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THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW - YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. PROCEED AT YOUR PERIL. I SPOIL THE ENDING, DRAT IT. SO DON'T COME COMPLAINING TO ME IF YOU READ THIS BEFORE SEEING THE FILM.

 

Well, I might as well come straight out and say it: I am an X-Men fan. I have been since I first watched the 90s cartoon series and this has nothing to do with issues of prejudice and tolerence and everything to do with how cool it would be to be able to summon down lightning to fry evil giant robots. As I got older and started reading the comics (gods bless the Essential X-Men omnibus editions), I did come to appreciate all those issues and how good a metaphor the mutants could be for pretty much every oppressed minority ever, but still thought it would be damn cool to be able to throw lightning about. While my interest in reading the modern comics nose-dived around the time they reverted Magneto to a genocidal lunatic and has only dropped further with every recent overarching plot, I remain a fan of the team in general and am always up for a good adaptation.

 

I've always been mildly disappointed with the first X-Men film, mostly due to how daft and super-villainish Magneto's plan was, but X2 remains an absolute triumph of a super-hero film, deftly handling both X-Men mythology and the underlying themes that have made that mythology last.

 

Then X3: The Last Stand happened.

 

I don't think I can stress how disappointing that film was. It took everything that had been built up by X2 and smashed it into a bloated trifle of miscasting, ill-conceived epic action and flat-out wrong characterisation. Rather than being about Jean struggling with the godlike aspects of her powers or the fighting against the idea that differences are a disease to be cured, it ignored both in favour of Wolverine fanboying and cynically murdering half the cast for no good reason. Oh, and they had Vinnie Jones as the Juggernaut. Some sins cannot be forgiven.

 

There followed two more films of ISN'TWOLVERINEAWESOME!!!!!?!?!?, which I shall gloss over because I've never thought he was and because I fortunately avoided ever seeing Origins and The Wolverine is one of the most uncomfortably racist films I've watched in recent memory. More importantly, between these two stinkers was X-Men: First Class which gleefully tore up the movie continuity so it could tell a genuinely interesting story about how Professor X and Magneto first met.

 

First Class revelled in its Sixties setting and cast Eric as a globe-trotting Nazi hunter and Charles as a cocky young academic, with Mystique as the young mutant caught between their two different world-views, in the end siding with Magneto's cynicism about human acceptance of mutants. The film had its flaws, no doubt: several characters feel wasted, Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club bear distractingly little resemblance to their namesakes and the female characters feel especially short-changed with actual plot and characterisation, but it was light-years ahead of X3.

 

When I heard that Days of Future Past, the sequel to both First Class and X3 would have Wolverine as a central character, I was worried. The fetishistic aggrandisement of that particular Canadian mutant ruined the conclusion of the original X-Men trilogy (not to mention one hell of a lot of X-Men comics that could have been improved simply by letting Cyclops have his personality back). Would he – and the increasingly large roster of original trilogy characters – overshadow the First Class cast? Would this be another 'Wolverine is the only X-Man worth anything' story? Would the Sentinels be the right shade of purple?

 

As it turned out, I needn't have worried.

 

Days of Future Past is a blast from beginning to end. Not as punchy as The Avengers or as daring as The Winter Soldier, it nevertheless does the source material proud in a way that Sony has had real problems doing in the past. Now let's be clear, it is not an adaptation of the classic story (classic in the sense of actually being a good story, not just in the sense of being old). It does however manage to capture something of the hallowed Claremont run, with big bold action underpinned with genuinely grown-up character arcs.

 

To my mind, the merry mutants have never looked better. In the desperate, doomed fights in the future, the powers have room to breathe that they never did before. Iceman and Storm are particular stand-outs for scale but it's teleporter Blink who steals the show: her portals are a gift for clever effects and cinematography. In the past (the Seventies this time round), Magneto using the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium to wall off the White House is stunning but to my mind it's the way he seizes control of the first generation Sentinels by filling them with iron from railway tracks that really shows the scope of his powers.

 

Speaking of the Sentinels, every fear I might have had about rendering giant purple and pink robots on the big screen was unfounded. The first generation have a real solid feel to them, from their Gatling guns to the clever chest-jets that make them move like the Harriers their creator compares them to. The future Sentinels, meanwhile, are absolutely terrifying. Smooth, predatory masses of scales, they dominate the fight scenes and leave no doubt that the X-Men are facing extinction. That they can mimic mutant powers only adds to their threat, coming across as an organic part of their design rather than a gimmick. The twist of having this ability be based on Mystique's powers makes total sense and the designers have really done a great job of creating mechanical shape-shifters.

 

There's also a rather nice fusion-reactor powered incarnation of the Blackbird which, as is traditional in all X-Men stories ever, gets blown to bits in the final act.

 

Effects can only get you so far, of course. It could have been beautiful and still have stunk because of Wolverinecentricism. Rather brilliantly though, Wolverine here is shifted out of the limelight. Oh, he's still key to the story and a central character but his role is one of messenger rather than hero. As the only one hardy enough to survive the time-travel trip, he is sent back to help Charles and Eric put aside their differences to stop Mystique killing Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinels, and thereby unwittingly instigating their rise to world domination. Crucially, this assassination is also the first time Mystique kills someone – the point at which she turns from Raven, the girl who grew up with Xavier, to the remorseless killer of X-Men 1 and 2.

