X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Debate

X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Debate
It's not common for the two halves of Panel Beats to disagree hugely on a particular topic - but it does happen, and when it does, we like to thrash it out in a big old argument for everyone to see. Such is the case with the X-Men: Days of Future Past movie, which we've now both seen, and which we have... well, divergent opinions of, would be a mild way of putting it. What follows, then, is one of our patented Seb and James Email-O-Chats, in which we each express our respective opinions while simultaneously resisting the urge to reach out through the screen and slap each other around the face.

Spoilers abound, naturally, so don't follow the jump unless you've seen the film.
James I'll start by saying that I'd place it on a par with the original X-Men film. I had fun watching it, but I thought it was almost self-consciously crap at times.

Seb: See, I'd place it well above the first. I didn't detect any of the clunkiness that that film's script was guilty of, and as important as that film was to establish the current era of superhero films, I'm thrilled that we can now get the same people making a film that is so unafraid to make a self-consciously over-the-top "comic book"ish comic book film.

It's probably not quite at the level of X2 (although looking back at that film, it still suffers slightly from early-2000s-itis - I'd love to see how that same story would be done in a post-Iron Man world), but it's comfortably there with First Class. And I wasn't expecting to say that, because I love First Class. But this, while admittedly having some problems of its own, didn't suffer from a few of the flaws that First Class had.

James: Clunky is exactly the word I'd use to describe it. That opening intro where Xavier explains how the post-apocalyptic future came to exist was painful, and then you've got things like McAvoy suddenly remembering that he met Wolverine before (because THAT'S the one thing about continuity that needed addressing, right?) and people repeatedly shouting "The bullet curved!" in reference to JFK's assassination, like it's a widely accepted fact. I don't think it was any more comic-booky than X3, assuming you're using comic-booky to mean "it isn't embarrassed to roll out costumes and code-names without excusing them".

Seb: Well, yeah, but it's a widely accepted fact in this story that the bullet curved, which is fair enough. Just as it's apparently a fact that JFK is... uh... canonically a mutant in the X-Men movieverse, now? What was his power? The ability to charm women? HANG ON WAS JFK GAMBIT?

James: But that's exactly what I mean by clunky. Someone says "The bullet curved" multiple times because they want us to think it was Magneto killing JFK, because they want to do a fake-out, and it's like... people don't talk like that. I accept that there has to be some degree of exposition, but it would've been enough to say "They think he killed JFK" and THEN reveal that he was capture while trying to save him, not try to pretend there's some bizarre logic to the accusation based on an incontrovertible historical fact which they have to invent and establish for it to work. It's making things difficult to try and be clever, when simplicity is what's needed.

Seb: I guess whether or not a script feels juddering and clunky is a personal thing - a lot of the time, if you haven't bought into something from the start, you're less likely to overlook the contrived or the awkward. We both felt the same way about the Krypton scenes in Man of Steel, for example, while others loved that. There was no dialogue in this that made me cringe, though. The opening stuff was a bit over the top and melodramatic, sure, but... well, this is a film based on a Chris Claremont comic, so.
James: I really think you could've cut out everything set in the future and the film would still make a reasonable amount of sense. And all the future stuff looked so cheap, it was like they'd got the old cast in for a single day's shooting, and used a generic future soundstage where "future" means "it's night and everything's randomly on fire."

Seb: This isn't a totally unreasonable point, although by the same token the future stuff isn't really the "point" of the film - and I think enough goes into the '70s-set stuff that it doesn't matter that the future stuff is a bit generic. And it does have the pretty spectacular future Sentinels, which are arguably the first time Sentinels haven't just been... well, a bit shit, basically.

One misstep I think they did make was showing the future X-Men all getting killed twice. I get that when it's done at the start of the film it's a bait-and-switch, but it completely reduces any impact the second time. Seeing Storm killed is still a genuine shock (even though we know the timeline's going to get wiped), but the way it dispatches the likes of Blink, Warpath and Iceman just feels repetitive.

James: I completely disagree on just about every level! The point of the future in DOFP is to establish what's at stake. The future should make you think "I don't want this to happen", not "where do these guys buy their eye make-up?". Go back to the original DOFP, and it's not just a generic wasteland, it's a harrowing, opressive and brutal future which you'd rather die than end up in whether you're a human or a mutant. In this film, I didn't even know who was ordering the Sentinels around. And speaking of which, I thought the future sentinels were utterly awful, just generic CGI blobs that were *so* powerful than you wonder how anyone survived long enough to form a rebellion in the first place. You can't tell me those guys are more interesting or threatening than Morrison's Wild Sentinels!

