Is there any literary device more maligned and misused than time travel? I don’t think any other concept has spawned as much confusion and (ultimately) exasperated resignation in an audience. It’s so hard to get right, so I wonder, why do we keep going back to the well on this? I think maybe it’s the universal human desire to get a “do over”; we all have memories which might have played out differently at our current level of knowledge and wisdom. Who wouldn’t like to go back and correct a few mistakes?
If I’m right, though, there may be no more glaring example of pure irony in the history of entertainment. The list of stories that used time travel in an interesting a novel way are hugely outnumbered by the cliché and confusing examples, yet writers keep dusting the concept off for another go. Despite the overwhelming odds that the next story will end up atop the pile of bad examples, writers continue to venture forth into the world of paradoxes, causality loops, and unexplained mechanisms.
How many of those writers would like to go back in time to stop themselves from failing?
(Warning: this entry contains spoilers.)
Days of Future Past is perhaps somewhat forgivable for falling prey to the use of time travel. One could argue that the movie has to utilize time travel as it’s just taking a page from the comics. DoFP is a classic X-Men tale after all. But to me that argument doesn’t hold water. The explanation for time travel in the comics didn’t make any more sense than the explanation in the movie, and they could just as easily have chosen another arc from the comics to use as their inspiration. I would absolutely love to see Joss Whedon’s introductory run on Astonishing X-Men adapted for the screen. It will probably never happen, but the point is that there is no dearth of good ideas which have already been penned by some of the great comic book writers of the past. So, discounting the idea that the story choice was completely arbitrary, why bother with a story that is rife with potential problems? I think the reason is pretty clear, personally.
The ultimate outcome of DoFP in the universe created by the Fox movies is the unification of the three original X-Men movies with the well-received (and in general much better) First Class installment. Secondarily, DoFP effectively wipes the continuity slate clean providing future movies the opportunity to use dead characters or explore plotlines that might previously have been forcibly closed off due to the other stories. In the world of comics this is something of a combination of a reboot and general retcon, two concepts which sometimes frustrate comic fans but are generally accepted as necessary evils.
In my head one of two things happened: either Fox decided they were tired of the corner into which they’d painted themselves or Brian Singer’s ego couldn’t take the idea that people liked an X-Men movie that he didn’t direct. It’s probably the former, but while I have great respect for Singer as a director I can’t completely ignore the tiny conspiracy theorist who resides in the most gullible portion of my brain. In any case, here we are with a movie utilizing a much-beloved story from a golden age of X-Men comics with the intention of streamlining the movie continuity regardless of how well the plot fits the goal. This, I feel, is why they even entertained the idea of a time travel story.
For what it’s worth I feel like they did a decent job getting audience buy-in on the concept. And the mechanism doesn’t need to be explained too thoroughly because, hey, mutant powers. So let’s move on.
I have to admit that I was hugely pessimistic on this movie from the instant I heard the title and director. Of the three original X-Men movies I am in the minority for enjoying the third more than the first two and I put most of that opinion on the shoulders of the director. I won’t get into the weeds, but in general I felt that Singer’s interpretation was slightly depressing and missed the mark on most of the character’s voices, and I thought that Ratner’s attempt captured more of the elements from the comics that makes me an X-Men reader to this day. All three have their flaws and bright spots, but ultimately I love the characters, and I liked the characters more in the third movie.
I very nearly refused to see DoFP in theaters at all, thinking that another Singer X-Men movie would feel like a waste of sixteen dollars. I’m glad I went, though, because while I have my complaints I do feel that the movie was entertaining and worthwhile, and improved my opinion of Singer’s vision for the franchise marginally. He still got to show us his favorite palette of greys in the future scenes and everyone called Ororo “Storm” despite nearly everyone else being referred to by their first names, but I was pleasantly surprised by their use of Pietro (another element I was dreading) and love what Fassbender and McAvoy do as Erik and Charles, especially when they share the frame. As an adult viewer without children the more mature elements were also refreshing, like the occasional rough (but largely character- and situation-appropriate) language and the brutality in some of the fight scenes, even if I was bothered by the fact that Logan seems to possess a body completely devoid of blood. To many fans who’ve been reading stories featuring these characters for years they are essentially real people, and on occasion real people tell each other to fuck off.
Still, I can’t shake the overall feeling that certain elements of the movie were shoehorned into place to serve some non-storytelling purpose:
- Why was Pietro included in the story if not to compete directly with the Avengers: Age of Ultron? Super speed is such a broken power that Pietro’s presence alone could have solved many of their problems, which makes it seem foolish of Charles to send him home after they rescue Erik. And incidentally, just to express a bit of my own inner nerd rage, why show Wanda at all if she and Pietro clearly aren’t twins?
- Other than to get Fassbender back on screen in that two-tiered cape why exactly did they need Erik’s help to convince Raven not to kill Trask? Obviously the results of breaking him out drive much of the following plot, but in the end it was all Charles and his “I believe in the good in you” guilt trip that stayed Raven’s hand. Of course, this argument ignores the events between Paris and DC, which I admit could have influenced Raven. The trouble with time travel is that we’ll never know unless we go back and do it all over again.
Yes, every big studio picture has to contend with product placement, MPAA input, the creative opinions of non-creative people who write the checks, and so forth. The thing is, not every movie that deals with these outside pressures feels like it caved to them. Or maybe some of my issues are just the result of laziness, who knows. I try not to be judgemental about this, as making a movie on this scale must be exhausting and I’m sure at some point hands just get thrown into the air with the hope that the audience isn’t bothered by whatever they can’t or won’t fix.
I feel like Fox tried to up their game with DoFP as a direct result of the success that Marvel Studios has earned, which has dramatically raised the bar for comic book movies as a genre. In some ways they succeeded and in others they appear not to have tried, but ultimately I think they delivered to us an X-Men movie which includes the best of the original three and the best of First Class while still kind of missing the mark. Some of the mistakes aren’t just cinematic, they feel like marketing- or industry-led decisions which in turn makes the movie feel a little dishonest. But largely the problems are due to the very things I think they wanted to address with their movie universe retcon, so I think I’ll keep a slightly more open mind when details of the next one start to trickle out.
And hey, the next one can’t possibly be worse than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, right?