Tuesday, June 24, 2014

11 Worst Things About X-Men: Days of Future Past

Well, the critics seem to love X-Men: Days of Future Past. Even the most critical of critics I know are praising this film for returning the dignity to the X-Men films. I gotta say, I don't see it. But then, I didn't think that the original films had much dignity to begin with. I'll get into that later...

For now, I'd like to share my personal top eleven worst things about X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Why eleven? Because there were eleven things that bothered me. What, do you think these numbers are arbitrary?

[NOTE: This is, of course, a review of the film and not the comic book story it is loosely based on. There will be plenty of spoilers.]

11. The B-Team and The B-Plot

In the opening of the movie, we see the X-Men battle a group of the future Sentinels (which seem to be based on Nimrod, but they don't call them that). There are three X-Men we recognize from previous films (Kitty, Colossus, and Iceman) and four we don't (Bishop, Blink, Sunspot, and Warpath). As the Sentinels attack, we watch the X-Men fight in unison and it looks pretty good, but eventually, they are overwhelmed and killed... but it doesn't matter because they have a temporal reset button.

Unfortunately, since this is the opening of a time travel movie and set in the far future, we already know that there are no consequences to these actions, so there is no tension. Furthermore, by using so many B-characters that have not been established in this universe, we have little reason to care when they die. In the original comic, it showed the death and desperation of characters we cared about.

The new X-Men lack any distinct personality traits and are used only as props. While Blink provides a visually interesting power which (admittedly) is very well-executed (though derivative to anyone who played Portal), her face paint makes her look like a cosplayer. Bishop's inclusion makes sense (given that he is actually from the future), but why was Sunspot included if they aren't even going to use his powers correctly?

The comic book Sunspot has super-strength. He is called "Sunspot" because his powers are fueled by solar energy. If they wanted someone who shoots fire, why not use the far more recognizable Sunfire? And Warpath is a character with no obvious powers who fights with a knife. With literally hundreds of characters to choose from, I can't image why they went with him.

10. Presidential Embarrassment

When writing historical fiction, it can be tricky to weave your story into actual history. Unless you're Quentin Tarantino, you have to try to maintain some discretion so that you don't make real history collide awkwardly with fantasy thereby creating a noticeable distraction. This film does just that in two major ways.

First, it tells us that Magneto was imprisoned for involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Xavier thinks he killed JFK, but Magneto claims that he saved him, replying that he was "one of us." The idea that a real historical figure is actually a mutant is stupid enough, but especially when applied to a figure as iconic and respected as Kennedy. It would be another thing if it were Houdini or Amelia Earhart or someone with an air of mystery about them, but the only mystery around Kennedy is his death... and that's not exactly something you can play with in a fun way.

Second, the film has a major role for President Richard Nixon who approves the Sentinel and is taken hostage at the end. Nixon is just as iconic as Kennedy (although not nearly as popular) and he has a very distinct appearance/voice that is difficult to accurately replicate. Its hard to take these scenes seriously when you don't see the president, but an actor playing the president.

9. Dwarfism is oddly unremarkable in the 1970s

While I'm happy for Peter Dinklage that he can get a role that has nothing to do with his size, am I the only one who found his casting to be a distraction?

As Bolivar Trask, he is dedicated to the extinction of mutants, but dwarfism itself is a mutation. I might be able to overlook this if the film gave him any motivation to fear this specific type of mutation, but aside from an anecdote about homo sapiens wiping out homo neanderthal, he has none. It is simply the same generalized bigotry we've seen in all of these films. If Trask had a tragic history, perhaps involving Magneto or Mystique, it would have been a lot more believable.

But the real distraction for me was how his dwarfism was never mentioned or even subtly acknowledged. In comparison, I was recently watching Injustice For All, a documentary featuring economist Robert Reich. Just under five foot tall, Reich doesn't have dwarfism, but his size is clearly an issue. He carries a box with him to podiums, he makes jokes about his height, and people are, perhaps, a little nicer to him than they would be to others.

Yet in this film, set forty years in the past, during the height of women's liberation and civil rights movements, there is absolutely no reaction from the white conservative patriarchy to a genius arms dealer who is less than four and a half feet tall? Is anyone going to mention the elephant in the room? I'm not saying it needs to effect the whole film, but just small touches like a look or an amused smirk when he enters the room would acknowledge that he faced some adversity. You could have him notice the exchange and make a point of embarrassing the individual... kind of like he does on Game of Thrones all the time.

8. Speedy Maximoff

I'd like to say I don't get Quicksilver's appeal, but I do. He's an off-the-wall character whose powers allow the filmmakers to do interesting things with timing and camera speed. In fact, the film could probably use more characters like him. Between his slo-mo kitchen fight scene and Blink's portals, we get to see the action play out in a much more visually interesting way than previous X-Men films.

