Science Fiction: May 2014 Archives

We got to see X-Men: Days of Future Past today, and I have to say that it's the best of all the X-Men movies so far. (Well, I haven't seen The Wolverine, but I can't imagine that's better. I'm also not sure it counts as an X-Men movie.) I do have a relatively unpopular ranking of X-Men movies. Of the ones I've seen, I think they tend to get better with each one, with one exception. I didn't like X2 nearly as much as the first one. But I think the remaining ones get better with each one, even the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which I do think is better than any of the original trilogy. And I think the third was better than the first two, which is also a very unpopular view among most people I know. (I also think the original Spider-Man trilogy improves with each movie, and hardly anyone agrees with me on that, and I loved Batman Begins but hated the Dark Knight, and I'll forever be on some people's nasty lists for that.) All that is to say that I certainly don't expect people to agree with me on every point when I evaluate this, but at least I can give reasons for what I think.

I wanted to reflect a bit on some of the things I did like and a couple things I didn't. First, what I didn't like. It seems action movies, and superhero movies especially, have lately became averse to explaining things. They include dialogue to explain things enough to prevent you from becoming completely lost, but it's not sufficient to get you a good sense of everything that's going on. A story like this with this many characters should include something to let us understand who it is that we're supposed to be watching. We got nothing about Blink except what she looks like and, after looking at her do what she does a few times, a vague sense of what her power does. We got even less on Bishop or Sunspot (and were there others in the opening future scenes that we haven't seen before? I wasn't sure at first who some of them were). The mutants in Vietnam were almost incognito, even to the audience, except for the obvious Toad, who we've seen a later version of. Ink was probably recognizable to comic readers who started after I did, but I'm sure most people had no idea who any of them were besides Toad. It's bad storytelling to have dialogue that no character would ever say, when everyone in the room should know it, just to explain things to the audience. But it's equally bad storytelling to do nothing to explain things to the audience when they do want to get to know these characters and how they work a bit more. Several of the X-Men movies have this problem, but this was particularly annoying, because some of these characters looked really interesting.

I also can't resist saying that the time travel metaphysics in this movie is just plain stupid. It uses a very common time travel story motif, that when you go back in time and change something you have the contradictory scenario where at one time the timeline is one way and then at a later time the entire timeline is different. At what point within the timeline is the entire timeline one way, and at what point within the timeline is the entire timeline a different way? There's simply no way to make sense of it the way they tell the story. The only way to do so is to have simply different timelines, all of which continue to exist, with no change having occurred, just one timeline that's one way and another that's another way, and someone from the future of one timeline is the explanation for events that occur in the past of another timeline. And it was always that way in both timelines. (This is what Abrams Star Trek did.) But the motivation for the story makes little sense there, and the trick of having everyone disappear and suddenly having always been somewhere else instead is a deception, because it's a switch to an entirely different timeline, and everyone still/always dies in the first one. Only in the new one is it different. No timeline actually was one way and then changed to another way. That would require a timeline of ordering where a whole timeline can be earlier than another, but time only occurs within timelines, not between them.

But I never let bad metaphysics ruin a fun time travel movie for me. I can enjoy a contradictory story, and I did enjoy this one, much as I did some of the worst offenders (the Back to the Future trilogy topping the list, with Timecop coming in a pretty close second). I am always impressed at someone doing it right, as Babylon 5, 12 Monkeys, LOST season 5, TNG Time's Arrow, TOS The City on the Edge of Forever, and a number of other stories have done. But fun stories abound with unworkable metaphysics, and this was certainly one of those. I'm always a sucker from time travel, no matter how badly it's done.

So on to what I liked. This was not just the best of the X-Men movies so far. It was an incredibly good story, rivaling the best of the Marvel movies.

It doesn't beat you over the head with a moral message. It's not even prominent, like in Iron Man, the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, or the original X-Men trilogy. Nor is it a debate with unclear answers, as in Captain America: the Winter Soldier (and the followup in the Agents of SHIELD show), much as I enjoyed that. But it's there. And that usually makes a superhero movie better. In this case, it's not so much the usual mutant analogy with race or the like, although you do get references to that. It's actually the Spider-Man message that great power brings great responsibility, one of the things Sam Raimi did really well in all three films that the too-soon reboot of that franchise didn't do so well at. Iron Man had the same message. Charles Xavier was basically abandoning his responsibilities, and we begin the movie with dire consequences of that in the future (although we don't know Xavier is really the one to blame until much later. There were people under his charge who died, we discover from Magneto, all because he felt sorry for himself and his circumstances and couldn't bear to deal with the difficult situation he'd found himself in. And it ultimately leads to mutants being hunted down and wiped out.

It also didn't seem like it was bringing in as many characters as they could just to fill the movie with toys for marketing or to try to set up other movies that will likely fail (cough ... Amazing Spider-Man 2). The people who were in it from previous movies made sense to appear when they did, and the ones that only had cameos made sense only to have cameos. The ones that were in it more made sense to be in it more, and even the big change from the comics of making Wolverine the time-traveling consciousness instead of Shadowcat could make sense from a story point of view (and not just because Logan is a favorite of fans or because they needed someone who could play both parts as the same actor). Their explanation for why it has to be Wolverine is not that bad, anyway, even if it's clear that the writers really did it because of those other reasons. I was dreading Quicksilver, given the photos released ahead of time, but I liked how they pulled that character off, and the references hinting at his true parentage were nice. I'm not sure why they showed Polaris (his younger sister) and not Scarlet Witch (his twin), unless they were worried about too many comparisons with the Marvel versions of the twins from Godzilla Avengers: Age of Ultron. But that was a nice cameo of a very minor character for the sake of fans.

But the crucial thing is that they told a story. They told one story. It was cohesive and mostly made sense from the point of view of the characters, which is really saying something given how out of character some of them were acting at various times in the story. There was one overall problem to be solved, and every scene in the movie contributed toward that problem coming about or someone trying to stop it. It was a compelling, high-stakes problem, and you really don't have any assumptions about who is safe (other than Wolverine, of course), and that goes for either time period. When everything the characters do seems to make things worse, the story becomes far from predictable. But so many details that most viewers wouldn't notice are there to be picked up on by fans of the comic books, but none of them should distract from what else is going on for those who don't pick up on them. In that it very much resembles Captain America: the Winter Soldier. This didn't have the benefit of several successful franchises coming together, though, as the Marvel movies do. The fact that they pulled it all off without that really speaks well of the people Fox has gotten together to make this. I'm really looking forward to X-Men: Age of Apocalypse now.

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