(I saw this film on opening weekend, so this is very late but real life has intruded: we are in the process of trying to buy and sell a house, so at least I have a decent excuse.)
I still feel I have to pinch myself sometimes – I’ve been a comic book fan for a while now, but despite The Avengers being one of the most profitable films of recent history, I find it incredible that we’ve got really good films being made that are based on superhero comic books from my youth. Case in point: this film uses two issues of The Uncanny X-Men from 1981 (written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, it’s one of those times that ‘classic’ actually applies) as the basis for an exciting, thrilling, emotional sci-fi action film that is as satisfying as the best blockbusters out there (with three Academy Award winners and four nominees in the cast). What a world we live in …
I didn’t read the storyline back then; it took me a while to get my hands on it: I was expecting it to be reprinted in Classic X-Men (which was reproducing the stories from Giant-Size X-Men #1 onwards, in addition to new material written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Bolton), only for the series to jump issues #141 and #142 and continue as if Days Of Future Past hadn’t happened. I finally picked up a reprint that collected the two issues, and was able to read the story that has defined and influenced almost the entirety of the X-Men line of comic books ever since. I never thought it would be turned into a film. Shows you what I know …
The film uses the central idea of the books: the future is bleak for mutants, kept in concentration camps guarded by Sentinels, so the X-Men decide to go back to the past and stop the inciting incident that would lead to this ‘darkest timeline’. Instead of the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly (well, he’d already been used in The X-Men), the film comes up with the murder of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinels, by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in 1973, which led to the full-scale development of the Sentinel programme. Instead of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) swapping her psyche with her younger self, the film uses Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) – this makes sense on a star level, because Jackman is the bigger (biggest?) name and doesn’t have to be played by another actor in the different time period, but also on a story level with the explanation that Logan’s healing ability is the only way to survive the process.
The future part is set up well: the bleak concentration camps, the looming Sentinels, some future X-Men (Pryde, Iceman, Warpath, Blink, Sunspot, Colossus) being killed by Sentinels before discovering Pryde has worked out how to phase her consciousness a few days back in the past and warn her group. They meet up with Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine to explain this; this leads to the plan to send Wolverine’s consciousness to the distant past, enlist the aid of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission. (I’ve read some reviewers write that the film’s plot is too complicated – how complicated is that? If you can’t understand something as simple as that, you shouldn’t be reviewing films in the national press.)
Obviously, things aren’t straightforward: Xavier, after the events of X-Men: First Class, is drinking heavily and using a serum created by Beast (Nicholas Hoult) that allows him to walk but removes his telepathy; Magneto is in a non-metallic prison cell beneath the Pentagon for his alleged role in the assassination of President Kennedy; and Wolverine is not the best diplomat. Wolverine must convince Xavier and break Magneto out, which will require the help of Peter Maximoff, a mutant super speedster. Then, things get complicated in 1973, while the future X-Men have to hold off a Sentinel attack to give Wolverine in 1973 enough time to succeed and eradicate the dystopian future …
I really enjoyed this film – it’s a welcome return to the quality levels set by X-Men 2, after the disappointments of the third X-Men film (about which we do not speak), the two Wolverine films and X-Men: First Class. It’s also a really good adaptation of the source material, capturing the essence of the tale while standing on its own as a film. This is particularly difficult to do because it has to bring together two sets of X-Men and contend with the hideous mess that is the X-Men movie chronology. Not only does the film succeed, but it also effectively solves the Gordian knot that is the movie timeline with an Alexandrian slice so that the films you didn’t like now don’t exist. Admittedly, it has to sidestep important plot points – Why is Xavier still alive? Where did Kitty Pryde’s time travel powers come from? – in order to get the ball rolling, but it’s easy to forgive when it’s all so enjoyable.
The film achieves this with some excellent action pieces, particularly the Quicksilver set-piece during the Magneto breakout – you can ignore the fact that he’s listening to his anachronistic Walkman while running at superspeed and therefore can’t hear anything because it’s such an exhilarating display of his powers, done with wit and pizzazz and a fantastic visual flair. Of course, it means that they have to remove Quicksilver from the story immediately after or he’d be able to solve all problems in the rest of the movie, but the humour (a perfectly judged clip from the original series Star Trek about time travel) and characterisation cover this up (even if they did the same joke as in Shanghai Noon, having someone say the James Brown lyric ‘I don’t know karate. But I know crazy’).
The action is good but it’s not all action – there is a lot of talk in the middle section – but that’s because the filmmakers remember that it’s about the characters first, and that the action defines the characters when it does come. Singer has created a film that has clarity, levity, energy, and understanding of the characters and the concept – it’s not just about what’s cool (although there is lots of cool stuff in it), it’s about making things work in the dynamics of a story with people who are engaging. Some people get to engage more than others – Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page effectively have extended cameos (talking of which, a big geek smile jumped to my face when Chris Claremont and Len Wein briefly turned up as congressmen) – and the film is mainly about the young Xavier and Magneto, with some emphasis on Lawrence’s Mystique, so it’s mostly McAvoy and Fassbender who get the focus, but they’re both great actors so that’s not too much of a problem. McAvoy is good as a good man trying not to care; Fassbender excels as an imperious Magneto; Jackman is extremely comfortable as Logan, holding it all together. Dinklage isn’t given enough to do, which is a shame, but at least he got some scenes in the film.
The film works nicely as finale – there is closure and some happiness for mutants, something you don’t expect if you’ve spent a long time reading comic books, even though you know that this can never be the end for the franchise. I loved the coda, with unexpected cameos, in much the same way that I loved the ending given to the character of Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises – it indicated a genuine love for the X-Men and the characters in the team. As a long-time X-Men fan, I walked out of the cinema a very happy man.