What differentiates First Class, and by extension Days of Future Past, from the other five X-Men films is the emphasis on relationships. Of course, other films (especially The Wolverine) focus on specific relationships. But First Class examines a myriad of relationships that seamlessly power the story it wants to tell. Days of Future Past eloquently builds off of the primary relationships that defined First Class: Raven/Charles and Charles/Erik. By extension, we also have cursory follow-ups to Raven/Erik, Raven/Hank, and Wolverine/Charles, among others. We also have the relationships between younger mutants in the future (which carries over from The Last Stand), unspoken relationships (Erik/Quicksilver), and relationships that will occur in the future but haven’t yet in the past (Stryker/Wolverine, Wolverine/Jean). The sequel, by nature of its narrative conceit, also allows the viewer to examine the relationship between past and future iterations of the same character and how these might differ given a change in circumstance.
X-Men hinges (and wants to hinge) on the relationship between Charles and Erik. Their friendship, while often extremely estranged, is an emotional counterweight to the drama they face in the main story of any given film. They must continually navigate how to maintain a relationship with no trust but complete understanding of each other’s motivations. The future indicates that these men, despite these differences, find a way to come together and regain a complete friendship. Another core relationship, that First Class fostered and Days of Future Past capitalized on, is that of Raven and Charles. Their bond is showcased in First Class, but under the new influence of Erik, Raven leaves Charles to pursue the more radical side of mutant advocacy. Ten years later, they are out of touch. Raven is radicalized, even by Erik’s estimation, and Charles is desperate to rekindle their lost connection. After repeatedly appealing to her throughout the film, the ending rewards both Charles and the audience by his words finally reaching through to Raven. It’s a powerful moment and the film earns it by crafting the building blocks throughout the story. Days of Future Past ends with little clues on how these events affected future Charles/Erik and Charles/Raven, but I imagine it will be an important component of the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse.
Other things I enjoyed about Days of Future Past:
A heavy reliance on First Class plot lines and characters, primarily because it is obviously the future of the franchise. It is the gateway between the camp of the original trilogy and the kind of comic book films being made today. As the relationships deepen, so too does actual plot from First Class: Raven’s blood is integral to both stories. In First Class, her blood is the key to suppressing obvious mutant traits (or at least that is what Hank deduces before injecting himself and completing the transition to Beast) and in Days of Future Past, her blood is the key to the destruction that the Sentinels will eventually unleash on mutants and humans alike.
Subversion of genre tropes: A downside to being any kind of genre buff is the recognition of the reliance on certain tropes. Some tropes define genres and are necessary as well as expected. (Why else do you think we still learn about the hero’s journey in English class?) The dominance of good and bad comic book movies prepare us for the typical narrative arc we are likely to encounter: origin, transformation, conflict/challenge/threat, resolution. The cleverer scripts will tweak various stages of the formula to offer up a fresh, compelling take on a familiar story. While it is impossible to shake off the skeleton of a coherent narrative (unless you are aiming for confusion), I prefer for films to allow for dynamism. Multiple times during Days of Future Past I found myself assuming where the story was going to go (and was proved wrong) and by the end, I wasn’t sure how it was going to wrap up. That’s exciting and rare for today’s Hollywood climate. For instance, while we can expect Erik to double-cross and/or use his reunion with Charles to his own ends, it happens very quickly — he attempts to kill Raven to “secure the future.” This seems destined to set up a Raven vs. Erik dynamic for the rest of the film, but only a few scenes pass before their first confrontation and it ends more “amicably” than I would ever expect. The overall plot moves with rational purpose but leaves the viewer unclear of what, where, and how the climax of the film will occur.
Parallel storytelling: Whenever you have stories taking place in different time periods or locations, you have an opportunity to use the difference in space to examine and mirror the same themes in both narratives. It can be underutilized or a crutch, but Days of Future Past finds a nice balance that doesn’t draw too much attention to this device. In fact, I wish they would have used it a bit more. There are parallels in action: the Sentinels go on the attack in both 1973 and in the future, at the same time; Wolverine’s consciousness momentarily jumps back to the future at a time of heightened activity in both times. There are relationship parallels: an examination of Erik and Charles’ relationship in 1973 and in the future, as well as Charles’ relationship to his older self.