Seb: I don't disagree that it's something of a "generic wasteland", but I do disagree with that not being a horrible future that you wouldn't want to see happen! If we'd spent a bit more time in the future maybe we'd have seen the wider ramifications - and it would be helpful to know what exactly caused things to go so bad in the ten years after the end of The Wolverine, where everything seemed basically fine - but I think it did what it needed to. This handful of powerful mutants who've spent their lives on the run are the only ones left in the world, and they're only capable of surviving by using last-gasp time-travel trickery. They have to keep dying in order to survive.

James: This is the thing. If you're going to do the future part of Days of Future Past, it needs to have scale, and it needs to convince me that there's more at stake than the X-Men. This squandered both attempts. There was the perfect opportunity to parallel Magneto's origin in the Nazi death camps which would've absolutely shown us "THIS IS BAD AND NONE OF US WANT IT, HUMAN OR MUTANT!" (the original DOFP story does this fantastically) but aside from about 6 seconds under Xavier's narration, the movie concentrates on small, nondescript wastelands. I get why the X-Men don't want to live there, but we don't see enough to understand why it's bad for anyone else, and I think that's a necessary quality if you're putting the fate of humanity at stake as they were trying to.

Seb: It could be better defined. It could tell us who's running the show. It could tell us how ordinary human beings are living. But that would all involve basically shifting the focus of what the film's about. It's not a straight-up adaptation of the comic, so it's less about telling a story set in this nightmare future and more about telling a story about the First Class characters ten years down the line. The stuff in the future serves the purpose of giving that story a reason to happen.

James: Yeah, but the comic spends about as much time in the future as the film. Less, even. But it uses that time to build a world much more effectively.

Seb: That could be me misremembering the comic, then (as I've only read it the once) - I thought it spent much more time in the future, and only a bit in the "present". Maybe it's just that it concentrated so much on building a memorable future that that sticks with me!

Remember, though, that none of DOFP is set in the "present". They're having to build two worlds, the past and the future. Obviously they succeed much more at one than at the other, but they do the one so well I'm willing to accept that.

(Of course, if you don't think they did the '70s well, that idea falls down, but I do. I even didn't mind their Nixon, having been prepared for him to be terrible based on your advance comments!)
James: The continuity was shot to pieces, which makes bringing back those characters seem even more like a gimmick. But what really hurts the film is having both versions of Xavier in the film, when the two are clearly nothing alike. You can get away with that by treating First Class as a reboot, but as soon as McAvoy's doing his heroin addict impression while Stewart's doing his zen-master take, there's just too much dissonance. It wanted to be the X-Men universe's answer to Avengers, but it put the gimmick before the story.

Seb: Compared with First Class, it's true that McAvoy lines up less well with Stewart's Xavier than before. But to be honest, I find his version of the character more interesting, anyway! He's a Xavier who I can believe going off and having an affair with an alien princess, or being as ruthless and unpleasant as Charles sometimes was under Morrison and Whedon. If these films are a way of nudging Stewart's version of the character away from kindly-old-man and more towards a bit of a rebellious nature, I'm all for that.

James: The thing is, movie-Xavier has never been anything but a kindly old dude. The bastard version used by Whedon, Morrison and Carey comes from a re-reading of his original comics appearances, where he's got a tendency towards amorality and exploitation. Stewart's version is pure Claremont, and in all honesty that's the version I prefer. I did quite like the original McAvoy interpretation, but the self-pitying Withnail-Xavier shared nothing in common with any character I'd call Professor X.

Seb: Horses for courses, but I think I just prefer the one who's got a bit more manipulative complexity to him. I mean, he's the smartest guy in the world, it stands to reason he's not also going to be the nicest. But then, my favourite Doctor Who is the Seventh, too, so.
Seb: What I didn't really expect, given Kinberg's previous work, was for the script to be as smart as it was. Thematically, it hung together superbly for me, and in particular I think it sold the competing ideologies of Xavier and Erik (and, come to that, Mystique) better than any of these films have for a while. I was expecting the morass of characters and plot elements to result in something a bit bloated and messy, so it surprised me that it... wasn't, really (although I have seen others say they thought it was). But it made sense, it was clear who everyone was and what their motivations were, and it was easy enough to follow.

