X-Men: Days of Future Past
June 4, 2014
I liked a lot of this. But I didn’t love it, and it took me a day of mulling it over to figure out why. Most movies that are broken I can figure it out immediately. This. . .it was subtle, and it took awhile, but here it is: This movie doesn’t know who its main characters are.
So I’m going to ramble on about main characters for awhile, as if this is some kind of writing workshop and I’ve just gotten in a manuscript that is mostly very good but will probably never sell because of that subtle main character problem.
In the comics, Kitty Pryde is the one who goes back in time to warn her friends in the past. At the time the books came out, she was the most engaging character in the series, and she makes the story great and heartfelt and charming, even with all the tragedy. (It’s right there on the cover: EVERYBODY DIES!) Here’s this middle aged woman suddenly returning to her teenage self, on what’s really her first day of being an X-Man, and the contrast is intriguing, and gives the reader a concrete emotional anchor.
I understand why the movie decided to send Wolverine back instead — he’s basically the main character of the entire X-Men series of movies, right from the start. We’ve only seen glimpses of Kitty (though her battle with Juggernaut was the only good thing about the third film); audiences are already invested in Wolverine, so that’s fine. But he’s near-ageless, and except for a few gray hairs, he’s basically the same in both times — so that arc has to change. And that’s okay, because there’s another arc there: Wolverine has to learn to be a mentor to this young man, Charles, who will eventually grow up to become his own most important mentor. That’s a great story hook right there.
But Wolverine isn’t the main character of this story. Charles, Eric, and to some extent Mystique, are. (Mystique is clearly the villain, but a sympathetic one, given what we know about her. But she really only gets enough time to be the one-note crazy bad guy here. Unsatisfying.) I rewatched First Class the night before going to see this, and it’s a great, great story — because it’s so solidly about the friendship between Charles and Eric. I’m a little in awe of how awesome this is — a movie about friendship, that happens to have superpowers. That moment when Eric puts on the helmet, shuts Charles out, and Charles is screaming because he knows something important has just broken, shattered — the movie nails all the beats. It’s powerful.
I kept looking for something like that in Days of Future Past, and the movie kept slipping past it. Part of why it did: it crammed in a bunch of things that had nothing to do with that arc, and Wolverine’s role in it. It kept throwing in references to Stryker, flashbacks about Jean — all important to Wolverine’s story as depicted in the other movies. In fact, this depended a whole lot on the audience having seen those other movies, to its detriment, I’m afraid.
For a story whose plot was essentially a big standoff — Mystique wants to kill Trask, Trask wants to kill all mutants, the Sentinels want to kill everyone, Eric wants to kill Mystique, Charles wants to stand in between them all shouting “No!” — this was a really complicated movie. What it really needed to do was cut out everything that wasn’t about Charles and Eric trying to work together to stop Mystique. Wolverine doesn’t have an arc in this story. He should be something of a Greek Chorus, foretelling doom — and that’s totally okay. He can have his realization about settling down and learning to be a mentor — and then get to the work of mentoring and observing. Everything else muddies the story.
Three more general observations:
All the superhero action stuff was pretty much great. The Quicksilver sequence in the kitchen was amazing. I loved the future bits, and the way the movie cut back and forth during the climax. The familiar characters, the fighting, the struggle against impossible odds. Totally engaging. My friends and I decided we really want to see a movie starring the second stringers — Kitty, Colossus, Iceman, etc. That would be awesome. One of the tricks of writing about superheroes, especially in something like the Wild Cards world, or X-Men, is finding creative ways to use your characters’ powers. Unexpected ways. Put your water-bender in a desert and let her figure out how she can still use her powers. Let your metal-bender find ways of working around his limitations. Rebar is Magneto’s favorite thing in the world, and I love that.
The Easter Egg: was a failure, I think, because even my comics geek friend was like, “Wut?” Clearly, it’s a teaser for whatever movie is coming next. But I’ve got nothing linking it to what came before, and no idea what’s coming next. I kept thinking of the Guardians Easter Egg in Thor: Dark World, which was also completely out of left field — but we had the Asgardians there to tell us this is the same universe, and I knew Guardians was coming. It’s a stepping stone. This egg had me flailing in the deep end with nothing to hold on to.
Women characters: Yes, I’m going to talk about this, because it bothered me. I’m wondering why the scarcity of meaningful women characters bothered me more in this than it did in Godzilla, and I think it’s expectation. Previously, this series has done a great job: Jean, Rogue, Storm, Mystique, Emma Frost, Moira — I really missed Moira in this one. This time we have. . .Mystique, the Macguffin. Jennifer Lawrence did what she could with what she had, but it was really unsatisfying having a plot that was basically a bunch of guys trying to stop this one powerful crazy woman. I walked out of the theater feeling this desperate, aching, heartbreaking desire for a Kitty Pryde movie with Emma Page. Please, Marvel. Please give me a movie focused on one of your amazing women characters. Do it soon. I’m dying here.