Time travel conundrums: No time travel movie is complete without addressing the consequences of time travel. This can come in many flavors: what happens when you change something in the past? Can you change the past or will the universe course correct? What happens if you die/get injured/kill someone else who wasn’t supposed to die? Every story approaches these ideas differently and more often than not, the principles of time travel often contradict, even in the same narrative. Days of Future Past keeps it simple and only briefly touches on the idea that you cannot change the past. The public spectacle that Raven, Erik, and Hank put on in Paris ramps up the demand for Sentinels and exposes the “mutant threat” decades before it happened in the original timeline. This leads Hank to question whether they can actually prevent the future. Of course, they can change it — leaving that time travel potential a mere thought experiment. Even Wolverine seems to be confused about the consequences of his own mission: when trying to convince Charles to join him, he focuses on what Charles will tell him in the future (when Charles says he’s never told anyone about his childhood fears, Wolverine replies, “You will.”). He fails to consider that if he fails in the past, that might not happen in the new timeline.
The Star Trek approach: The resolution effectively erases the arc of the original X-Men trilogy, allowing future films to tell the stories of Erik, Charles, Raven and other X-Men however the new writers wish. They are no longer constrained by what those films depict as the future for these characters. Just as J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek creates an alternate timeline to seal off the original series and give itself narrative space to tell new stories, Days of Future Past changes the timeline. Of course, in this case, the alteration to the main timeline indicates that every event in the original X-Men trilogy is now erased. (Not that it seems like many people will complain about this revision.)
These are the aspects that I keep coming back to when I examine the merits of Days of Future Past. As my title indicates, I find the relationships to be the essential part of the story. The actors (namely James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence) all elevate the material by their heartfelt performances. As I rematch these films, and look toward Apocalypse, the relationships between these three characters remain the biggest draw for me. Mutant or superhero, when you acknowledge your powerful characters are emotional as any human, you strike gold.
Some quick, rambling thoughts on why I’m STILL thinking about The Winter Solider:
I finally understand why Captain America is the natural leader of The Avengers.
Cap can lead The Avengers because he embodies the integration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in his films. The first Captain America introduces the cosmic cube — which factors directly into The Avengers, after being “rediscovered” by Howard Stark. It also factors into a long form narrative the MCU is interested in telling, that of Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet (or at least they want us to deduce as much). It also introduces us to HYDRA, which prominently figures into The Winter Soldier and as a major development with SHIELD. Similarly in The Avengers, Cap arguably has little to distract him from the mission, unlike the other Avengers. (Side note: IN FACT, he goes off book to investigate what SHIELD is up to, now obvious foreshadowing for The Winter Soldier.) Tony Stark is caught up in his individualistic tendencies, not being on board with the Avengers Initiative, and Pepper. Bruce Banner must be wary at all times of his capabilities as The Hulk and is used by SHIELD and Loki under false pretenses. Thor is enmeshed in the mission as well as dealing with his brother’s involvement.
When we get to The Winter Soldier, yet again, it moves the most plot –overall–of any of the films that came before it. It’s interesting how each individual superhero arc is used in the MCU. Either they are contained by their own storyline or they have a flexible structure that can take on the big overarching narrative. A successful Marvel film, at this point in the game, is to advance character and/or to advance plot. In theory, a film should do both but you can see different preferences throughout the MCU. Obviously, some stories aren’t shaped by preference but by accessibility; it is hard to take on the grand MCU narrative in a Thor film, where so much of the action is contained in Asgard and other realms. Iron Man 3 focuses on the advancement of Tony Stark as a character and succeeds at delivering that as well as a carefully crafted, contained narrative. The Winter Soldier focuses on tearing down the governmental world the MCU has been building since Iron Man. The film strengthens and deepens Cap’s character by forcing him to confront his past via a myriad of ways, but this is the character development, cherry on top of the complete dismantling of SHIELD.
Finally, how could you not watch this without thinking about “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” (unless, of course, you don’t watch it)? The filmmakers and show runners made it clear that the series has knowingly built towards the events of the film all season. So the series was effectively spinning its wheels all season, waiting for The Winter Soldier to change the game. In hindsight this all seems so risky. Marvel masterminded a continuation of the MCU onto the smaller screen, and wanted the show to be shaken up by The Winter Soldier by the end. While this might sound good in the writer’s room, they must have overestimated how interested fans would be during the wheel spinning phase. The series is now poised to embrace the shake-up caused by The Winter Soldier, but will viewers come back or will “Agents of SHIELD” be the first casualty in Marvel’s fast growing, far reaching universe?
“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is arguably one of the most anticipated shows of the new fall season. And with Joss Whedon as executive producer and co-creator (along with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, experienced Whedonites), it comes supported with the combined fandoms of Whedon and Marvel comics. Before I get down to the praising, here’s my tiny criticism: this pilot is jam-packed. And because of that, the first half moves at a break-neck speed that leaves it feeling rushed. It’s The Avengers in micro but with the added problem of needing to introduce the majority of the characters and deploy them as a team in 30 minutes. Once the team comes together, the pilot actually catches its breath and settles into the final action sequence. And from there, I was hooked.
