Back to the Future (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014)

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-posterDays of Future Past is a well loved storyline where Kitty Pryde is thrust into a future where Mutants are herded in camps, marked and in some cases killed.  They are hunted by giant robots called Sentinels.  And for the most part, Days of Future Past keeps these ideas.  Except the film begins in the future and instead of Kitty Pryde going to the future, they send Wolverine back in time to stop it from ever happening.  Kitty Pryde is still a part of this, as she can use her phasing ability to phase people through time.  Only to a few days earlier, so they are playing a cat and mouse game with the Sentinels finding their hideout, Kitty sending Bishop back in time to warn them.  They decide they need to go farther back, but it is to taxing on Kitty and the brain of the person she sends back.  Wolverine volunteers to go, arguing his healing factor makes him the best choice.

Wolverine awakes in the 70’s and finds that the School Xavier opened is in shambles…there are no students.  Xavier is addicted to a drug that allows him to walk, but also prevents him from using his powers.  Beast is also there as his aide.  They do not initially buy Wolverines arguments, but he eventually persuades them to the cause.  They are trying to stop Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask.  Trask is the creator of the Sentinels and he has been using mutants as part of his R&D.  The research is fatal, and this is actually used to kill several characters from First Class off screen.

This is without a doubt one of the strongest films in the entire X-Men series.  The return of Bryan Singer as director was clearly a smart choice.  There is well timed humor and exciting action.  We see the return of the original (still living cast).  The future sequences are full of cool uses of power and we get new characters like Blink (who creates wormholes characters can escape through-the film is very inventive with these powers) and Warpath (a character from the 1970’s return of the X-Men comics).  We have Storm and Iceman back.  The films have always had a hard time placing Magneto on the side of evil and seeing real life friends Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan back together again.

And the new characters are pretty memorable.  Quicksilver appears only a short time, but he totally steals every scene.  He is funny and likeable.  Peter Dinklage makes Trask a sympathetic and misguided villain.  He is not simply evil…he is consumed by fear of what mutants mean for the human race.  It does not make his actions acceptable.  His choices are evil, but you can see what takes him there.  William Stryker returns to the series and is trying to weaponize mutants, treating them as less than human already.  The film is, of course, very Wolverine-centric.

There are two cuts of the film out on Blu-Ray.  The theatrical cut eliminated Rogue entirely with the exception of the film’s final scene, even though they filmed several scenes focused on Rogue.  The second is not a directors cut, it is the Rogue Cut and restores Rogue to the story.  Both versions are good, but it is nice seeing the inclusion of Rogue and the important part she plays.  It also brings things back to the first film and Rogue’s relationship to Wolverine.

The film has continuity issues in regards to the film series.  One being how Patrick Stewart is back…it is a bit more focused on undoing X3 and “fixing a timeline”…which results in questions.  Like First Class, Days of Future Past overcomes a lot of these questions while watching it.  This film feels like the passing of the baton to the new cast (much in the way Star Trek Generations tried to do…but this does it oh so much better). It is, like X2, a film that has a strong identity that is built on strong performances.

Gene Splicing (X3:The Last Stand, 2006)

X-Men-The-Last-Stand-PosterX-2 was how you build upon a decent movie to make a great second film creating excitement for your franchise.  Annnnnnd this one is how you screw it up.

It all starts with Warner Brothers deciding that their superhero films were missing a vital link to making their movies awesome.  Getting the guys who made those good X-Men movies.  And Bryan Singer answered their call-swayed by his love for the first two Superman movies and he took his major players with him.

Fox and Marvel started to work on a replacement.  Darren Aronofsky, Alex Proya, Joss Whedon, Rob Bowman and Zack Snyder were all considered before setting up a deal with Matthew Vaughn (Stardust).  After a brief time, Vaughn felt he could not be away from his family for the length of time making the film would require, so he dropped out.

