Sunday, May 25, 2014

"We need you to hope again"


When I announced to my friend a couple months back that a new X-Men film would be coming out, she exclaimed, "another one?!"
I suppose such an outcry is justified, considering how SEVEN X-Men films have been produced in the past 14 years. So why do they keep rolling out?

The opening of X-Men: Days of Future Past is dark and pessimistic. Mutants with a scarred 'M' branded into their foreheads shuffle along a dark corridor to their doom. There is a certain Holocaust overtone to the scene - this is mass slaughter. Patrick Stewart's voice asks, "is the future truly set?"

His question is the undercurrent running throughout the whole movie. Taken back to 1973, a journey facilitated by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has but one task to fulfil: to change the course of the future. He must team up with young Xavier and Eric (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and prevent Mystique from shooting Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the Paris Peace Accords. For Dinklage's murder, contrary to impeding the development of his anti-mutant campaign, rather leads to Mystique's capture and the subsequent exploitation of her DNA to create the mutant-killing Sentinels that wipe out Storm (Halle Berry), Bishop (Omar Sy!!) and indeed the entire mutant race at the very beginning of the film - the 'future.'

Just as how Glee has always been the "Rachel Berry Show," I suppose X-Men is always centered around Logan (I did not just make that comparison) - but the emphasis of this film is undoubtedly placed on the 'younger' generation of mutants; the majority of the actors from First Class reprise their roles. Lucas Till makes a welcome cameo, Nicholas Hoult returns as Beast and of course Jennifer Lawrence takes on the role of Mystique. Yet the true gem of the film is undoubtedly Quicksilver, played by Peter Evans. Unruly, ignorant and capricious, Quicksilver is the key to Eric's prison-break. The best scene in the ENTIRE movie is his single-handed, slow-motion reconstruction of the kitchen so that Xavier, Eric and Wolverine can escape untouched. Jim Croce's Time in a Bottle as the soundtrack to his mischief is just the cherry on top.

Apart from shedding light on new characters, however, Days of Future Past also zooms in on the acute temperaments of its protagonists. When Logan is confronted by a drunken Charles, we get a sense of the utter psychological trauma that followed First Class - Charles is not only obliged to deal with his leg injury but also the heartbreak of losing Mystique and being abandoned by Eric. Eric seems essentially the same man he was before, albeit less preoccupied with the idea of mutant Darwinism. Yet  violence and demonstration remains his key assets: he seems just as ready to kill Mystique as he is to uplift an entire stadium and enforce a siege upon the White House. Somehow, Magneto always turns out to be the antagonist. Thus both Charles and Eric remain ideologically split - the former staunchly believes in appeasement and cooperation whilst the latter gravitates towards the extreme.

The film also offers insights into Mystique's internal struggles and not only those concerning her indecision regarding what she knows she "has to do" and what Charles keeps trying to persuade her to avoid. As in First Class, Mystique struggles with self-identity and image. "Oui, je peux," she responds to the nurse who asks her whether she can imagine waking up to a face "like that." I truly think Jennifer Lawrence leaves a distinct mark in any movie she appears in. It's a magical thing. No wonder everyone in the movie (Eric, Charles, Beast) is in in love with her.

Moreover, X-Men is - as it always has been - visually stunning. I'm not just talking about the effects and the overal grand-scale spectacle - there were so many powerful images in this film. The one that sticks with me the most is perhaps that of Beast hoisted by the metal rings as on public display, his photos snapped as if he were some animal at the zoo. Discrimination and prejudice - are those not still problems we, let alone mutants, continue to face?

Finally, Days of Future Past is ultimately a movie about unity in the face of adversity, and hope - what Xavier calls "the most human power." Beast raises a quantum physics theory about the unalterable nature of time - the current will correct itself no matter how many pebbles are thrown into it, he suggests. But the spirit of hope - the idea that "showing them a better path" can make a difference - is what ultimately leads to the denouement that Logan set out to achieve. Hope is what drives Xavier out of his pity-party and hope is what gives Kitty the willpower to continue facilitating Logan's time travel despite her injury.

Despite the plot turns in the movie, its ending is expected - but not any less satisfying. The scenes of the academy at the end of the movie, complete with Jean, Summer and Rogue, send X-Men fans' minds way back (haha, get it) to 2000, all the way back to X-Men One.

In terms of the final scene of the movie, Stryker's appearance makes sense since his importance was expertly foreshadowed throughout the film. Yet the fact that he is actually Mystique in disguise does seem to suggest a brighter future for Logan and confusingly nullify the contents of X-Men Origins... or does it? Admittedly, Days of Future Past didn't go to great lengths to clarify finer details.

So to respond to the question I posed at the beginning, I suppose the easy answer to why X-Men films keep coming out is that they are lucrative - Hollywood is, after all, a money-sponge to a certain extent. Yet the continued release of these films and their popular reception suggests that there is a 'public demand' element that factors into the making of the X Men films. The actors loves it, the press loves it, WE love it.

Bring on X Men Apocalypse... in 2016!