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Movie review: 'X-Men: Days of Future Past' is a worthy franchise revision step

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

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“X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”—4 STARS

No movie franchise can last forever. Either time passes where performers age and tastes change, or the franchise itself arrives at a saturation point or moment of collapse where it just doesn’t work like it first did and can no longer continue. Stories that have an endgame like “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” and “The Hunger Games” don’t have this problem. They originated from a place that had a limit in mind and tended to end gracefully, as they were intended to do (which is why I dread the rumored “Harry Potter”-based spin-offs that are coming soon, but that’s another story for another time).

The trouble of longevity comes from franchises that exist in more open-ended worlds, whether that’s James Bond, “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Jurassic Park,” the “Fast and Furious” franchise, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” or every film iteration of a comic book series, including this summer’s return of the “X-Men.” When those franchises stumble, flame out, or fail, you are left with a combination of unfinished business, unrealized expectations, and wasted potential. In most cases, those failures came from becoming too large for their own good and straying from their modest roots. For every wonderful “Superman” from 1978 that becomes engraved in our movie-loving hearts, we’ll also have “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” from 1987 to remind us how quickly it can all be ruined.

It’s not often that high-profile movie franchises get the chance to revise and correct where they failed. Lately, franchise failure in Hollywood is fixed by complete “reboots” that start from scratch with all new talent on board, ideally enough years later to not be connected to previous failures. When generations overlap, there are occasional torch-passings, like Leonard Nimoy appearing in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise and the upcoming reunion of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher in the new “Star Wars” trilogy. Those are rare and reboots are still the most common fix. Look no further than Christopher Nolan’s recent fresh take on Batman and what’s happening now (both good and bad) with Marc Webb’s updated Spider-Man franchise. Both sought to wipe the slate clean from disastrous previous efforts. The question for each of those was if enough time passed to justify a new direction.

The new “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is unique case of franchise correction and revision. The excellent start of 2000’s solid “X-Men” and its superior 2003 sequel “X2: X-Men United” from visionary director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) and the core cast of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, and a then-unknown Hugh Jackman were sunk by Brett Ratner’s reviled “X-Men: The Last Stand” from 2006 that ruined comic canon and sunk the franchise. Studio hubris left the door open.

20th Century Fox, longing to keep its cash cow going concurrent to Marvel’s full home at Disney, sought to highlight the series’ top characters in solo spin-off films. Jackman continued the adventures of headliner hero Wolverine in two mostly underwhelming and convoluted solo films, the past-set “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” from 2009 and last summer’s more-present “The Wolverine.” The other angle was 2011’s disaster-saving partial reboot “X-Men: First Class” from director Michael Vaughn. Starring the new talents of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence, the boldly surprising film rewrote the complicated leadership beginnings of Professor X and Magneto from the 1960’s and featured younger versions of familiar characters, each with small nods to the franchise’s previous works.

The successful revitalization brought by “X-Men: First Class” and the unfaded star power of Hugh Jackman have brought us to “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Original series director Bryan Singer, fresh from “Jack the Giant Slayer,” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” screenwriter Simon Kinberg have returned to correct old mistakes, untangle the knots, and realign this previously failed franchise for a healthy new lease on cinematic life and relevance. To do so, Singer and Kinberg have ambitiously merged the McAvoy/Fassbender/Lawrence new beginnings with the now-aged future from the original cast of Stewart/McKellen/Berry with the seemingly ageless Hugh Jackman acting as the glue in between. The vehicle is the beloved titular 1981 time travel story from the comics written and drawn by “X-Men” bedrocks Chris Claremont and John Byrne.

With grand returns of beloved stars and fan-favorite characters supported by the growth and integration of new blood, the result is one of the most extraordinary and remarkable film franchise rescues ever thought possible. Plenty of convolution remains and canonical steps are skipped in the eyes of diehard comic fans, keeping it from true masterpiece territory, but “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is a very good comic book opus that brings hope and energy where tiresome movie mediocrity resided before. This is a real “X-Men” movie with a higher level of importance and scale to what was previously attempted. It’s a shame it took so long to get here. What follows here is SPOILER FREE.