However, he's also one of those characters who is very poorly thought out. His powers are shown constantly and the effect is like using a laser pointer with a cat. When we first see him, he's playing a game of ping-pong with himself. Its a neat little gimmick, but later, he is playing the arcade game Pong and listening to his music on what I presume is a portable 8-track player.

The problem here is that technology (and particularly 1970s technology) does not work at an accelerated pace. We see his Pong arcade game moving faster than our eyes can track and, in the popular kitchen scene, we hear his music at a normal tempo while bullets are flying at a snail's pace. This means that, in order for the sound to be consistent with visuals, his music would have to be playing at roughly 10,000 times the normal speed.

The film's interpretation of the character is like a modern day ADHD child who can't pay attention to one thing for very long. This is a very shallow look at the character and does not reflect his own personal reality. It is a voyeuristic look at his power, not a careful examination of character. This Quicksilver is like Bart Simpson with superspeed. He is a troublemaker who does whatever he wants because he has no impulse control, so he's constantly doing things and getting bored with them. Even this isn't fully thought out as he seems entirely satisfied with this lifestyle.

The comic character is more of an angry cynic known for aggressively confronting both friends and enemies. Peter David famously explained this behavior in an issue of X-Factor by comparing his reality to being stuck behind someone who doesn't know how to use the ATM when you are in a hurry. This helps us to understand that his agitation is based in impatience thereby turning an annoying trait into a sympathetic one.

In the film, Quicksilver briefly mentions that his mother "knew a guy" who had magnetic powers, alluding to the fact that Magneto is his father, but the opportunity to have that mean something is entirely wasted. Their relationship is completely irrelevant to the film, even though he is only there to rescue Magneto. After he performs that task, he is written out of the film, even though he proved himself incredibly useful and has no reason not to join our heroes.

We only see him once more with his twin sister, Wanda, in a brief cameo, but in this universe, she is apparently ten years younger. A strangely arbitrary change.

7. Futurism of Days Past

While X-Men: First Class adhered fairly closely to the technology of their era (Cerebro aside), Days of Future Past seems to have given up on that entirely. The Sentinels just don't make sense in the 1970s and their design looks incredibly out of place. In a time when your most basic computer was the size of a room, can we really forgo logic enough to design humanoid robots with heavy artillery, flight capability, and mutant detection without an ounce of metal?

I understand that it is a comic book movie and you can take some leaps with technology, but when you are telling a story set in the past, you have greater limitations. Compare this to Captain America: The Winter Soldier when they reveal Arnim Zola's consciousness uploaded to dozens of old tape-and-reel computers. Although clearly beyond the capabilities of the time, there is an attempt made to show them using the tools available to them. These Sentinel designs would look great in a modern era X-Men film, but they seem too clean and polished during the heyday of the Chevy Cadillac.

Worst of all, we never really get any good scenes with them. When they are finally revealed at the end, they just seem to provide crowd control as the X-Men face Magneto. Wolverine briefly fights one, but they end up being about as capable and threatening as Stormtroopers.

6. Doesn't connect with The Wolverine

Looking more like Droopy the Dog every year...
Despite the fact that Bryan Singer directed the stinger sequence in The Wolverine, it does not fit with the follow up film which he also directed.

The Wolverine is set in the present day (or the "not too distant future" if you go by the caption in X-Men). As Logan walks through the airport, we see Trask Industries advertizing on the monitors implying that the Sentinel program is just beginning. Yet Days of Future Past features the Sentinel program beginning forty years ago. You might say that Trask Industries has been around all this time, but if so, why weren't they relevant until this moment? Is something about to happen? If so, we never get an explanation

Also, in the previous film, Wolverine's claws are made of bone, not metal, because his metal claws were cut off in the climax of the film. In Days of Future Past, we see a future Wolverine with metal claws. So what happened to give him his metal claws back? Did he go back to Weapon X? Did Magneto do it? You can make something up to explain what happened in the intervening years, but why should you have to when its obviously just laziness? Seeing as Wolverine doesn't even use his claws in the future (except when he accidentally cuts Kitty), there is literally no reason for this arbitrary change. It can't be to "fix" the character, because the resolution of the movie essentially reboots continuity anyway.
I need you, Logan. I'm not the box office draw that you are.

Also, in the end of The Wolverine, we see Logan accompanied by Yukio, who in these films possesses precognition. They leave together suggesting that their adventures are only beginning, yet she isn't even mentioned in Days of Future Past. Since Yukio was not a mutant in the comics, I had assumed that her new abilities in The Wolverine would be used as part of the plot in Days of Future Past. Perhaps Xavier would project Wolverine's consciousness through Yukio's mind which, existing outside of linear time, could send it into the past. Obviously, I was reading too much into it.

So why did Xavier and Magneto to put aside their differences at just this moment, and why did they need Wolverine? The new film does not answer this question because it isn't until years later that the Sentinels destroy the world and they formulate a plan requiring Wolverine. We even see the plan being formed at the beginning of the Days of Future Past, so the stinger scene in The Wolverine had absolutely nothing to do with this film.