James: At this point I'm not sure we even watched the same film. Thematic unity is the one thing I thought this film had absolutely nothing of. Xavier's ideology of co-existence didn't get a look in, he was more interested in saving Mystique from herself. And Magneto just turns evil halfway through the film because he's Magneto and he's evil! Seriously, one of the defining characteristics of the movie Magneto has been that mutant lives are to be protected, and what's the big twist in this film? He decides to kill Mystique so that she doesn't get captured. That's not his philosophy at work, that's ends-justify-means individualism. And while I don't dispute that most characters had motivation, what most of them lacked was anything resembling a story. Xavier was the only character who changed during the course of this movie.

Seb: Magneto's willing to kill mutants to achieve his greater goal, though - that's what he spends most of the first film trying to do! His entire plot involves sacrificing Rogue's life!

James: Fair enough, I don't recall whether he's actually aware of that when he puts her in the machine (it's been a while!) - I thought the point of using her was that he was too old to survive, but if he transferred his powers to her, she'd have a chance. But even then, that doesn't change my overall point, which is that the philosophical conflict between Xavier and Magneto has been replaced with a push-pull over which of them gets to claim ownership of Mystique. They took lofty ideas and turned them into something that shouldn't even be up for debate: whether she's allowed to make her own decisions or not. As our mutual friend Mike Leader pointed out to me, it's a pretty weak piece of storytelling if your primary dilemma for the film's lead is "Should I allow this woman to have her own agency, or badger her into doing what I think is best for her?"

Seb: I don't agree that Magneto "turns evil" halfway through, either. The key scene in the film is when he and Charles are on the plane. Erik's pulled back towards acting like someone who can still side with Xavier, but it doesn't change what he has done or is capable of doing - it's just that when he's around Charles, he wants to seem like a good guy, because then he has less of a chance of losing his friend. Telling us that he didn't kill JFK is designed to make the audience sympathise with him a bit more (having previously needed there to be a crime he could have committed that would put him under such heavy security), but he's not especially bothered by the idea. He wasn't trying to save him because he's secretly a good person underneath the anti-humanity rhetoric, but because Kennedy was (apparently) a mutant.

Basically, what the final act reveals to us is that at the time of this story Magneto's basically been at his worst all along, but whenever he's faced with Charles he can't help but be pulled towards doing things he thinks Charles would approve of. Which is pretty much a recurring theme of the trilogy, when you consider his arc from antagonist in X-Men to deuteragonist in Last Stand and First Class.

James: To be honest, I think you're giving the film too much credit in this regard, but I accept that there's room for interpretation. All I saw was Magneto being convinced into a team-up for the good of mutantkind, then changing his mind at the last second and deciding to take matters into his own hands because he's Magneto. My problem here is that there was no hint that he might have deeper motivations of his own at any point before he turns on them. I don't mind reading between the lines, but I think if you're going to rely on subtext to provide motivation for a pretty crucial character twist in a blockbuster movie you have to make sure it's not buried too deep. I suppose I think you've applied a narrative to events that doesn't contradict what was on the screen, but wasn't actually on the screen. Which is a popular pastime on Tumblr, admittedly, but not something I'd consider when gauging the quality of a movie.

Seb: Well, obviously I think Erik's main character arc is that he wants to kiss Charles, too.
Seb: Probably the biggest problem I had with the film, actually, was it wasting some of its better elements. There's a major problem with introducing a character like Quicksilver, doing his powers so brilliantly (and surely no-one can refute that that set-piece is the absolute highlight of the film - it's the Nightcrawler sequence from X2 turned up to eleven), but then being stuck with someone who can solve all the problems of the final act if only they'd bothered to give him a ring. And while I liked a lot of what they did with Trask, and their attempts to go into his motivations a bit more, the brilliance of Peter Dinklage in his first couple of scenes made me disappointed he didn't get more material like that later on.

James: It genuinely bothered me that, given that their plan was to stop someone getting shot, they found a mutant whose powers literally allow him to pluck bullets out of the air and instead of taking him to Paris like any sane person would, they leave him behind. It's abundantly clear that he was only written into the script as a studio-based "fuck you!" to Avengers, because they put more effort into that one scene than the rest of the action sequences combined. He did not belong in this story by any stretch of the imagination, and as much as I thought that sequence was brilliant it wasn't doing anything to advance the plot that couldn't have been done using Wolverine, Magneto and Xavier.

I am deeply intrigued as to what you think Trask's motivations were, too, because I thought they were about as poorly-developed as was possible. Dinklage is great, but why did his version of Trask hate mutants to such a degree? Given that most of the world doesn't even believe they exist, it's hugely incongruous to me that he designed some incredibly futuristic robots just to hunt and kill them.