Which leads us to Brett Ratner.  Funny enough, before Singer, Ratner was considered for the original X-Men film.  Since then he had a string of moderate successes in the Rush Hour films and Red Dragon.  I am not going to lie…I cringed at the announcement.

So, the film starts out in the past, with Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) going to meet with young Jean Grey and her parents.  Both Xavier and Lehnsherr are taken aback by the latent power house within the child Jean Grey.  I am more amazed at the some what humorous digital de-aging of Stewart and McKellen which makes them look kind like…they are made of plastic.

The scene then switches to a young boy in a bathroom.  His father is pounding on the door for him to open up… honestly, this is one of the most solid scenes in the film as the young boy is attempting to keep a secret from his father.  But his father manages to break in and we see the reveal that he was using a razor blade in an attempt to hack off  bird-like wings.  There is a real sense of heartbreak, and the actor playing young Warren Worthington is terrific.

We jump to the “near future” with what looks to be a city in ruins with young X-Men under attack.  In the end, it is revealed to be a Danger Room training exercise. This is a first, as the Danger Room has not been seen until this film.  We also see a Sentinel head in the simulation .

The film draws from Joss Whedon’s “mutant cure” storyline in Astonishing X-Men and the Phoenix Saga…minus pretty much everything from the Phoenix Saga.  Cyclops is really broken up, he has stubble, so you know it is bad. Marsten was in Superman returns, so they get rid of him quickly.  The story is an interesting idea, the cure for mutant abilities, allowing mutants to no longer be mutants.  but it is second fiddle at times to the Phoenix storyline.  In the comics, the Phoenix Saga is a large and dramatic storyline that spanned several issues.  But here it is compressed into two small hours, lacking much of the

The strongest point of the film is the cast.  Along with the cast of regulars, we get Ben Foster as Angel, Kelsey Grammer as the Beast (inspired casting if there ever was) and Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde.  While Foster is not as pretty as I pictured Angel to be, he is a solid performer.

Ian McKellan is terrific as usual.  He is able to seem dangerous and cruel, yet can seem generous and wise at the turn of a hat.  At one point, Pyro makes mention that he would have killed Xavier for him…and Magneto stops and looks sternly at Pyro and defends the greatness of Xavier.  McKellan has always done a wonderful job of selling the idea that Magneto truly loved and cared for his friend-in spite of being on opposite sides of the issue.  His delivery of the Magneto speeches are poetic.

The problem is…the film is a mish mash of ideas.  It has great moments, but it is filled with lazy writing.  The resolution of the Phoenix story is troubling.  Rather than letting her sacrifice herself what we get is depressing and problematic.   The character could not just “get better”, she had killed to many people to come back from that.  And she is so powerful, that letting her go forward would be hard to defend and there is no way to “imprison” her.  The original story was grandly cosmic, and I realize that it was unlikely that we would see that version on film.  Brett Ratner is clearly trying to go big, but it tends to fall short.  Characters get short changed and used without much thought of their potential.  It is by the books, taking interesting ideas from the comics and executing them badly.  Professor X is basically reduced to Professor Exposition, leaving Stewart to fend for himself in a massively reduced role.  I realize some of this may have been related to actors schedules and the like, but there is little effort to deal with the absences in a way other than to hope you forget they are not there.  And what is the point of de-powering Magneto if you are going to end on him getting his power back right before the credits roll?

Rogue should be the real heart of this story.  Her struggle is easy to connect to.  She wants contact, but her powers prevent that.  Yet, the character disappears for large swaths of the film.  She misses the final battle entirely.

The film has some good effects, and often the actors overcome stiff or lazy dialog…but in the end, after the powerful and exciting X2, this movie just trips over itself.

This is the Alien: Resurrection of the franchise.  And yet, it was better than Superman Returns.  Go figure.

Gene Therapy (X2:X-Men United, 2003)

X-Men_2_posterWhile it had it’s flaws, X-Men was a solid enough success to warrant a sequel.  X-Men 2 went into production under Singer’s guidance.  You do not fix what is not broke after all.  And Singer got people excited by suggesting this was going to be his Empire Strikes Back.