 

This could very easily have been a trite 'battle for the soul' of a woman caught between two men. It's not because throughout, Mystique retains full agency and control of her actions. A tough decade losing the rest of the Brotherhood has made her harsh and angry however it is her love for those lost friends that drives her on, not blind faith in one or the other causes. She listens to both sides of the fight/integrate argument and ends up, if not taking a third path, at least choosing not to be dictated to by either Charles or Eric. She saves herself by not pulling the trigger on Trask because she sees the devastation Magneto's rash actions could cause, not because she accepts that Charles was right all along. Ultimately, her fate is opened up again and placed firmly back in her own hands. Sparing a life sets her free.

 

Charles meanwhile gets pulled out of the funk that the Vietnam War and the drafting of his students has left him in. I very much appreciated that it was not just Eric leaving in First Class that left him a wreck but rather seeing his colleagues and pupils being dragged off to die that really broke him. Robbed of optimism for the future, addicted to a drug that suppresses his ability to hear others' pain, he wanders around the mansion with the air of a lost poet. Clearly it's only due to Beast's constant care that he's still in some semblance of health. And ultimately, it's not the tidings of doom that Wolverine brings back that snaps him out of it but the hope offered by Logan and future!Charles' memories of the good times. He chooses to try and save Raven from becoming a murderer out of hope: hope that she is still a good person and hope that peaceful coexistence is a dream that can come true. It is that hope that allows him to step aside and do what any good teacher needs to do: accept he cannot control everything and let Mystique make her own choice.

 

Magneto on the other hand ends the film as firmly in opposition to Charles as he is at the start of X-Men 1. This is perhaps the most surprising twist in a film that, with all its talk of uniting against a common foe and drawing the two ex-friends back together when they could not be further apart, seemed to be aiming for a reconciliation. But the moment Eric chooses to try and solve the problem by killing Raven, it becomes very clear that he is still the angry young man who killed Shaw and declared mutants to be 'the better men'. Far from reconciling with Charles, Magneto goes for the quick, clinical option: as events spiral out of control, he puts on a show of power in an attempt to intimidate the world into staying the hell out of Homo Superior's way, planning to execute as much of the US Government as he can when they build instruments of genocide. This isn't a depiction of a mad super-villain though: the single-mindedness that has him put a bullet in a woman he loves also means that he clears the civilian crowds around the White House without killing a soul. Driven and angry as he is, he is not so far gone as to be condoning collateral damage just yet. It's a refreshing change of pace from villains who indiscriminately slaughter those around them.

 

Also refreshing is Bolivar Trask, who is portrayed not as an obsessive genocidal loon but as a scientist who has taken a long hard look at the rise of the mutant subspecies and has concluded, quite rationally, that it's a case of fight or die. Peter Dinkladge underplays the part beautifully, allowing Josh Helman's William Stryker to do the bulk of the moustache twirling. I do appreciate a story where the evil scientist is actually acting on logic and a genuine respect for what the superbeings can do.

 

For a film with such a big cast, it is astonishingly focused. Outside of the future scenes, the narrative mostly follows the interplay between Magneto, Xavier and Mystique, with Wolverine and Beast in supporting roles, a decision that does wonders for telling a coherent story. The masses and masses of X-characters are allowed their moments of glory, be it Toad and Havok helping Mystique deal with a bunch of Trask's goons in Vietnam or the aforementioned battles against the future Sentinels. But it never feels forced or distracting. The action is the background on which the three leads are shaped rather than an end in itself. Evan Peters' cocky Quicksilver is a case in point: he is an absolute blast to watch and his powers are rendered superbly, yet he doesn't outstay his welcome or become a distraction from the main plot.

 

The acting is top notch throughout, be it James McAvoy cutting loose in anger, Hugh Jackman portraying an older, wiser Wolverine's discomfort with a younger, adamantium-less body or Jennifer Lawrence conveying how it would feel to find pictures of your friends dissected on laboratory tables. Special mention must go to Ian McKellen who gets very few lines but shows off exactly why he was the best choice for the older Magneto – his final reconciliation with Charles and the moment before where he walks silently out to face down an army of Sentinels, clearly knowing he's going to his death, are heartbreaking bits of acting.

 

What Days of Future Past does, more than anything else though, is open up new possibilities. The ending sees the future fixed, X-Men 3 and the Wolverine movies retconed out of existence and Scott, Jean, Ororo, Rouge, Bobby, Kitty and the rest restored to life in a bustling School for the Gifted. But more importantly, it sees Eric, Charles and Raven free to go their separate ways and follow paths of their own choosing. Magneto of course is deflected least from the previous course: in his attack on Washington, he gets his Cape Citadel moment, declaring himself the champion of mutant kind and the bane of a humanity what would oppress his brothers and sisters. He also ends up alone and without the support of the one woman who would otherwise have been loyal to him unto death. Charles has renewed hope, the chance to start anew and rebuild what once he let go to ruin. It definitely seems that gathering new X-Men is on the cards and opens the door for many familiar faces to make an appearance. Mystique, of course, is the most changed – perhaps no longer to be Mystique at all, her future is an unwritten book. Perhaps it will involve a new Brotherhood, or a Freedom Force, or something else entirely. Whatever the case, she ends the film free of ties to either side of the great ideological divide – and intriguingly, in possession of the younger Wolverine.

 

There are flaws. The extended cast of First Class is largely killed off, with only Havok surviving of the recruits. I would have liked to see at least Banshee or Angel to survive. As fun as he is to watch, Beast does not really get many stand-out moments. And I remain to be convinced that the half-long, half-short cut of Magneto's cape looks right. However this is small potatoes to reinvigorating the series and opening the door for anything at all to happen next.

 

The dream is alive once again.

 

(And post-credits? Well . . . all I can say is that they look to be going the Evolution route with Apocalypse and I couldn't be happier.)

  • Mood: Thrilled
  • Listening to: S J Tucker
  • Playing: Arkham City
  • Drinking: Milk

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