Superheroes are a purely American creation—certainly they have their roots in stories going back as far as we can count, from Gilgamesh to Hercules, but the tights-clad savior of the modern metropolis has no other home. Like America’s other artistic products (jazz, film noir, musical theater), the Superhero has had a tumultuous history, bouncing in and out of style and repute and spawning several artistic resurgences. One of those resurgences was the so-called “Marvel revolution” in the late 1950s, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the majority of Marvel figures that grace the screen today. These include the X-Men, but this powerhouse duo also birthed Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-man, Iron Man, and more.
Director: Bryan Singer
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Stan Lee, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn
Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel
Music: John Ottman
Editor: John Ottman
Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence
US Theatrical Release: May 23, 2014
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Unlike the characters of the past—comics’ “Golden Age” (mid 1930’s through early 1950s) featured pure upstanding heroes, ideals personified for the morally righteous education of children—the Marvel revolution brought in characters that were flawed, complex and naturalistic. And with naturalistic characters came more “real” subjects: drugs, violence, sexuality, and other adult themes. Eventually these plotlines penetrated other comic-book stories from other publishers, and led to the gritty 1970’s and 80’s—comics like Swamp Thing, The Watchmen, and Batman: Year One.
It’s no surprise then that the films that kicked off Hollywood’s modern obsession with comic book movies came from this groundbreaking lot. These were progressive stories in the 1950s, making them interesting, but perfectly uncontroversial by the early aughts. Bryan Singer’s sleeper hit X-Men (2000) was followed closely by Sam Raimi’s massively successful Spiderman. And the rest, as they say, is history—the ripple effects of those two cash cows are felt to this day. Hollywood’s infatuation with comic book movies hasn’t waned, largely because of consistent commercial success, or at least predictability.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is no exception. Its advertising campaign, particularly the half-time tie-ins with the NBA Playoffs, smack of capital investment: the film’s producers know that they are reeling in yet another commercial winner. But as a film, Days of Future Past is remarkably well made.
The plotline is extremely indebted to comic books: in order to save the world from a supremely depressing dystopia, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) must be sent back in time, to the tumultuous 70s, to make sure this future never happens by stopping Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the nefarious Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage). We’ve seen this plotline before dozens of times (like in every Terminator movie), but this contrivance allows us to spend the whole film in a delightfully crafted period piece. The period extends beyond the plot, from costuming and set-dressing (nearly everything is made of polyester) to interesting formal choices: shots often cut between flawless futuristic digitalia, 16mm, and Super-8, adding an odd verisimilitude to the ludicrous plot. The action sequences (which thankfully don’t dominate the film) are entertaining, and at times beautiful. A scene where Quicksilver (Evan Peters)—who can run faster than the speed of sound—evades bullets, runs on walls, and delightfully plays with the laws of reality is particularly stunning.
As has been consistent within the X-Men franchise, the acting is terrific. Not only does the time-travel plotline allow for 70s nostalgia, it also allows them to bring back the acting talent of the first few films—Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, and Patrick Stewart join Michael Fassbender, Ellen Page, Jennifer Lawrence, and Peter Dinklage. And the script isn’t bad either. Its 1970s gags don’t pull punches—the film opens with Magneto (Fassbender) imprisoned for killing JFK. “How else do you explain a bullet entering and leaving his body in three places?” says the young Professor X.
This is not to say the film is perfect. Most of the scenes set in the future tow that line between excitement and action for action’s sake. While it’s fun to see the menagerie of super-powered mutants, most of those who feature in the future have little characterization beyond their superhuman abilities. The central temporal conceit is also hard to swallow, breaking its own tenuous rules nearly as soon as it sets them. Weakest of all is the film’s central moral conceit—the time travelers must convince Mystique not to kill because that murder is the impetus of a series of destructive events. Somehow, the plot translates this in its moralizing into “killing is bad,” something that rankles oddly considering how much general violence is on screen. The heavy-handed moralism, visible only from the most surface view, is annoyingly simple.
The result of all these combined characteristics is a version of American Hustle with mutants—a nostalgic 70s costume drama stuffed into a fake morality tale, decorated with all manner of CGI explosions and eviscerations. It’s an oddly satisfying slice of cake, and a good way to kick off the summer movie season (if we ignore all of the disappointments that have already come and gone).