Picking up pretty much where we left off, mutants are still feared, Magneto is in a cell of plastic, receiving visits from Professor X, who is trying to win his friend back.

In an excellent setup, we are introduced to Nightcrawler.  He  has infiltrated the White House with a band of tourists and takes off to assassinate the President.  It is a really thrilling sequence that sets the film into motion.  Professor X and the X-men start trying to locate this mutant who tried to kill the president.

The President is holding meetings with his advisors and General Stryker (played excellently by Brian Cox) .  Stryker is the very type of person Magneto fears coming to power.  He distrusts and despises mutants, and seeks to eradicate them.  And part of that is to put an end to the threat he sees in the Xavier School for Gifted Children.  He has been collecting information using as ort of “truth serum/mind control” on mutants.

That evening, with only Wolverine to watch over the kids, Cyclops and Professor X go to see Magneto, while Storm and Jean Grey track down Nightcrawler.  Magneto has managed to set up an elaborate and exciting escape.  At the same time, Jean and Storm have located Nightcrawler hiding in a church that is under renovation.  They are surprised to find a somewhat timid and fearful mutant, not the hardened terrorist one might expect.

While this is going on, Stryker launches an assault on the school.  It is here that he is surprised to discover Wolverine, suggesting Stryker may have answers to Wolverine’s past.  Wolverine escape with Rogue, Bobby/Iceman and John/Pyro.

Ultimately, the mutants all meet up, knowing they must fight together to stop Stryker’s madness.  He plans to use tech and Xavier to destroy all mutants.  This leads Magneto and the X-Men to work together in an assault on Stryker’s underground bunker.  They save the Xavier, Cyclops and the students but Magneto has no intention of trusting Xavier’s lofty goals and takes off,  Pyro in tow.  In their attempt to get out safely, The X-Men find themselves suffering another loss.

X2 really set the bar for Super-hero films.  In describing it as his Empire, Singer really hit the nail on the head.  It is a bit darker than it’s predecessor, the stakes seem higher and the losses more painful.  Oh yeah, it ends on a cliffhanger of sorts.  All the things that the X-Men comics excel at are present in Singer’s film.

The story functions both in allegory and straightforward adventure.  There is humor, heartache, mystery and excitement.  The writing really capture the characters, giving the performer and director a solid road map.

Nightcrawler is played to perfection by Alan Cummings.  He is the sensitive and compassionate spiritual soul, but also the free-spirited swashbuckling showman.  As I mentioned, Cox really hits it out of the park as Stryker.  A menacing zealot, willing to sacrifice the dignity of his own child in his thirst for vengeance.

Not shockingly, of course, McKellen’s portrayal of Magneto is top notch.  Bringing depth and thoughtfulness to the character.  He has many great moments both exciting (his clever escape scene) and quiet (he has a nice moment where he discusses what it is to be a mutant in the world with Pyro.  It is seductive in it’s emotional appeal).

Jackman shows a real affinity for the character of Wolverine.  He’s able to bring together both the gruffness and genuine protectiveness that has long been a part of the character.  And he still managed to pull off crazy “berserker rage” with Wolverine.  This is also some terrific moments of humor for the character.

The pairing of Rogue and Iceman works real well in the film.  Their attempts to navigate a relationship without touch is nicely handled.  Both Sean Ashmore and Anna Paquin have a sweet chemistry that sells the relationship.

Some complain about the heavy handed-ness of the mutant=gay subtext.  But the thing about the X-Men is, they address the “subtext of the times”.  There was a time when mutant=race was the primary read…but the gay subtext is a pretty natural fit.

Like I said, the film raised the bar.  X2 is easily still one of the top five super-hero films.  It manages to both be enjoyable for a newer fan with plenty to reward the die-hard fan.  This is a solid film that still holds up.

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