by Steve Habrat
Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.
X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.
What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?
By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.
As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.
Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.
by Steve Habrat
Last year, Hollywood released the highly intelligent but morally questionable Kick-Ass. It shocked audiences with it’s unblinking portrayal of what it would be like if an ordinary citizen decided to don a cape and prowl the streets fighting crime. They would be beaten to a bloody pulp. And yes, Kick-Ass had plenty of Looney Tunes moments sprinkled throughout but it was unfathomably offensive. It also happened to be a wonderful movie that had quite a bit of depth to it. Early this summer, director James Gunn released his indie superhero outing Super, which globs on the black humor and spurting arteries with such maniacal glee, you almost start to question Gunn’s sanity. Yes, it’s THAT twisted.
I will admit that I found moments of Super enjoyable and the climax was an emotional sucker punch. I will confess to chuckling when Rainn Wilson’s dopey Frank would conk evildoers on the noggin with a monkey wrench and yell, “Shut up, crime!” But I sat stirred by how savage the film behaved even outside the inevitable action scenes. It wears a crooked grin even while it blindsides us with rape, child molestation, substance addiction, and endless foul language that would please Judd Apatow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude when it comes to films of this nature but I completely understand why the film was never released into mainstream theaters.
Frank thought he had everything going for him in life. He had a beautiful wife Sarah (Played by the cooing Liv Tyler) and a mediocre job as a cook. He thought he had aided Sarah, who was apparently an ex-junkie, in kicking her habit and changing her life. That all changes when ostentatious drug dealer Jock (Played by Kevin Bacon, who seems to be everywhere this summer) shows up and steals Sarah away from him. One night, in a sequence that appears to be left over from Gunn’s zombie/alien opus Slither, Frank has a vision from God. He is told to don an amateurish suit of armor and parade around the streets as The Crimson Bolt. While building his alter ego, he strikes up a quirky friendship with a local comic book store clerk Libby (Played by an extremely off-putting Ellen Page). She convinces him to let her be his mad, bloodthirsty sidekick and together, they aim to take down Jock and get Sarah back.
Super does offer up its fair share of craggy authenticity. The film is shot with a handheld camera and at times, if the violence isn’t making your stomach groan, the camerawork sure will. It’s twitchy but alarmingly confident. Like Kick-Ass, the film realizes (only every once in a great while) that it has to use some sort of idiosyncratic distraction from the gruesome atrocities at hand. It does this by juxtaposing the action with freeze frames and animated “BOOM”s and “WHACK!”s that look like scribbling from a teenagers own private comic book creation. It’s efficient but also seems like just a petty attempt to soften the blow of the relentless cruelty.
The shining star in this bloody mess is Rainn Wilson’s disciplined and committed performance as Frank. It’s a relief to not see the Office funnyman relegated to tween scum like The Rocker but after Super, I have to wonder about Wilson’s actual character (according to the Blu-ray features, he stood by the project from the get-go). The worst part about the film is the abhorrent performance from Ellen Page, who is downright out of control. I failed to see anything funny about her character and see this as one of the lower points of her career. Everyone else is incredibly underused including the surprising presence of Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Walking Dead) as Abe, Jock’s right hand hitman. All his character does is munch on jellybeans, stare at Frank, and occasionally remember to fire his pistol. There is none of the subtle brewing intensity that he is so famous for. Bacon, however, seems to be having a blast in the role playing another villain (he was also the baddie in X-Men: First Class) and Tyler, who claims she found the script “touching”, seems to be bored to tears.
Overall, the film has an arresting climax that is great compensation for the warped first portion. It is moving and almost becomes a tearjerker. The final showdown between Jock and Frank is guaranteed to shake you up even if you have found the rest of the film despicable. Super is just simply not a film for everyone. If you are in the target audience, you’ll have a blast with it. If not, you will just walk away shaking your head and wondering why Hollywood doesn’t make more wholesome movies like they use to. Either way, it will get a reaction out of you and that is what good cinema should do. While I consider myself in the target audience for a film like this, it left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. I was left wishing the first half were as gratifying as the second. I also could have done without Page but I think all will safely agree that Wilson is downright magnetic. He is the heart and soul of Super and believe it or not, that allows us to forgive most of its morally contestable moments. Grade: B-
Super is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.