Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Stormy Present

Days Of Future Past offered Bryan Singer both a nightmare brief and the easiest task imaginable. The latter was almost absurdly simple: spend two hundred million dollars telling people X-Men: The Last Stand never happened. In this he was entirely successful, but does raise the question of whether it would have been cheaper to send a leaflet to everyone who had to sit through that film assuring them it was all a dream.

So what else do we have here? Well, that's where the nightmare brief kicks in. DoFP features at least fifteen actors who have had what could fairly be called major roles in previous X-Men films, and then adds in Bolivar Trask, Quicksilver, Blink, Bishop, Warpath and Sunspot (the last of those not even having time to be identified the film). That's a simply ungodly amount of people running around the place, and as a result almost every cast member from before First Class and many from the aforementioned are pretty badly served. I'd be amazed if Halle Berry's lines in the film hit double figures, Anna Paquin gets remarkably high billing for a silent cameo, and several characters from First Class are unceremoniously shuffled off-screen with barely a mention.

Of course, in all this ruthless streamlining the script can hardly be accused of deviating from its source material. I once read a comment on the internet - I really wish I could remember where it was and who wrote it - that essentially said the X-Men were like a company in which management never retires, leaving no room for those that follow to ever advance. One might argue that's an overstatement, but if so, it's not much of one. Ever since the X-plosion in the late '80s, it's become steadily more and more self-evidently impossible to juggle every character fans have become attached to in a way that can satisfy them all. Even the movie's cheapest stunt, declaring Angel, Emma Frost and - *choke* - Banshee died off-screen in what sound like horrific circumstances, is simply part and parcel of standard X-Men policy.  Hell, I've seen characters who were well-loved major players in comics that ran for years brutally murdered off-panel a decade later by writers who didn't even get all the victims' names right. And whilst I'm entirely aware that "Chuck Austen did it as well" doesn't constitute the most impressive of defences, his is just an extreme case of common comic practice.

(Poor Maggott.)

But whilst the script reflects the comics in many ways. it also outstrips it in one important regard. In the original "Days of Future Past" storyline, the nightmare future witnessed by Shadowcat (who travelled back herself in the comics, rather than sending Wolverine back by... actually I've now idea how she did that) was decades ahead of anything we'd seen in previous stories; one possible future brought about by many years of change.  Watching characters we loved getting massacred wasn't exactly fun, but there was a distance there - seeing their ends decades on from the time we knew them in meant their deaths could be processed at something of a remove. No such distance exists here. It might have been eight years earlier that we last saw our heroes (Wolverine aside) in Last Stand - though actually I've never seen it - but they are still recognisably the people we saw back then. In part this is the smaller time difference, and in part the advantage an actor has over a drawing. In "Days of Future Past" we learn one day a middle-aged man calling himself Colossus will die. In Days of Future Past we watch a woman who was a mainstay of the early series get stabbed to death. That is not a small difference.

Which brings me on to the future-variant Sentinels, which are just fucking horrifying, one part T-1000 to two parts the Fury, the superhero-killer from Alan Moore's Captain Britain run. I assume the link must be deliberate, and it's a damn smart choice. The brief scenes in which the Fury slaughters its way through the capes of the alternate universe whence it came still give me the shudders. This, if anything, by involving characters I know and actors I can watch emote, is even worse. The final scenes of the X-Men's actual last stand are almost certainly the most horrific and upsetting the Marvel cinematic universe has manage, going some way to making up for the fact that the original cast's role here is essentially to exposit, look sad, and die. It also allows for a smart use of a double finale, which is useful when you consider that the end moments of the '70s story - does Magneto use the weapons he's stolen from those who would kill mutants to kill those same people - which is rather reminiscent of the ending of First Class, albeit with some absolutely gorgeous Sentinels and Peter Dinklage, both of which are welcome additions.

Indeed, that's very much what the '70s scenes in the film end up feeling like, a fairly minor reshuffling of the previous film with some additional flourishes. Which in fairness, given the additional complexities of the time-travel hijinks and the second timeline, might have been a reasonable choice. Certainly the slightly reheated feel wasn't obvious to me whilst I was watching the movie, which is about all you can hope for from a blockbuster like this.

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