From what I can figure out, the third X-men movie stank out the room something wicked; I saw the second movie in Belgium, which was somehow more exciting than the movie, and so the third seemed very missable even before I saw that Brett Ratner was “directing” it. When the studio got their breath back and had softened up the audience with a couple of Wolverine movies, they tried to take a fresh start at the whole mess with X-Men First Class, which came out when I was in the Hidden City and ran afoul of my policy of only watching dumb movies that realised they were dumb.
This week, Days of Future Past was the least stupid non-3D movie on offer, and - largely thanks to the power of nerds on the internet - had a Rotten Tomatoes score which left us thinking “Well, there’s got to be something to this…"
Let’s put it this way; if you need to see a movie this year where the plot turns on using time travel to defeat unstoppable monsters, watch Edge of Tomorrow. If you thought that the X-men series of movies needed a hard reboot from the narrative trench the first three movies had dug; great news! Days of Future Past is that movie, but unless you’re a comics geek, it’s not something you need to see, or will even get all that much out of. It’s riddled with callbacks to earlier movies and comic books; this is the echte movie that you’re going to love if you love things like this.
Which makes it all the weirder that they’ve wheeled out such star power. There are eight meat puppets with Oscar nominations trying to upstage the stunts and CGI. YMMV, but for me the one doing the best job of standing out from the clutter was Jennifer Lawrence, simply because she’s such a straightforwardly loveable actress that she can power through the makeup, stunts and terrible dialogue and still make you want to see what’s going to happen to her. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender don’t have quite as much luck, and Peter Dinklage isn’t given enough to do with his character, who is either a villain or a misguided hero depending on how you want to look at things but either way needs some space to work.
The biggest problem that X-men movies have is character clutter; the longer they go on, the more characters they accumulate, and they all need to be given time to do something. A movie doesn’t have the space for eight or ten fully realised characters, not when they have to devote half the time to stunts and plot exposition. So you wind up with directors hoping that sheer star power and acting talent can somehow wash over the set pieces everyone came to see, and OF COURSE THEY CAN’T. Don’t be stupid. When these movies have worked at all, it’s been in letting the set pieces inform the plot or the characters; there’s a wonderful bit in the second movie when Magneto makes his escape from plastic prison by scrounging iron from his guard’s blood. The stunt work is imaginative, but what makes it work is Ian McKellen at the centre of the screen, wordlessly conveying the essence of his character’s motivation; on the one hand, he’s satisfied with the sheer elegance of what he’s doing, but on the other hand there’s a creepy pleasure in his face as he finally whacks seven kinds of crap out of the people who’ve kept him locked up for a year. Days of Future Past has a really well executed open, as mutants cooperate against an unstoppable enemy, cleverly using their different powers to help each other out think and out-manoeuvre the bad guys; at the end of it I still had no idea who these guys were and not much reason to care, but I’d been impressed by their practical work. That’s the good stuff. There isn’t really enough of it.
One thing I have to admit, however, is that the climactic stunts are smart. So many of these set pieces are just guys rubbling scenery because it looks spectacular; Days of Future Past peaks by lifting up RFK Stadium and moving it across Washington, so that it can be dropped as a cordon around the White House and give Magneto space to work on the President without interruption. It’s ridiculous and it makes no kind of physical sense, but at least the building’s being wrecked for a reason….