X-Men: Days of Future Past reboots history (and the franchise) with panache

Future and past selves meet: James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Future and past selves meet: James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart in X-Men: Days of Future Past

As a committed fangirl of George R. R. Martin’s multi-volume Dark Ages fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, and only slightly less so of its HBO spinoff Game of Thrones, I quickly run out of patience with people who complain that they can’t follow the series because it has “too many characters.” What could be a more rewarding pastime, I ask, than immersing yourself in a story so complex that you pick up new details every time you reread it?

But now I know what they mean. I’ve seen bits and pieces of past X-Men and Wolverine movies while warming up on the treadmill at the gym, but I’ve never seen one from start to finish. And I never, ever read the comic books, which date back to 1963 and apparently have followed a bewildering variety of storylines ever since, many of them mutually exclusive and explained away by the authors at Marvel as evidence of “multiverses.” Even the extant movies, I gather, have been plagued by what the franchise soft-pedals as “continuity errors” – that is to say, have contradicted one another wildly.

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So for this innocent, walking into a cinema to take in the latest iteration, X-Men: Days of Future Past, was an invitation to get clobbered with reams of visual information and significance-packed fleeting references – second nature for the fanbase – that I was utterly unprepared to process. I don’t even know the names of any but a handful of the mutant titular characters (it would appear from my post-viewing research that the comic book series has featured at least 50 of them).

But I’m happy to report that my ignorance didn’t matter that much: The rip-roaring full-cast mutants-versus-Sentinels action sequences that pepper the film are as good as any that I’ve seen in this genre, even if I couldn’t positively identify That Guy Who Turns to Ice or That Other Guy Who’s on Fire or That Girl Who Opens Portals. I was often confused about all the ominous snippets from past storylines, but I still had a hell of a good time.

Partly to patch some of the plot holes left by past X-Men and Wolverine movies, Bryan Singer’s Days of Future Past reverts to that old standby of the science fiction toolbox, time travel. Only this time around – audaciously flouting hoary genre conventions – our heroes don’t have to be careful not to tamper with history, nor to run across their former selves. On the verge of extinction (along with most of the rest of humanity) by the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots, surviving X-Men, led by the usually-at-odds Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), conclude that the only way to save themselves is by rebooting history quite a bit.

It seems that the development of the prototype Sentinels into unstoppable killing machines that could absorb and replicate the powers of their adversaries was accomplished by injecting them with DNA from the endlessly morphing mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), following her capture after she assassinated the Sentinels’ inventor during the Vietnam peace talks. Somebody has to go back and stop her. Conveniently there is an X-(wo)Man, Shadowcat (Ellen Page), who can send a person’s consciousness backwards in time to reinhabit his or her former self.

But usually this only works for short backward journeys; to traverse decades, she says, would likely kill the time traveler. Luckily again, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has this nifty ability to heal his wounds instantly, so he becomes the emissary. The bigger challenge is for his roughhewn younger self to convince the squabbling younger selves of Professor X and Magneto, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), to believe his sent-from-the-future story and call a temporary truce to save the mutant tribe. Complicating matters is what appears to have been a historical romantic triangle among the two leaders and Mystique, though details are left vague. I guess that I could consult a Marvel geek if I really needed to know.

Taking the story back to the mid-’70s – after the prequel X-Men: First Class ended – not only enables some loose ends to be tied up (and even some killed-off characters to be brought back to life), but also sets us up for a lot of giggleworthy retro humor. Period pop culture references abound: Wolverine wakes up to the sight of a Lava Lamp, in a sloshy waterbed that’s not very compatible with a guy with long claws that extrude when he’s perturbed. An infiltration of the Pentagon is executed partly through the substitution of ’70s TV series images for what the security cameras are supposed to be monitoring. A rubbery-nosed Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho) figures in a key standoff scene. And then there are the hair, and the clothes, and the glasses.

Behind a particularly egregious pair of glasses (though they look more ’80s than ’70s, which I suppose makes him fashion-forward for his time) lurks the industrial mastermind whom Mystique is dead set on eliminating, Bolivar Trask. Having already confessed myself a Game of Thrones geek, it’s no great stretch to surmise that my main motivation for seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past was the fact that Trask is played by the peerless Peter Dinklage (who, if there is any justice in our world, will get an Emmy for Tyrion Lannister’s superb courtroom meltdown a couple of weeks ago).

Just like most Game of Thrones villains, the inventor is a complex character: ambitious and greedy but not totally evil, seemingly sincere in his belief that his brainchildren will protect humanity from horrors to come, like a repeat of the Vietnam War. In our first apparent encounter with Trask, his delivery seems forced; but that’s just a clue that the character onscreen is an impostor. After that, it’s standard Dinklage brilliance all the way, and his scenes are all too few.

That being said, the most affecting performance in X-Men: Days of Future Past is served up by James McAvoy as the young Xavier, who, when Wolverine finds him, has closed down his School for Gifted Youngsters in the Westchester hamlet of Salem Center (he’s also supposed to be a Bard College alumnus, incidentally). The idealistic Professor X at this point has become a bitter, betrayed, disillusioned man, addicted to a drug that suppresses his telepathic powers while it restores his ability to walk. As we get glimpses of how overwhelming a gift it is to be able to hear the thoughts of every other human being for miles around, McAvoy convincingly evokes our compassion. Wolverine certainly has his work cut out for him.

Staunch Marvel Comics fans swear by the franchise’s relatively nuanced (for comic books) characterizations; but when all is said and done, a superhero is mainly just a superhero. If you can suspend your disbelief in a world where the process of evolution routinely spouts humans with awesomely useful superpowers, you should enjoy this movie. Visually, the whole epic-scaled yarn is very handsomely executed; a set piece in the Pentagon kitchens where we experience a gun battle from the temporally slowed-down perspective of the speedy X-Man called Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is, by itself, worth the price of admission. By all means, check your skepticism at the door, don’t fret too much about the backstory that you’ve missed and have a good time!

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