For those who saw the tease at the end of “The Wolverine” last summer and know the Claremont/Byrne story, where “here” begins is in the bleak and not-too-distant future of 2023. Thanks to heightened government persecution, mutants with special abilities are hunted down and killed by battalions of adaptive robots called Sentinels. The ensuing war has decimated society for both man and mutant alike.

At the brink of defeat, Charles Xavier (Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr (McKellan) have put aside their long-held differences to work together to protect their race from extinction. With a team comprised of surviving veterans, including Storm (Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), and new recruits in the form of Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Sunspot (Adan Castro), and Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Xavier and company hunker down in a remote Chinese monastery to execute a dangerous gamble to go back in time and change this future.

This war originated fifty years ago in 1973 with the assassination of Sentinel designer Bolivar Trask (Emmy winner Peter Dinklage) carried out by the shape-shifting Mystique (Lawrence). His death at the hands of a mutant criminal made him into a public martyr and his anti-mutant cause grew into the war of the future. Making it worse, it’s her adaptive genetics that Trask uses to make the future Sentinels near invincible. Manifesting Kitty Pryde’s phasing ability as a conduit, the plan is to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to 1973 to prevent the assassination, since only he can survive the mental damages with his healing factor.

Arriving in his younger body with full memories of the future, Logan (Jackman) must reunite the younger Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender), enemies since the events of “X-Men: First Class,” to work for the greater good, as each of them have their own influence over Mystique to prevent her catalyst act of violence. In 1973, Charles is repressing his mental powers through serum injections concocted by his friend Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and is far from the leader he will become. Meanwhile, Erik is a dangerous government prisoner held in metal-free bunker underneath the Pentagon. While events are set in motion by Logan bring them together to change the past, our aging heroes in the future have to hold the line of defense to protect Kitty Pryde’s connection that is making all of this possible.

Yes, this is all comic book gobbledegook for plenty of people, and, yes, for the hardcore fans on the other side, this film diverges greatly from the original Claremont/Byrne “Days of Future Past” storyline. It will surely piss of “The Simpsons” Comic Book Salesman-types in the audience, and I get that. We could go all day, but you can thank Hugh Jackman for being a bigger star than Ellen Page and the list would just get longer from there. As always, and it has to be constantly said, the book will always be better than the movie. They should never be compared together. Those nitpickers are missing the point and the entertainment and have to remember that this “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is drawing from a different history than 1981.

I find that this adaptation of that classic story is molded very well to fit into the cinematic version of the “X-Men” universe. This movie franchise has its own threads of storytelling that have always been established since 2000. That’s what’s being combined and worked with, not canon, per se. The “X-Men” movies have always diverged from the comics and the writers (Kinberg, with an assist from the “X-Men: First Class team of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman) did a fine job bridging their many tangents with, in my opinion, a respectful and appropriate use of “Days of Future Past” to do it.

The unique tropes of time travel used here work to create a very compelling story where both timelines actually matter. Singer and Kinberg almost reach a “Watchmen” and “Inglourious Basterds” level of revising American history along the way, thanks to this world’s mutant reality being the impetus. It makes for a setting of events filled with extra gravity and impact.

Too often, comic book movies come across as episodic as a weekly TV cartoon show. They have fluffy storylines where momentary disasters happen that are gone and forgotten by the next movie in the sequel train. Imagine if the upcoming “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” doesn’t address (though it most certainly will) the cataclysmic destruction of Metropolis and likely thousands dead from the climax of “Man of Steel.” Even a bit of the “Avengers” universe of connected titles makes a few of these episodic and wrongly forgetful mistakes.

Like most of this franchise’s run, history builds on more history for “X-Men” films, even with the horrible results of “X-Men: The Last Stand.” This film carries a rare and worthy sense of importance as to how the past and the future actually matter and steer where the storytelling builds. Some of it is being used conveniently to correct past mistakes, but much of it is here to make you appreciate these characters and their connected histories. I tip my hat to that outstanding effort. That being said, if you haven’t seen the previous films in this series, including the reboot of “X-Men: First Class,” you will be lost. As much as this is an effort to re-launch the franchise, this is not a suitable jumping on point for new viewers.

