Monday, 9 June 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The X-Men series has stuck around so long it's become part of the blockbuster landscape, an old-hand with an established audience that studios are willing to bet tentpole money on. Like the Fast & Furious franchise, X-Men has shouldered genuine upsets, surviving, and eventually thriving. So while X-Men: Days of Future Past may be the series' equivalent of The Avengers, the path these films have taken hasn't been quite so homogeneous.

The Marvel branded superhero films are obsessed with continuity. Everything feeds into the next instalment. It's a model inherited from on-going comics and it's proving to be equally unsatisfying. Not that anyone seems to care. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a respectable action film with a few good car crashes, was recently held up as some sort of cinematic high-water mark. Most bizarrely of all the film was discussed in terms of damage, as if Cobie Smulders working as a spy for Tony Stark was any different from her working as a spy for SHIELD. Who gives a shit?

Permanent harm would have been Nick Fury staying dead, or having Washington DC atomised. That's universe altering. Regardless of plaudits, all the Marvel films are doing is efficiently churning out product. The directors are becoming increasingly bland and interchangeable, the writers working from corporate bullet points. Enthusiasm for this endless stream of phases seems to have more to do with brand recognition than anything else. You know what you're getting. Hero overcomes. A couple of good pops. Stinger for the next one in the credits. Three stars.

Compared to this, Future Past seems deeply personal - Bryan Singer's $200 million atonement for X-Men: The Last Stand. Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (working from a story attributed to Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman) get to work, using a time travel caper to thoroughly unravel the lasting effects of Brett Ratner's film. It isn't just resurrecting lost friends for potential sequels, it's about using Last Stand's false notes to power character arcs, pulling them apart along the way. Singer and Kinberg are attempting to heal their franchise.

After a dignified showing in the first couple of films, X3 recontextualised Professor X as a patriarchal control freak that used his abilities to psychically suppress a woman under his charge. Future Past addresses this failing in how Xavier relates to his adopted sister Mystique. With Magneto locked up deep underground, Mystique has taken over his mutant Mossad role, travelling the globe to liberate her brothers and sisters from vivisection. Mystique and Xavier's paths hinge on him accepting her as an equal capable of making her own decisions. Xavier also has to stop blaming Magneto for corrupting his little sister, she has specifically chosen this path in life. It's Xavier who must change - Mystique only has to modify her methods.

What's interesting is that our view of Mystique hardly ever aligns with Xavier's. Broadly, Mystique is the hero of the film. She's self-reliant, ruthlessly driven, and incredibly capable. She's James Bond investigating the latest plutocrat with a hard-on for carnage. Like OO7, Mystique comes to a reasonable conclusion - this fucker's got to go. In the unmolested timeline Mystique's wetwork and subsequent capture allows a terrible future to come to pass, complete with neon concentration camps and invincible, sadistic androids. Future Mutants don't disappear in a hail of anonymous plasma fire, they're cornered and brutally torn apart. In that sense, Future Past does a better job of handling a remorseless future full of unfeeling things than the last two Terminator films.

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