Wednesday, June 11, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica NY

It seems hard to believe now, in these days of multiple-part "epic" storylines in superhero comics, but when Chris Claremont wrote the original X-Men story "Days of Future Past," it took up only two issues - Uncanny X-Men #141-142. By this point, early in his long and celebrated run on the book, the second-generation cast of characters that replaced the original team had become wildly popular, and although superstar artists John Byrne and Terry Austin would leave after the next issue, Claremont would continue with his intricate, sometimes convoluted stories of intense action mixed with sensitive soap opera subplots and the occasional bits of social commentary.

Even while reading X-Men as a kid, there were times when Claremont's scripts rubbed me the wrong way. As anyone who has read his work from this era knows, he had a tendency, more than most Marvel Comics writers of this era, to indulge in flowery yet expository narrative mixed with familiar epitaphs and catchphrases. This wasn't all his fault. It was a credo of Marvel editorial that every single comic be treated as if it were the reader's very first - a laudable goal, yet in practice, it could be off-putting to regular readers if taken to extremes. And Claremont often took it to extremes.

That said, he also provided some of the greatest moments in superhero comics history - and I don't just mean the battles. A big part of what kept me coming back was the humanity Claremont brought to these characters, hated and feared by the same world they seek to protect. The times when they had to reaffirm their commitment to peaceful coexistence with humanity, even in the face of naked prejudice and bigotry, made for truly mature storytelling and elevated the book to something beyond mere good guy-bad guy antics.

Not every issue had to have an end-of-the-world battle. Claremont could advertise an X-Men issue with a fight between Colossus and Juggernaut, for example, but the really important part of the story would be the breakup of Colossus and Kitty Pryde's relationship. The X-Men (and junior varsity group the New Mutants, also written by Claremont) would do things like play baseball in their backyard, or tell bedtime stories, or throw slumber parties! It was stuff like this that made these characters so much fun to read about, because you actually cared about them as people.

During the mid-80s, the multi-book crossover trend picked up steam at Marvel and DC, and Claremont and the mutant books caught it sooner than most. This was when I began to lose interest. It's true, Claremont was a master at weaving new stories into older stories that were winding down (anything to keep you reading). When you needed flowcharts and checklists to figure out which book follows which within a single storyline, however (which Marvel cheerily provided), that's when I began to sense that things were changing for the worse. 

Claremont picked up the pace to the point where stories got longer, characters went through all sorts of changes, and the quieter moments were fewer. Perhaps this was due to editorial fiat as well, or perhaps Claremont really enjoyed overseeing these longer, more tangled stories involving several mutant books at once. Perhaps it was both. But it no longer held any appeal to me... which is why "Days of Future Past" was, in retrospect, such a little miracle in its compactness.

Which brings us to the film version of Days. Self-contained as it is, it's also a culmination point of all the X-Men films before it, and while one doesn't need to have seen everything before it to understand what's going on, it definitely enhances the experience. The X-Men movie franchise has struggled to achieve the heights of the corresponding comics, and while it has aspired to greatness, I'd argue that between 

  • "You know what happens to a toad when it gets hit by lightning?" 
  • "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!"
  • Scott dying off-screen
  • Xavier dying and coming back to life STILL without any explanation
  • Deadpool-in-name-only
  • Halle Berry's ever-evolving wigs
  • The Wolverine Show, guest-starring the X-Men
  • characters of color dying and then quickly forgotten about

the franchise has managed to be better overall than one could have hoped for back in 2000, when the first movie debuted. It's given us

  • the best movie version of Wolverine we could've hoped for (thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Hugh, for everything)
  • "Have you ever tried not being a mutant?"
  • Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen
  • Sentinels (and goddamn were they worth the wait)
  • the Nightcrawler White House scene
  • the Quicksilver "Time in a Bottle" scene
  • the opening credits of X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  • world events weaved into the storyline
  • Lauren Shuler-Donner overseeing the whole damn thing

and that's not too bad when you think about it.

Days brought together everything good about the franchise - including director Bryan Singer - and gave us the X-Men movie to top all X-Men movies. It's not perfect, don't get me wrong, but it took Claremont's original story and gave it a new level of depth and pathos while staying true to its spirit. It's a little bit less of The Wolverine Show than I feared it would be, if only because it has such a gigantic cast. The time-jumping actually made sense, if not the method (you just have to somehow accept that Kitty has this power now), and yes, the violence is bloodless, but if it weren't it wouldn't be PG-13 - and there's no way an X-Men movie is gonna be rated R - so again, you have to accept it. (This last point jumped out at me because of the many deaths in Days, some of which, I admit, would be gorier with blood.)

I know the franchise is gonna continue, but I can't help but think of Days as an endpoint, at least for me. We're shown the extremes of the mutant-human conflict, as well as the ultimate happy ending for the X-Men (am I really spoiling it for you by saying Days turns out alright in the end? I don't think so), and almost everyone comes back for this movie, which unites two generations of X-casts. I don't see how it can be topped... 

...but Fox will certainly try. "The Age of Apocalypse" is another alternate-timeline story from the comics (think Mirror Universe), which leaves me to question the wisdom of doing two such stories back-to-back. Claremont followed up "Days of Future Past" with a solo story featuring Kitty against a supernatural creature, set during Christmas. There's still action, but it's on a smaller scale and has a different vibe to it. Unfortunately, superhero movies these days (and a lot of other action franchises) constantly feel the need to up the ante every time. Eh. We'll know soon enough what they do with it, I guess.


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