5. X-Men: The Missing Film?

About half way into the movie, I started wondering if I somehow missed a film somewhere in this franchise.

Mystique and friends
At the end of X-Men: First Class, Xavier is paralyzed, but rather optimistically looking forward to teaching his X-Men. In Future Past, he is a broken, depressed man who has lost all hope in humanity because most of his students were killed. In First Class, Magneto had just defeated the Hellfire Club and turned it into the Brotherhood of Mutants. He was rallying his troops to fight. In Future Past, he is in prison for attempted assassination, half the Brotherhood is dead, and Mystique has come to hate him for some reason that's never fully explained.

When added to the inconsistency in The Wolverine stinger, it honestly feels like there was a whole other movie that they never made. Maybe the movie was written much longer and they cut out the first half, but honestly, it just feels like a cheap way to dismiss all of the films Bryan Singer didn't make.

4. Days of Matrix/Inception

On a completely aesthetic note, I found the future depicted in Days of Future Past to be boring and derivative. Like the first X-Men film, the influence of The Matrix is shocking blatant. The drop ships house dozens of Sentinels that look like "squiddies" when in flight. The sky appears to have been permanently blotted out by a thick cloud. We get some brief looks at concentration camps, but most of the action takes place in a secluded Buddhist temple that looks like the cheap set it is. It actually plays out a lot like the end of The Matrix when our hero is another space-time while the others must simply wait and protect him against the inevitable robotic onslaught.

In short, we don't really see the future, much less feel what its like. We are simply given exposition that informs us that this is their last stand. It would be much more interesting if they traveled through the war torn environment and through one of the concentration camps. We could see the characters reacting to the plight of others, particularly Magneto who spent his childhood in such a camp, and then, we see their plan go into effect more like a heist than a mutant Alamo.

With the projected consciousness, juxtaposition of relative time, and the hopeless slaughter of our heroes, it really feels like a rip off of the endings to The Matrix and Inception, two of the most popular sci-fi movies of the past two decades.

3. Professor X's magic walking serum

Much of this movie's plot hinges around this cheap plot device used to impede our heroes. Xavier now takes an injection which has two very convenient effects: it enables him to walk (despite having a shattered spine) and it inhibits his telepathic abilities. This allows them to shoot the character without his wheelchair, but also keeps him from having a really easy way to resolve the story.

Again, this is the kind of convenient science that breaks my suspension of disbelief. I know Hank is a genius, but he just happened to develop a drug that can restore someone's ability to walk and inhibits telepathic abilities. This is just way too convenient for the crippled telepath who wants to be rid of his telepathy.

And why does he want to be rid of his telepathy? Well, he's just sick of hearing other people's thoughts. It's too hard. There is no real precedent for this behavior in the character as we know him, but we have to believe it based on events that happened between movies that is provided in exposition (refer back to #5).

2. Kitty Pryde's unexplained power

Kitty Pryde possess the mutant ability to move through solid objects. Its called phasing. She can also phase other objects, if she is in physical contact with them. This is established in all three of the original movies and is completely consistent with the comic book character. In Days of Future Past, not only does she have that ability, but she can project someone's consciousness back in time.

It is never explained how she has this ability. She has never had this ability in the comics. There are many characters with psychic or time travel powers that would make more sense, or they could have come up with an original character. Yet, for reasons I cannot fathom, this very critical element to the plot is completely and totally unaddressed.

This is the equivalent of Superman turning back time by spinning around the world. Even at its most basic, her power has absolutely no applications that might remotely connect to projecting consciousness through time.

1. Magneto reprograms Sentinels

Near the end of the film, we see Magneto fly behind a truck carrying Sentinels. We've been told that the Sentinels are entirely made of plastic, and therefore immune to his powers. Magneto pulls a few feet of railroad from the track, strips it for wire, then proceeds to intertwine this wire into the Sentinels thereby demonstrating that they are under Magneto's control.

Now, these films have shown Magneto doing a lot of stupid things with his powers, like lifting the Golden Gate Bridge to use as a method of transporting a small group of people... or slowly pushing a bullet into a guy that doesn't have the sense (or laws of motion) to get out of the way. But we are supposed to believe that he can reprogram advanced robots by just looking at them and weaving metal into their parts?

Is it supposed to be like a puppet, where Magneto is actually exerting his force over their own? If so, they don't move or act with the sort of stilted hesitation you would expect. It seems more like Magneto somehow actually rewrote their software to follow his commands. And he did that with wire? Just by looking at them? He doesn't need to know programming or a keyboard to input new commands. He just sticks his hands up their asses and they perform for him.

Its almost as bad as when he designed a machine to turn humans into mutants, but it can only run on his own power and it would kill him. Just because its a comic movie is no reason to be blatantly stupid.