walking away and leaving X-Men: The Last Stand in the hands of Brett Ratner, Days of Future Past carries an additional backbreaking burden. Singer aims to use time travel to reset Vaughn’s reboot, to “fix” any number of continuity issues embedded in the series.
That’s a herculian task; no, to tell the truth, its damned near impossible because when Singer was given the green light for that very first X-Men movie, what he should have done was map out a plan for an X-Men universe, much like Marvel has been able to do with its solo projects leading up to the Avengers. While I’m not saying that’s been executed perfectly – how many Hulks can you have banging pots around in the Iron Kitchen? – I appreciate conceptual vision. It guarantees that you’re going to get the details right.
So what’s wrong, detail-wise, with Singer’s X-Men? Well, it might be easier to talk about what they’ve gotten right.
The relationship between Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (Magneto), from a big-picture standpoint, has been powerfully intimate, as it should have been. This is so much more than a philosophical Martin Luther King v Malcolm X dynamic. King and Malcolm had no shared history together, nothing binding the two figures as men. Immediately, in the films, we get the sense that Xavier and Magneto have ties, possibly not completely severed, that bind them. And there’s Magneto’s hauntingly rendered mutant awakening at the concentration camp, which creates expectations for a similar kind of dawning for Xavier.
But as soon as we get teased with these pieces of the bigger puzzle, Singer and the writers (a story/screenwriting gallery that includes Tom DeSanto, David Hayter, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn, Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, David Benioff & Skip Woods, Mark Bomback & Scott Frank) jumble up the picture with pieces from several completely different puzzles. It plays out, oddly, like George Lucas’s prequels to Star Wars, inserting elements and events that just don’t (or can’t) mesh with what has come before. And the most unforgivable miscue is the mis-handling of Cyclops.
Cyclops was Xavier’s first student. Scott Summers was the first X-Man. He was trained to lead, trained to be Xavier’s avatar, his brain in the field. In imagining an analogue for him, look no further than Captain America with the Avengers. Captain America is the field general, the tactician. He’s dependable and true. And he’s not boring. That’s the fear though with Cyclops. We can’t see his eyes because of his mutant power. We can’t connect with him. That just means more effort should have been made to define more of his character right from the start – his fierce devotion to Jean Grey, the father-son dynamic he shares with Xavier, his interactions within the team framework.
Instead, the idea centered on the Xavier School and a chance to showcase, in small tidbits, a host of mutations onscreen. Why focus on the original (five) X-Men when you could titillate audiences with a greater sprinkling of abilities?
But you need Cyclops for another reason. Marvel, as every true reader knows, has always been about having two poles – the irresistible force and the immovable object. Xavier and Magneto offer counterbalance to one another. Wolverine has slashed his way to the center of the X-frames (seven and counting), much to the chagrin of some moviegoers, but honestly, that’s consistent with the comic books. The character is everywhere. He’s part of several X-Men titles, his own solo projects, the Avengers, and he’s shown an ability to make himself at home in any part of the Marvel universe he decides to lay his hat and head.
Yet, in the movie universe, he needs a foil, an immovable object blocking his irresistible animalistic force of nature. And that would be Cyclops. It has become clear in the fallout from the Avengers vs X-Men crossover event, which came on the heels of Schism. A fascinating development happened though, through the course of the comic book series – Cyclops and Wolverine evolved. Cyclops became more radical as the straits became more dire for the mutant community and Wolverine transitioned into a more stable voice of reason, a less obvious but more likely successor to Professor Xavier (leaving Cyclops to look like Magneto’s mutant stepson). If only the films had this character to cohesively explore that study in evolution and contrasts.
Since we don’t have that – what does that mean for X-Men: Days of Future Past?
Time travel, rather than simply time alone, apparently heals all wounds. The future is bleak. Man and mutants are being hunted by constantly evolving Sentinels. Imagine original Terminator meets the real world of The Matrix with its blackened skies (and too little low-tech grit for my taste). Split teams of X-Men battle Sentinels, using all of their combined talents to barely stay one step ahead of the machine predators. They unite in China, in an abandoned palace to hatch one desperate final initiative to end the war – sending someone back in time to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Sentinel program. The test subject would have to be able to survive a mutant-powered jump to the 1970s to rally Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), far from the bromantic duo we remember from the early stages of X-Men: First Class. Xavier has succumbed to experimental drugs to grant him the use of his legs with the downside being a complete shut-off of his massive telepathic abilities, while Magneto languishes in a metal-free prison miles beneath the Pentagon for his involvement in the Kennedy assassination.
Wolverine is the only one who could withstand the physical and mental stress of such a journey, so without further adieu, he’s back sent back to the past, where it seems the only loyal X-Man from First Class is Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) aka The Beast, who indulges in mutant-gene retarding drug to stave off full blue-furry mode. After a little hand wringing and some coaxing, the trio enlist Peter Maximoff (a deliriously scene stealing Evan Peters) to help break Magneto out of his deep hole.
Once the action starts, Singer displays a deft touch in shifting between time periods and the large scale action set pieces that come at a fast and furious pace. In addition, he never rushes past the necessary interpersonal exchanges that define and clarify the characters and their evolution. Much like Singer’s work in The Usual Suspects, Days of Future Past understands that it is an ensemble piece, albeit one spread across several decades and iterations of the same key characters. McAvoy and Stewart get the chance to speak to one another, and there is something in the moment that vaguely reminds me more of the “Corleone” dialogue between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat moreso than a rehash of dead lover communication in Ghost. I also loved the casual disclosure that Kennedy was “one of us” made by Fassbender’s Magneto to McAvoy’s Xavier by way of explaining that he was trying to save the President by redirecting the bullet. The line recalls the offhand admission in Suspects about who engineered the stealing of weapons that leads to the initial lineup. Smart and witty, indeed.
If only such attention had been applied from the start of the franchise. It is easy to second guess things now. So much inconsistency and a great example, posed by Marvel’s handling of The Avengers, of how planning can pay off. But, the truth of the matter is, the original sin here, in what the X-Men franchise has become, and possibly where it can go – as the team prepares to face Apocalypse next – stems from simple narrative flaws, fundamental attention to the power of the characters and their personalities in the source material, which is odd, because this is also a huge part of what Singer got right (and what makes these films, as flawed as I believe they are, richer than most of the whiz-bang blockbuster mentality-appealing Avengers-based movies). Real world parallels and diametrically opposed philosophies rooted in characters (and actors with the ability to invest the speeches with feeling) guarantee my loyalty, but without a Cyclops-Wolverine combination worthy of the comic books, my support will never be more than begrudging, at best. (tt stern-enzi)