Those kudos extend to a top-notch cast. While some have grown tired of the constant use of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, the franchise’s biggest star and top draw, he takes his place alongside and not squarely in front of this ensemble in both time periods. Jackman may be the prom king and current Hollywood “It Girl” Jennifer Lawrence may be the prom queen, but the valedictorian and salutatorian of this universe will always be the dichotomy of Professor X and Magneto. In their second film together, it’s possible that McAvoy and Fassbender have exceeded the gravitas of the Stewart/McKellan originals. By giving these men backstories and wide-ranging intensities, they have elevated two already-great characters even more. Around these core teams, the returning cameos and new faces fly by pretty fast. Avid fans won’t miss the many nods and inclusions, but newbies will need some Cliff Notes afterwards (including a big sequel-seed-planting character introduction in the obligatory post-credits scene).

The execution isn’t always perfect for the 130 minutes of “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Some set pieces work, like a great prison break featuring Quicksilver (played by newcomer Evan Peters), while others don’t. Most importantly, the climax being built delivers. No single film was going to be able to correct the wayward trajectory and bad taste from previous lackluster franchise efforts, but the filmmaking quality here is a tremendous improvement with so many original collaborators back on board, including Singer’s regular editor and composer John Ottman and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Ottman, in particular, renews the vigor of his original cues from 2000 and 2003 with a nice, full-bodied musical score.

The closest thing I can compare this Herculean rescue effort of “X-Men” to is the renewed success we’ve seen with the “Fast and Furious” franchise in recent years. When Vin Diesel skipped the late Paul Walker-centered 2003 sequel and no originals headlined 2006’s wayward “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” many critics and audience members left the franchise for dead. To many, it ran off the rails and lost what made it great.

Its steady resurgence came from the return of series originals Diesel and Walker in 2009’s “Fast & Furious” and the monster addition of Dwayne Johnson in 2011’s “Fast Five.” Under the steerage of “Tokyo Drift” director Justin Lin, who was granted another crack to get the franchise right, they too sought to merge timelines in combining all of the prior chapters’ key cast members with the originals while using newcomer Johnson as the glue. The restored efforts have been phenomenal. Both “Fast Five” and last summer “Fast & Furious 6” have become enormous international blockbusters and superior pieces of entertainment, exceeding all of their predecessors.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past,” in many ways, does what “Fast Five” did in that merging regard. Everything old is made new again. Amends are made and new direction is supported by new goals. If “X-Men: Days of Future Past” can next do what “Fast Five” did at the box office, then we’ve got a movie phoenix of a hit on our hands (pun intended to the comic fans out there). As many of you have heard, this new film is foreshadows its planned mega-sequel, “X-Men: Apocalypse.” If you’ve noticed the comic fans chomping at the bit for “Days of Future Past,” then you haven’t seen anything yet with “Apocalypse” on the way. Just ask one of those geeks (or me). If Singer can keep this new mojo going, that 2016 sequel is not going to disappoint either.

LESSON #1: PRESERVING THE FUTURE—Thanks to the time travel device of this story, a bit of dramatic irony is out the window. Wolverine knows what will happen and is charged with convincing others that actions in the past and present, both individual and isolated as well as game-changing and severe, will greatly affect the future of all involved. This forces our non-future characters to not take their actions lightly going forward. For the good guys, that’s stopping a deadly course of events that leads to war. For the bad guys, over-correction and an even stronger response threatens to ruin the future further.

LESSON #2: HOPE ENABLES YOU TO BEAR YOUR PAIN AND THE PAIN OF OTHERS—For Wolverine’s effort in the past, his most difficult task is closing the dissonance between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. Charles has oppressed his mental abilities because he cannot bear the pain of what he hears in other peoples’ minds. Erik is the soldier that bears the burden of watching too many of his people wrongfully oppressed or killed for who they are. The answer to that dissonance is simple and is well-stated by Patrick Stewart’s elder Charles. Hope is the inner quality that enables one to accept pain and loss, both your own and that of others. Hope is what pulls you through. Both men have been challenged to find it in each other and their peers.

LESSON #3: THE GUIDANCE OF LEADERSHIP—Good leadership contains motivation, presence, and strength, but it also contains guidance. Leaders have an influence that leads to following and action. For the pair of leaders comprised of Charles and Erik, their guidance has always been in opposite directions and one of the central traits of “X-Men” lore. Charles guides with hope and seeing the good in people while Erik guides himself and others through superiority. Neither can control the entire mutant race, but the pendulum of power swaying between them stirs this ever-present conflict.

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