New "X-Men" is more of the same

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X-Men: Days of Future Past is not a terrible movie. It does, however, demonstrate just what a tangled web (forgive the Spider-Man reference) that Marvel's mutant superhero franchise has become. The seventh X-Men film overall, it simultaneously serves as a quasi-sequel to three different films: the mostly-loathed X-Men: The Last Stand, the brilliant spy caper prequel X-Men: First Class, and the refreshing spinoff The Wolverine. Its visual style is fun, and it certainly has its exciting moments, but beyond that, it feels like this film's director is clutching at straws.

The sad thing is, this should have been a great entry in the series with important sociopolitical messages. It was adapted from one of the most celebrated storylines in the comic books, in which Congress passes legislation called the Mutant Registration Act, which forces all mutants to identify themselves with the government. It leads to a dystopian future in which robotic Sentinels hunt down mutants and place them in concentration camps. On the eve of possible nuclear holocaust, one of the X-Men, a young female mutant named Katherine "Kitty" Pryde, is sent back in time to change things by preventing the assassination of an extremist politician by a mutant - a pivotal moment that first triggered anti-mutant hysteria.

Days of Future Past, the movie, follows this basic outline, but strips away or sanitizes all of the parts that mattered most. Never living up to the original story arc, it suffers from a haphazard juggling of characters, an amorphous tone, and needless historical references that seem to be there solely to give the film a modicum of self-importance.

I always said that First Class, the best X-Men movie so far, was an altogether different beast than the campier films that preceded it, and I feel vindicated after watching this sequel try and blend the two - with rather disastrous results. The alt-historical oomph and emotive punch that made First Class so great is almost recreated here, but it's hampered by the need to insert several motifs and tropes from the original trilogy - up to and including professorial narration and a melodramatic intro.

"The future: a dark and desolate world," says a voiceover from Patrick Stewart as the story begins. You know. Just in case the CGI-rendered shots of crumbling buildings, bleak skies, and burning cityscapes didn't quite send the message.

A paragon for missed opportunity

The allegorical weight of the original comics, meanwhile, is here either obfuscated entirely, or made tasteless and shallow, due to a sense of rushed, obligatory inclusion in between the wham-bang action scenes. Days of Future Past is also a paragon for missed opportunity; where it could have had a strong female lead, it instead suffers from what I call "Wolverine overload." Because if you think Kitty Pryde is the star of this movie, think again. Here it's Wolverine (the ever-bankable Hugh Jackman) who goes back in time instead. Kitty, meanwhile, is played by the talented Ellen Page, so it's pretty much an insult that she gets maybe six minutes of screen time the entire film. But alas, director Singer isn't having it; better to play it safe than to take a risk. It's sadly ironic, too, because X-Men itself has always been, metaphorically, at least, about championing those who endure discrimination: women, minorities, gays and lesbians.

Speaking of minorities, the original story was also intended to work as an analogy for anti-immigrant legislation, but I'm sure that flew right over the director's head; and I'm positive that 20th Century Fox (whose chairman is capitalist Rupert Murdoch) didn't know or care. It's another reason why the rights to X-Men need to revert back to Marvel Studios (who put out Iron Man, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.), who are much more forward-thinking (they recently introduced a female Thor and a Muslim-American Miss Marvel).

Other topical aspects that would have worked in this story are completely absent. For example, the plot's focus on the expansion of security and control based on fear would have been a great opportunity for commentary on the NSA spying scandal. But the filmmakers seem unwilling to touch upon apologue outside of the time period in which the story is set.

Strong actors relegated to glorified cameos

Jackman gets most of the spotlight, but I'm thankful they let two others shine: James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, both fantastic actors, return once more to play the young versions of X-Men leader Charles Xavier and nemesis Magneto, respectively. Evan Peters (American Horror Story, Kick-Ass) gets a small but interesting part as super-fast mutant Quicksilver, during what I will admit is one of the most hilarious and fun prison break scenes I've ever seen. And I'll add that Nicholas Hoult, who is also pushed to the background, is another great actor; his performance in British drama series Skins was phenomenal.

Other strong actors like Ian McKellen and Halle Berry (who I've always felt was miscast in these movies, anyway) are here relegated to glorified cameos. And Patrick Stewart deserved much more time than he received playing the older version of Xavier, but his character has been treated with the same carelessness as others in the film series. Another character, Bishop - an important African-American mutant in the comics - gets two lines the whole film before being killed off. Another insult, another missed opportunity.

As a comic fan and an X-Men fan, I still enjoyed and absorbed other parts of this film. But it's lazy, it's sloppy, and it could have been done better in different hands. Non-comic readers or those simply seeking an escapist action flick won't appreciate this one much. This is a movie about returning to the past, and indeed, in the end, all it really does is tread the same old ground.

X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014, 131 mins., PG-13

Directed by Bryan Singer

Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters

With cameos by Kelsey Grammer, Anna Paquin, James Marsden, Famke Janssen

Photo: X-Men official Facebook page

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