(Speaking of which, another bit of "just go with it" idiocy: Magneto threads metal into the Sentinels so that he can control them. Which is fine while you assume he's puppeteering them, but breaks down when he starts controlling their programming. It's relying on wonky plot mechanics to make the final battle work, and that irritates me as much as if this was a Schumacher Batman film.)

Seb: Well, it's fear, isn't it? He's someone who had already suffered from being made to feel less "evolved" than other people around him, so the idea that there was a new species that might supersede humanity entirely evidently hit home with him strongly, and he became desperate in his attempts to prevent it happening - making him a saviour of the very people who were looking down on him in the first place. I like that it at least gave us a few scenes from his perspective, rather than reducing him to flat out standard "mad loony evil scientist".

James: Again, though, it's the lack of subtext. They never once suggest that Trask feels like an outsider because of his physical condition, and no-one ever reacts to him as if it's a problem. There's not so much as a stumbled word or a sideways glance to imply that this is the reason he hates mutants, let alone any outright prejudice towards him. If they were trying to draw a parallel (and I don't think they were) they absolutely failed. I mean, there is a potential story there about Trask being rejected as less than human by bigots, and then turning on mutants because it makes him feel closer to the group rejecting him - but that story is all happening in my imagination, there's no hint of it in the film itself. If they'd cast someone else as Trask, they could've left the script exactly the same, not a single word of the film would've needed to be changed.

Seb: Ah, see, I think you've missed the line of dialogue that I got this from - there is a moment in Trask's first scene where someone makes a crack about his height in reference to his talk of evolution. So it is there, even if it's not really expanded upon (and you could argue that maybe it should be clearer, in that case, but there is such a thing as hammering a point into the ground!)

James: Ah, okay, I totally don't remember that. But then I saw it at 9am, so I'm willing to believe it was in there. I still don't think that one line is enough to explain Trask's motivation, though. It's enough to extrapolate one, but this brings us back to the lack of arcs for anyone other than Xavier. Trask's own bigotry is barely explained, doesn't really get challenged, and is never exposed. He's like Senator Kelly without the payoff.

Seb: Re the sentinels, that didn't cause a problem for me - not as much as the Sentinels looking and being built the way they were in the first place despite the film being set in 1973 - I'd just assume that all the metal he put into their workings was able to manipulate their little servos and junk. Maybe more of a problem was that nobody noticed that all that train track was missing and put two and two together...

James: But they do shots from the perspective of the Sentinels and you see their HUD change as Magneto commands them to attack different people. They're not automatons, they're AIs. Magneto being able to control them because he inserted metal into their limbs is the kind of logic people who don't read comics come out of movies blaming on comics.
James: I don't want to shit all over the film, I thought it was okay tending towards good and I had fun watching it even though they thought that having someone play Nixon was at all a sane idea. But taken as a piece of craft, it isn't in the same room as X2 or First Class. I'm not entirely keen on the movie X-Men as it is, but compared to literally any of the Marvel Studios films (bar the Norton Hulk) this looked like the work of amateurs.

Seb: Maybe not being keen on the movie X-Men is the difference between why you didn't like it so much (well, enjoyed it, but didn't think it was actually much cop) and I did? I really thought it was an excellent, full-circle capstone to the series as a whole (which makes it all the more surprising that they're doing another one, but... hey, gotta keep those rights going, I guess). There's stuff that, I'll concede, is a little on the side of contrivance, or stuff where you have to say "Okay, I'll go with it". Actually, another one I didn't mention is that, in time-travel fiction in general, I've never liked "two clocks running simultaneously in different time periods" - I didn't like it in Bill & Ted, and I don't like it here. I think it's a narrative device born solely out of a desire for drama rather than anything that would actually make sense if time travel existed.

But the point is, with all that it did well, I think the film earned the right to have the odd hand-wavy moment overlooked in the way that some of our classic bĂȘtes noires like Man of Steel (me) or Star Trek Into Darkness (you) don't. I enjoyed how spectacular it was while keeping strong characterisation (and performance) at the forefront - and for that reason even the bits of your criticism that I agree with just don't strike me as ruinous.

James: Yeah, I agree that the performances were spectacular all round. There wasn't a duff person in the cast (except maybe Halle Berry...) but for me that's the only thing that keeps the film afloat. I think the material they're working with is largely formless, and the plot has too many of those hand-wavy bits to get a free pass. There's so much of this film I felt I either had to excuse or explain away, everything from the presence of certain characters to the actual plot mechanics that I can't call it objectively good. It was fine, it was entertaining, but given the starting point, they could've made Terminator 2 and instead they made Austin Powers 3.