The X-Men films occupy an intriguing place in the superhero genre. Come to think of it, the comics do too. While most stories about costumed do-gooders with abilities far beyond those of mortal men and women are power fantasies – exaggerated escapism to make audiences feel good – the X-Men stories are persecution fantasies as much or more than anything else: exaggerated escapism to make audiences feel even more oppressed than usual.
Many of us already do feel oppressed, of course (and many of us legitimately are, for one illegitimate reason or another), so the fantasy of being discriminated against for no other reason than because we are totally awesome, and lashing out against our oppressors with said coolness, is of course satisfying but cyclical. The oppression of the mutants in the X-Men stories can never end so long as anyone feels oppressed in real life. So although they score major victories these heroes are always just one plot point away from total victimization. Eternally powerful, eternally powerless. Quelle ironie.
And it is for that reason that I find these X-Men movies tend to work better in the past than they do in the present, where our differences are a little more celebrated than they were in the comparatively socially rigid mid-20th Century. And they make perfect sense in a post-apocalyptic future, when their oppression – taken to dramatic extremes – has resulted in the near-destruction of not only the mutant species, but also of the very land itself. I wonder if all the humans who supported the Sentinel program really think it was necessary to reduce the Earth to a lifeless wasteland just to get rid of all these neat people who can teleport, make their own snowflakes and walk through walls?
Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie in the director’s chair in eleven years – X-Men: Days of Future Past – works better than most of the films in the franchise because it combines these two settings. The film opens in a desolate wasteland where only a handful of mutants, some old and some new, have survived the robot holocaust. Their situation is so dire that the only way to improve it is to muck up the timestream by sending Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to the 1970s, in order to prevent the moment in history that made all this devastation possible.
The 1970s are only somewhat better than the future, of course. Mutantkind is still mostly “in the closet,” although a weapons merchant named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is hard at work on the Sentinels: giant machines of death designed to destroy our sleeping giants before they can awake and rise against what Trask naturally assumes will be their Homo Sapien prey. Unethical government testing is being performed on mutants drafted into Vietnam and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has been blamed for the John F. Kennedy Jr. assassination. The typically benevolent Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has resorted to drug use to make his days more manageable and rid himself of all the pain of being special. What a drag.
And yet against this dreary backdrop director Bryan Singer has set one of the most exciting and satisfying of comic book tales. Again, that’s the point and the appeal of these X-Men stories in the first place: to dramatize the dehumanization of these heroes and anti-heroes, and deify them at the same time. As tension mounts, and history changes dramatically and heroes rise and fall, even the tiniest of victories is made more satisfying, and even the tiniest of jokes is a welcome relief. Wolverine on a waterbed is a gag that ends up going nowhere, but fish back into water jokes about Pong and Star Trek are funnier than they probably should be. And the sudden injection of frantic energy into the cast, courtesy of a deliciously smug Evan Peters as the silver speedster Quicksilver, is a wonderful action centerpiece. Which makes it all the more disappointing when Quicksilver suddenly and unceremoniously leaves the film for no reason whatsoever.
Bryan Singer’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is arguably his ability to keep multiple plates spinning at the same time – a must in films about superhero teams – but his strength is also a weakness: it only calls more attention to the things that X-Men: Days of Future Past is lacking. The story is all exposition and yet never exposes quite enough, leaving many important and distracting questions either unanswered or answered in incredibly dumb ways. The mechanism that sends Wolverine back in time completely changes the powers of an existing character and makes no sense whatsoever. The event he goes back in time to change contradicts every single event from X-Men 1, 2 and 3. Wolverine’s claws are inexplicably adamantium in the future even though they were cut off in last summer’s The Wolverine. And the conclusion, without spoiling it, suffers from Time Travelitis: a rare but unfortunate condition that renders the head so damned itchy that it has to be immediately and forcefully scratched.
But before the scalp can be threatened with an apocalypse of its own, X-Men: Days of Future Past proves itself to be one of the best films in this admittedly slapdash series. Even the best of the X-Men movies tend to be good in spite of themselves: so many plot holes throughout the series and so many characters reintroduced in different timelines and at different ages only lends credence to the theory that nobody at the studio has been paying attention to the story of these films as a whole, and that they have been treating every single movie like a soft reboot where nothing that happened before or could possibly happen later matters. But one doesn’t get that sense from X-Men: Days of Future Past. This latest film may ignore the past (pretty ironic for a time travel movie) but it does seem to be laying groundwork for future films that may work better than ever before and finally right this ship.
The future looks bright indeed… unless you’re a mutant, of course. So here’s to 15 more years of man’s inhumanity to superman played as blockbuster matinee entertainment for children. The X-Men universe is now and probably always will be a contradiction, but when done right, it’s still a fun way to spend an afternoon.