Blockbuster Talk: Two X-Superfans on the Sorta-Loyal, Sorta-Great ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’
This summer, two Grantlanders will gather to discuss the weekend’s mega-franchise, counterprogramming comedy, or teen weepie to discuss truth, spoilers (!), and the Hollywood way. This week: Bryan Singer’s latest multigenerational mutant ensemble, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Sean Fennessey: Molly, before we unpack the mythology, the performances, the Fassbender, the Jim Croce tunage, the horrible Richard Nixon simulacra, the flying baseball stadium, the robots, the never-ending 360-degree pans of Blue Paint Jennifer Lawrence spin-kicking dudes, I’m going to start at the end. This movie essentially closes with the eradication of all the history that came before it. Time-traveling Wolverine visits 1973 with the express purpose of stopping a mutant genocide. When he succeeds, not only have the stakes of everything that’s come before it disappeared, but all of the events in the first three X-Men movies — Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2, and Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand — are suddenly nonexistent. So, if anyone has invested in these stories beyond their two-hour run times, they’ve basically wasted their time. Did you feel cheated out of anything when the movie was over?
Molly Lambert: I’m not sure you’re right about that, actually. Even if Wolverine was deposited back in the exact moment when he otherwise would have become Sentinel meat, isn’t it possible that the days of future pluperfect will take place again anyway? They might have stopped one loop of the past, but that could set off a Neena Thurman effect wherein the whole Dark Phoenix Saga might take place again anyway. I understand the choice to focus on a handful of key X-People for the purposes of narrative clarity, but yes, obviously my dream would be something like Robert Altman’s Nashville with X-Men. This is why I think the X-Men need a TV outpost, where I can spend endless hours investing in the characters’ neuroses and love triangles. I like the more mundane aspects of the world of mutants just as much as the world-ending catastrophes. What I really want is an X-Men nighttime cable soap. Or maybe a Degrassi-style teen dramedy version of Gen 13? So to answer your question, there are never enough X-Men onscreen for me, but considering the mess that was X3, I get why they pared this down to a manageable dozen. How about you — what are your feelings about the history of the X-Men as a film franchise? Anything you loved or really missed in DOFP?
Fennessey: I found it all a little confusing, and I take a sort of shameful pride in understanding the continuity of this stuff. (That’s the residue of paying actual money for a Wizard subscription for 10 years.) But near as I can tell, the Dark Phoenix saga never happened (and won’t) for the sake of the future of those characters, hence Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Rogue appearing in the final moments of the movie, after the time when they otherwise would have been dead. And so as this post points out, this is a reboot and not a retcon. So maybe I don’t even have to have any feelings about the X-Men movie franchise, because other than Matthew Vaughn’s (excellent) X-Men: First Class, they didn’t happen?
But they did, I guess, and while I’ve always found this series the least gothic and most fun of the comic-book franchises — remember this weirdly ethereal, campy, and gross scene with Jean and Toad from the nearly 15-year-old original movie? — I’ve got the same investment in the love triangles and neuroses you mentioned. I read the comics, watched the cartoon, ‘shipped before I knew what that meant. So I’m predisposed to getting giddy at the sight of young Havoc lighting up anonymous soldiers. But Bryan Singer’s X-movies are always awfully pleased with their own allegorical implications — I haven’t seen many NSA-Snowden theories about the Bolivar Trask story line here, but that winking moment when Nixon’s Haldeman-ish crony presses stop on the Oval Office recording device sealed it: Someone is watching you, Singer practically whispers in our ear. I like the X-Men as emotional vessels, not political ones. You’re right, there should be a baggy Nashville-style X-Men, or a prestige series (Magneto is your Tony Soprano–ish antihero), or maybe they should make one of these movies every seven years, like Michael Apted’s Up series. (“Colossus got so big!”) I liked this movie well enough — that Quicksilver kitchen sequence with the Croce song is a real showstopper — but what bothered me about DOFP is what bothers me about all of these movies, which is the churn. Of course there’s a bumper teasing the next big bad, Apocalypse, at the end of this movie. Because this would be pointless without an entry into the next installment. The Last Stand is lousy, but there was a weirdly gratifying finality to it.
