Thursday, May 29, 2014

Culture Shock 05.29.14: 'Days of Future Past' gives X-Men a second chance

Given the obstacles it must overcome, that "X-Men: Days of Future Past" works at all is a pleasant surprise. That it's one of the best superhero movies to date qualifies as a minor miracle.

The X-Men franchise is one of the few Marvel Comics properties still outside Marvel and Disney's carefully constructed Marvel Cinematic Universe. That has its pluses and minuses.

The X-Men work better when kept at a distance from Marvel's other superheroes, who get in the way of the mutant vs. human dynamic that's central to the premise. That said, Fox's track record with Marvel's mutants is mixed. Only "X2: X-Men United" and "X-Men: First Class" are in the same league as Marvel's in-house productions.

But with Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men outings, returning to the helm, "Days of Future Past" not only hangs with the best of them — "The Avengers," "Iron Man" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" — in many ways it raises the bar.

Singer and Fox have a message for Joss Whedon and Marvel/Disney: "Game on, bub."

Adapted from a 1981 story by Chris Claremont and John Byrne ("Uncanny X-Men" Vol. 1, Nos. 141-142), "Days of Future Past" opens in the near future, where a war between humans and mutants has laid waste to everything and left most of the mutant population dead or imprisoned in concentration camps. The only mutants still roaming free are a handful of X-Men and their former enemy Magneto (Ian McKellen). They're just steps ahead of the Sentinels, an army of robots that can adapt to combat any mutant, no matter his or her abilities.

With no other options left to them, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto hatch a plan to save the future by changing the past. That means sending someone back in time to prevent the act that ultimately leads to mutantkind's annihilation.

There's some explanatory handwaving, but eventually they send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973, where he wakes up in his younger body with a mission to find the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), whom we met in "First Class."

Only together can they stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a weapons designer who believes mutants herald humanity's extinction.

Trask's answer to the "mutant problem" is the Sentinels. But ironically, it's his assassination that leads the government to fund the Sentinel program, which it had previously passed on.

Mystique's solution is actually the problem it's meant to solve.

Wolverine's mission has just two complications. First, the young Xavier, deep in a depression following the events of "First Class," has given up on his dream of mutants and humans living together in peace. Second, Magneto is imprisoned beneath the world's most secure building. And even if Wolverine can bring them together, they hate and distrust one another.

Even with all that story to deal with, Singer delivers plenty of well-staged action.

Singer wisely dispenses with the "First Class" supporting cast, keeping only Nicholas Hoult's Beast, to focus on the main characters and what they do with their second chance. Even franchise mainstay Storm (Halle Berry) gets only a few lines, although she does finally get to show off her powers.

Storm kicking butt minus Berry's wooden line readings equals a win-win for the audience.

That leaves room for a few new additions, of whom Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is the undisputed scene stealer. No spoilers, but Quicksilver's big scene, improbably set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," will have you smiling.

As much as "Days of Future Past" is about second chances for the characters, it's a second chance for Singer, too. He walked away from the third X-Men film to direct 2006's "Superman Returns," a misguided effort that led to Warner Bros. starting over last year with "Man of Steel." In his absence, Brett Ratner directed 2006's wretched "X-Men: The Last Stand."

With "Days of Future Past," Singer sets the X-Men right in more ways than one.

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