Whedon fans, rejoice!
Whedon vehicles seldom come without a familiar face or two, and in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” we get J. August Richards from “Angel” and Ron Glass (Shepherd Book) from “Firefly.” And even though this show seems like a meta-pop culture reference just by existing, we still get a barrage of other references, with my favorites being Terminator‘s T-1000, cosplay, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
If that’s not enough, perhaps the strongest indication that we’ve got the Whedon persuasion going on is the subversion of genre norms. The introduction to J. August Richard’s Michael Peterson character initially plays out like an early episode of “Heroes.” By the second half, instead of rising to embrace his abilities for the common good, he does a good job of demonstrating how power corrupts (“it’s an origin story,” he explains about his actions). Similarly, his act of heroism is tainted by the revelation that the woman he rescued at the outset is connected to his tech (she’s his doctor).
Whedon fans, take heed!
Yes, Joss Whedon’s name is splashed in all the right places, but the show still lacks a certain, obvious Whedon-y stamp. Not that it’s a problem, but initially the pilot plays as a really good impression of Joss Whedon writing; I found that distracting, especially all of the humorous bits. The lines had the same rhythm of a typical Whedon quip, but it lacked his voice. In other words, (and this might sound harsher than I intend it to come across) it sounds like Buffy fan-fiction I wrote in middle school. It’s striving for Whedon but failing, especially if you are experienced with the real deal.
Tie-ins from the Marvel Universe
I think I’ve seen all the Marvel Phase One movies and as a result have working knowledge of the callbacks to those plotlines in the pilot. Honestly, the baseline for what to watch prior to getting into the show is The Avengers. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are even more references that went straight over my head. But that’s okay, because I may have missed them but I didn’t feel like I was missing them, you know what I’m saying? I don’t think any of the Marvel Easter eggs in the pilot would significantly hurt a blank slate fan from tuning in, which is very good. However, knowing the references definitely enriches the viewing experience. Some of those things:
- The attack on New York from The Avengers. The world has now seen superheroes and aliens. It’s a brave new world where these figures are revered like the fictional heroes that they are: just like in our reality, you can own your very own Hulk figurine, but in Marvel’s world you get to worry about meeting him in person. (Sort of like, “So They Say” from Joss’ Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog…am I right?). Their exposure is a direct link to the mission statement of the new S.H.I.E.L.D. team and the show itself.
- Maria Hill. Further linking us to The Avengers film, Cobie Smulders reprises her role as Maria Hill, who along with Agent Phil Coulson, provides a direct link to the movie universe. With “How I Met Your Mother” ending, it’s possible that Cobie will make herself available to “S.H.I.E.L.D.” in subsequent seasons. Right now I feel optimistic in predicting another season since the premiere drew in the largest audience for a network drama debut in four years.
- Speaking of Agent Coulson, he is indeed back. While we initially get a lame explanation about how Nick Fury faked Coulson’s death to rally the Avengers and a running joke on Tahiti, something else is up. (“He really doesn’t know, does he?”). The guess on everyone’s mind seems to be: Life Model Decoy.
- Chitauri. The opening action sequence in Paris finds agent Grant Ward on the hunt for a piece of Chitauri tech, the alien race that invades New York in The Avengers.
- Best nickname for/allusion to Loki?: “Asgardian Mussolini.”
- Dr. Erskine. The doctor who perfected the super soldier serum used by Captain America in World War II is name dropped when the team attempts to figure out the tech on Michael Peterson.
- Extremis. As part of his transformation, Michael Peterson is revealed to be suffering the effects of “Extremis,” the tech developed by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) in Iron Man 3. The explosion that kicks off the pilot is also revealed to be caused by another test subject under the effects of Extremis.
It’s no surprise that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” gifts us with a diverse, compelling ensemble. Along with Coulson, we meet: Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), an agent who can obviously kick-ass but was perfectly riding a desk job for unknown reasons; Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), another agent with an implied troubled past; Skye (Chloe Bennet), a blogger who (again, for reasons unknown) wiped her identity clean; and Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) as the geniuses in charge of all things science and technology. I am particularly excited to see what the show does with Iain De Caestecker, if only because I really miss “The Fades” and I’m excited for this to be his new gig.
I’m incredibly excited to see what this season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has in store and personally have high hopes for its trajectory and longevity.