I seem to recall you having a sophisticated take on why these movies never totally work. Where do you stand on comic-book movies these days? Are you as dubious as Mark Harris? And how did you feel about the continued shunting-aside of the historically strong and important female X-characters?
Lambert: I am very skeptical about comic-book movies in general because I have been burned so many times by my own expectations. Hollywood does female superheroes dirty, but I always stay optimistic that it will get better because I’m hopeful (or an idiot). Maybe the success of Frozen, with its two animated, Bechdel-passing female protagonists, will help me get my idea for a Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy road trip project off the ground.
I have a theory about origin-story movies, although I can’t vouch for its sophistication, which is that I find them very boring. The first issues of a comic are rarely the best. I like the stories after things have really gotten going, when they have exhausted the obvious A plotline (Superman vs. Lex Luthor) and can play around more with ideas (the Bizarro world!). I like to watch superheroes in medias res, when they are already superheroes and no backstory or exposition about their powers has to take up valuable dialogue time. So I liked this movie, because it assumed I already knew what was going on, because I did (I read my issues of Wizard at the library). But I can see how it would be totally confusing for an outsider, who doesn’t get the in-jokes or comprehend anything about the School for Mutants to begin with.
I am not a fan of the moody, dark Christopher Nolan style of superhero movie, although this movie sometimes reminded me of a superior version of Inception, and not just because Ellen Page was there. I thought Peter Dinklage was a great Bolivar Trask. I get misty anytime Magneto and Professor X play chess. I got duped into thinking this would have more female X-Men, but it was essentially a bunch of dudes and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique. Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde was just a framing device, and I’m sorry she didn’t get to time travel. So this was your standard superhero team of four or five dudes and a girl, which is disappointing. What is so great about the X-Men comics is that they rejected that model in favor of a broader, more diverse, and half-female world. They are more interesting than any brooding hero book because they are about a hugely diverse series of viewpoints, which is why it’s hard to get them all into a movie where you only have a couple of hours. You could make a three-hour art movie consisting only of X-Men characters introducing themselves. And I would be first in line to see it.
So yes, maybe to like this movie it helps to already like the X-Men, but I still thought it was very enjoyable as a stand-alone movie. It also helps a lot that I love ’70s political thrillers, so all the mustaches and brown leather jackets worked incredibly well on me. X-Men as Watergate thriller is a thing that I didn’t know how much I wanted until I was watching it unfold. Likewise Nicholas Hoult, Michael Fassbender, and James McAvoy. And Jennifer Lawrence! I do wish Lawrence had been assigned a more interesting mutant than Mystique, because there are so many and because acting in blue body paint with her feet seems like a misuse of Jen’s talents. But if she has to make a Mystique stand-alone, I’ll obviously see it. That lamb collar Penny Lane coat she wore in her human form was fierce. Also, I loved the Quicksilver scenes, and the soundtrack. It was the best superhero movie I have seen in years (?!). The X-Men is by far the best superhero movie franchise to me. But maybe that does have something to do with the as-yet-uncapitalized-on possibility of stand-alone features and spinoff movies for underserved characters like Rogue and Storm. The cameos by Anna Paquin and Famke Janssen were so brief that you would never guess they are two of the team’s core members. But considering this movie set the series up for another reboot and Hugh Jackman has said he’s retiring, I’m not ruling out that the next X-Men ensemble flick will recast. Maybe we can get Christina Hendricks as Rogue and Lupita Nyong’o as Storm or something. This movie made me excited about the X-Men franchise and summer movies in general, and I can’t remember the last time I was excited about a tentpole like this.
