Long ago, when I cared about comic books, there were few series more exciting than John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s X-Men. Their auteurist rival was Frank Miller, of Daredevil, Batman, and Wolverine fame – if Miller was Scorsese then Byrne/Claremont had to be Spielberg. I remember trips to the comic book store on the exact day new issues were put out. “X-Men: Days of Future Past (1981)” held us in a fever grip, largely because of the series’ hyperbolic covers (EVERYBODY DIES!)
Fast forward 34 years. My old beloved comic was built into a $200 million movie. I’d become a bit more cynical, although I remembered my favorites fondly enough to re-read them prior to watching the new movie. Verdict: Holy crap, were those things poorly written! Claremont never missed the chance to tell instead of show (a tendency Frank Miller doesn’t share.) If Bryan Singer doesn’t fall into the same trap, he’s still made a confusing mess of an (occasionally entertaining) movie.
Let’s start with the opening sequence – it’s too expensive, with music that won’t quit. I understand there’s a financial penalty to put all of the credits at the very end (file under: stupid union rules), but surely they had the budget in this case? While we’re talking about music, all of the original score in this film is pretty bad. Heavy-handed, loud, obvious – it’s the work of a composer (John Ottman) who didn’t want to disappoint the people writing the checks.
Let’s not forget the finances – in case we do, there’s a bit at the end of the credits that reads: “The making and authorized distribution of this film supported over 15,000 jobs and involved hundreds of thousands of work hours.” I’ll say it now – the comics were better, and the previous quote is a good reason why.
Days of Future Past has an irresistible hook: time travel. The only narrative essential with this kind of plot is that it should be internally consistent – the audience needs to buy it. The attraction is obvious: one character knows what the others don’t. The comics played with this idea more effectively than the movie does, because the authors knew how much their readers knew, and how invested we were. The movie has lines like, “We’re going to be good friends someday,” which obviously don’t stand on their own. In fact, vast stretches of this movie’s plot rely on viewers’ knowledge of previous films (as opposed to the comics – I’m not as invested in the movie series, so I don’t know exactly where they diverge).
Time travel movies like Primer are vital because they feel bound by rules, and their tragedies are correspondingly inevitable. In contrast, Days of Future Past gives its characters as much money and as many powers as they need to move the plot to whatever place required at a given moment. There is little suspense, even when EVERYBODY DIES – because they don’t, really. (It was true in the comics, too. Maybe if I was 10 I’d still eat up this shit.)
Let’s get back to the music. If the orchestral score is bloated and obligatory, the pop music choices are quiet and often very funny. Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I saw Your Face is played twice, humorous even out of context. Bonus is that it underscores not Hugh Jackman’s face, but his naked backside – a lovely shout-out to The Terminator. Better still is Jim Croce’s Time In a Bottle, theme for a very expensive F/X-laden set piece extraordinaire. The music certainly makes the scene, and it feels subversive when one considers the 15,000 jobs that went into its creation (and authorized distribution).
Even more subversive is the scene when Richard Nixon introduces the robots that will exterminate all homosexuals (oops: mutants) and several military officers stand and salute – it’s the most darkly funny moment in the film. One of my biggest gripes with superhero movies in general is their fascist underpinnings – might makes right, especially when it’s on OUR side. Pummel your enemies into submission. Although there is a lot of pummeling in Days of Future Past, Singer delivers a conclusion that makes it all beside the point. Some will argue that this is having his cake and eating it too, but I’ll take it.
Along the way, Days of Future Past drops throwaway jokes like this one, when somebody asks a Pentagon tour guide where the nearest bathroom is: “Lucky for you, you’ll have plenty to choose from. The building was constructed during segregation.” Director Singer also shows obeisance to the original Star Trek by having one of the original time travel episodes playing in the background during a scene.
The current X-Men are dependent on the character of Wolverine to an extent I don’t remember in the comics. His modern appeal depends on surrogate wish fulfillment – he is cynical and above it all, with super powers that render him practically invincible (which he’ll surely remain until ticket sales dwindle.) What’s not to love?
Days of Future Past has received many good reviews, including more than one “Best Superhero Movie Ever!” My title in that regard stays with Nolan’s Batman Begins, if only because it’s a more self-contained work. The X-Men cast is superb (and huge), but most are sleepwalking though the film (and no fault to them – this is an editor’s movie, more than anything else. Credit to Michael Louis Hill and John Ottman, for their professional work. Yes, the same John Ottman who composed the tiresome music.) Singer has worked little comedic miracles into his movie, which are enough to recommend it; also, it resolves without people punching or shooting each other. If Days of Future Past is a mess, I believe it has a good heart.