This is the most intense game of “Hollywood Squares” I’ve ever seen.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, M. Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by Bryan Singer
2011’s X-Men: First Class is that rarest of things: a prequel that works. Full of snap crackle pop, First Class breathed new life into Marvel’s soggy mutant movie franchise (now fifteen years old) and emboldened 20th Century Fox to put together a sequel wherein an X-Man goes back in time and tries to erase the stuff from the original movies nobody liked. Actually, the heroes in Days Of Future Past seem to want to snuff out the first three X-Men films entirely, and who can blame them? Wouldn’t you rather live peacefully in an upstate New York mansion, teaching little childrens and apple picking in your spare time, instead of living on the run out of some military grade jet while humanity and other evil mutants are constantly nipping at your heels?
The line between good and evil is in truth a tad blurry in Days Of Future Past; yes, Wolverine (Jackman) travels to 1973 to prevent the assassination that kicks off humankind’s war on the mostly benign mutant species, but he also enlists a minor to help him break an incarcerated Magneto (Fassbender) out of his Pentagon jail cell. You see, in the future, Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto have buried their hatchet, and they convince Wolv that he needs to get them together in ’73 to make sure everything’s on lock. It should come as no surprise that young Magneto, whose personal allegiances similarly blow around like a windsock, decides at a critical juncture to take matters into his own hands, gumming up the entire ballgame.
And then there’s shape-shifter Mystique (Lawrence), the assassinator, convinced she has to kill her target (a gov’t contractor who builds giant mutant-hunting robots) no matter how many people from her past or her future show up. Nobody can convince her this shooting kicks off a major human / mutant conflict. They should have just cracked open a history book for her. Hey dumb dumb, ever hear of Archduke Ferdinand? Pearl Harbor? Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. Yoda? You know, I won’t fault you for missing that quote, you were busy with infinitely better movies when the Jedi master dropped that one.
Though clumsy in places, Days Of Future Past serves up a pretty fun slip through time and delivers everything you want in an X-Men movie: Wolverine whuppin’ up on dudes, Mystique whuppin’ up on dudes, political intrigue, a few yuks, a take on Richard Nixon that would be at home on “MADtv,” and tender bromance moments between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the aged Xavier and Magneto (respectively). If you don’t like it, don’t worry: at some point Days Of Future Past will be retconned out of existence just like every other comic property, because that’s the way this business works.
FINAL SCORE: Three and a half funky ’70s duds (out of four).
Staring down the barrel of a potential franchise.
X-Men: First Class
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbinder, Kevin Bacon, J. Jones
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
A fifth X-Men film was a dicey move considering the reception the last two entries received. I know people who are still foaming over X-Men 3, and I know even more people who like to pretend Wolverine was all a dream. Yet here we are, a mere two years after Wolverine’s stiff corpse limped out of theaters, with another movie based around Marvel’s freaky-powered mutant posse. This time, they’ve turned the clock back to 1963 to show us how the X-Men first got their shiz together. Surprisingly, it works, injecting the series with a youth, vigor, and simplicity that’ll appeal to anyone still haunted by the ghost of mutant movies past.
There’s a little retread in the beginning as First Class recounts the Nazi-riddled youth of Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Fassbinder). Trapped in a concentration camp, the poor kid was subject to all sorts of horrors, worst of all being the heartless murder of his mother in the office of some high-ranking sauerkraut jockey. Expectedly, Erik escapes the clutches of his evil captors and grows up to become the world’s most lethal Nazi hunter. This leads him to cross paths with Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy), a fellow mutant who’s helping the U.S. government sniff out a Soviet missile kerfuffle. Charles convinces Erik to join him heading up a fledgling mutant wing of the C.I.A., and before long they’re futzing around with shrimpy, angsty versions of Banshee and Beast.
Of course it turns out the reclusive billionaire at the heart of the Soviet missile thing, one Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), is the very same high-ranking Nazi who murdered Erik’s mother right in front of him all those years ago. This Shaw fella is one multi-faceted bad guy. Not only is he former Nazi with enough money and power to insert himself into America’s foreign affairs, he’s also an aging-in-reverse mutant who can absorb any kind of energy and throw it right back in your stupid monkey face. On top of that, he’s got a sexy mind-reading liege (Jones) at his beck and call. Oh, and if you think you’re just gonna waltz in there with your own mind-reading mutant to ruin Shaw’s day, forget it. The guy’s got some kinda helmet he wears to prevent that.
In the face of incredible adversity plus some dissension amongst their ranks, the X-Men pull together in the end to give Sebastian Shaw what for. By that point, you’ll forgive First Class for killing off its only black mutant mere minutes after his introduction and for letting its younger mutants dress like walking Axe body spray ads instead of actual residents of 1963. This is summer popcorn fun that, despite its more dubious moments, isn’t entirely without soul or brains, a movie that leverages scantily-clad eye candy like January Jones with believable emotional back-and-forths between its two steely male leads.
There are also some really fun cameos in X-Men: First Class that the nerd world has inexplicably kept quiet until this point. The Pibb Xtra will come out yo’ nose when you see ’em, no lie. Stan Lee wishes his Spider-Man and Hulk walk-ons elicited such rousing audience responses.
FINAL SCORE: Three and a half ice-cold January Joneses (out of four).