Fennessey: Your enthusiasm is remarkable if not completely infectious! Mostly I agree with you that these movies are competent and fun, if a little lacking in, for lack of a better word, soul. You may have heard how I feel about Jennifer Lawrence, that she is a pox on all our houses, the demon of approachability writ large across all of the franchises. Get her and her jerry-rigged Mystique story lines out of here. May she shape-shift into a black hole. Christina Hendricks as Rogue, on the other hand …
You’re so right about X-Men’s ability to funnel story through lots of sets of eyes — only these movies never do that because Jackman and Stewart/McAvoy dominate with all their gravitas. (No one makes me feel better about my own ability to grow facial hair than McAvoy’s haggard, drunk Professor X.) Has Storm ever had a meaningful movie moment? Even if they enlisted Lupita, I’m not so sure the constituency much cares what she sees in her clouds. Likewise Kitty Pryde, who as you point out is the PROTAGONIST of the Days of Future Past story line in the comics, while Oscar-nominated Ellen Page is reduced to holding her hands at Jackman’s temples for two hours in this movie. She deserves better. Don’t even get me started on what they’ve done to Jubilee in these movies. This is not gender-specific, either — they also screwed up Angel (power-mad billionaire playboy … with wings!), Nightcrawler (teleporting devil-tailed circus-priest!), and Colossus (metallic Soviet political lightning rod with the strength of a Stegosaurus!).
There are more men coming, too. The Age of Apocalypse — which will feature Channing Tatum’s Gambit, mon cher — will reportedly be another period piece, set in the ’80s. I look forward to Scott Summers’s Cross Colours period. I liked a few of the ’70s touches in DOFP — Logan waking up in some moll’s bed to the strains of Roberta Flack; Hoult’s normcore Beast; Dinklage’s boat-sail neckwear. But between this and the bunk Parallax vibes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I feel confident saying that comic-book movies should never again try to evoke the ’70s. These movies, even the Nolanized Morrissey superhero ones, are about brightness and action and costumes. The late god Gordon Willis wouldn’t know how to shoot Mystique because there isn’t supposed to be any shading, moral or otherwise. She’s flesh for the ogling boys. Bryan Singer is no Coppola and he’s no Lumet. But we know he worships at the altar of Richard Donner. He already blew one chance at iconic ’80s superheroism. Maybe Apocalypse is about redemption.
Before we go, if there were another subgenre you could squeeze the X-Men into, what would you choose? Busby Berkley musical? Thin Man–esque detective comedy? Apatovian bro comedy? (Kidding.)
Lambert: You are so wrong about Jennifer Lawrence that I even suspect on some level that you know how wrong you are and just enjoy provoking reaction. Did you see Winter’s Bone? Come on, Sean! I even think you’re wrong about Mystique. She was way more developed, so to speak, than she was when Rebecca Romijn played her in the first couple of movies. Romijn’s Mystique was really just a blue demon, but Lawrence’s gets a backstory (Raven Darkhölme) and a Bianca Jagger wardrobe. And I liked that she was a female villain with complicated motivations. But yes, I missed Rogue and Jean Grey and the other core X-females, and I was not happy that Kitty Pryde was moved out of the plot’s spotlight. The movies are all mixed up in terms of the comics’ characterizations. They basically made Anna Paquin’s Rogue into Kitty Pryde in the first two movies, giving her Kitty’s “little-sister figure to Wolverine” plotline and completely changing the character’s personality from outgoing to emo. I want to imagine they’ll bring Rogue back in for the next movie in order to set up her courtship with Gambit, but they might just abandon her totally again in favor of more Professor X. Sigh.
There are lots of genres I would like to fuse X-Men with, but I’m most hell-bent on the idea of a nighttime TV soap. Imagine the possibilities of Mad X-Men. I wouldn’t mind an X-Men bro comedy at all! Are there mutant frats? What sorority house would Psylocke belong to? I seriously wish they would license out individual characters for indie-movie stand-alones. Imagine a Jubilee movie directed by Harmony Korine. But with the way things just went down with Marvel and Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man, it seems like they’re not as auteur-focused as worried about making sure all of the crossover contracts stay correctly locked up. Which is too bad, because different directors should be able to bring their own spin to the Marvel universe, instead of being forced to maintain the house style. I guess in my dream world they’d hire Lupita to play Storm and give her a whole movie of her own. A Storm origin-story movie would be an origin-story movie I could actually get behind. Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto do kind of hog all the screen space, but I like the actors who played them, all five of them. That’s why my wish is that they’d split up the universe into smaller movies and offshoots, instead of trying to shoehorn every X-Men character into a three-second cameo in these larger ensemble movies. Not that I won’t still show up for Apocalypse. It’s set in the ’80s? I’m there with Cyclops sunglasses on.