After watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past” last weekend, I found myself confounded by the fifth installment in the long-running franchise about mutants with superpowers who have to navigate a society that is immensely, sometimes violently, suspicious of them.
It was not only the plot, which jumps between two timelines, that does not quite add up. In the first, a decade or so hence, mutants have been hunted nearly to extinction by robots called the Sentinels, persuading old enemies Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) to band together with Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send Wolverine‘s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time. In the second, Wolverine tries to warn the younger iterations of the two older men (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) that they should prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating an inventor and government contractor, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), whose death prompts the federal government to put the Sentinels into production.
Rather “X-Men: First Class” seems to have spent so much time playing with mutant superpowers that director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg seem to have forgotten how actual humans make decisions. In the hopes of clarity, I talked to the Opinions section’s relevant expert on all things absurd and my fellow nerd, Alexandra Petri. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Rosenberg: Alex! You and I both saw “X-Men: Days of Future Past” this weekend. And since then, I think we have been grappling with the same basic impression: that this movie, though blessed with some truly splendid actors and the brilliant idea of John F. Kennedy as a mutant (presumably with the ability to seduce the ladies), is fundamentally ridiculous. Am I wrong?
Petri: You are not wrong! As someone who watched “First Class” [the previous movie] a distressing number of times and was looking forward to seeing the gang of magnificent weirdos get back together, my mouth was delighted, but then my stomach had some issues and questions. Also, I demand an “X-Men: Origins: JFK” movie, preferably with Bryan Cranston as LBJ involved somehow.
Also: Did all the Kennedy siblings have powers? What was Teddy’s?
Rosenberg: I am not going to answer that question about the Kennedys on the grounds that it may incriminate me.
But one thing I was really struck by in this film is that “X-Men” has always been a franchise that’s deeply rooted in social and political ideas. In this movie, the sense of human motivations seems very out of whack. We spend much of the movie thinking that the U.S. has refused to build powerful anti-mutant weapons, even though the government believes a mutant killed President Kennedy. Theoretically, the death of a government contractor is going to change this calculus.
Petri: Yeah, that definitely bothered me! I’ve tried a number of explanations. “No, but you don’t understand: People in the ’70s really love and respect their obscure government contractors!” “Maybe they knew JFK was a mutant and, er, this led to a –.” No, I got nothing.
Another thing that bothered me was Mystique’s role in all this. So much of the “X-Men” universe can be broadly summed up in the injunction: “Erik? Charles? Get a room, and work this out among yourselves.” And this movie did not disappoint on that front. But given how it kept making a big deal about how Mystique’s choice was what would determine the future, it startled me how much she was just a pawn in one of their usual chess games.
Rosenberg: Oh, yes, my goodness. The strength of the past two films in the franchise is a willingness to foreground the tension between Professor X and Magneto, and to acknowledge it as sensual and emotionally intimate. But in this case, it crowds out Mystique’s decision-making process.
Petri: Right? It all boils down to, “Hey! I’m not telling you what to do!” “Wonderful! Well, now that we’ve established that, I will do what you want me to do.” There was room for a third path and when it started, with Mystique out on her own doing rogue mutant things, it seemed like that might be where this was going.
Rosenberg: Yes. I was vastly more interested in Mystique’s solo save-a-mutant campaign than I was in almost anything else going on in the movie. A film about the use and abuse of mutants in Vietnam and Mystique’s intervention to save them would have been a terrific action movie!
Petri: Yes! I would watch the pants off of that!
Rosenberg: Literally, in her case! [Mystique is a shape-shifter who, when not pretending to be someone else or a non-mutant human, generally does not wear clothes.]
Petri: Heyo! Is that uncomfortable? She seems okay, but I kept wondering.
Rosenberg: The way the franchise handles Mystique’s nudity is sort of strange. She is nude, but her nipples and pubis are obscured in a way that sort of blunts her secondary sexual characteristics. None of the movies seem to have figured out a way to make that full display of her blue body seem as truly defiant and challenging as it might have been.
Petri: Oh, that’s true! In “First Class,” it’s also a strange dynamic with Charles telling her “put some clothes on” and averting his eyes in a way that implies she isn’t totally Disney-Level Nude, while Erik is all “Something something, tigers don’t wear pants, something something.”
(Also, what happened to everyone’s dress sense? In the ’60s, they really seemed to have their act together, fashion-wise, and then — everyone’s in hideous red shirts and these weird double capes.)
Rosenberg: Well, I feel like the movie has very little sense of ’70s aesthetics, with a few exceptions, like those that give them opportunities to display Wolverine’s chest hair or the brutalist design of Trask’s office.
Petri: It was very Wikipedia ’70s. “Flared pants! Those were a thing, right? And — a lava lamp!”
Rosenberg: Which is unfortunate, because given the era and themes of the movie, they could have made a strong, good-looking paranoid thriller.
Petri: Although I have to say, I liked the movie’s sense of fun. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) was just a delight.
Rosenberg: Yes! Quicksilver was terrific, both because it was the movie daring to be silly and make a tonal shift, and because it is the first really different interpretation we have seen of superheroism in this or any other franchise in quite some time. He’s teenaged, but without Peter Parker’s angst, he’s silly without Tony Stark’s focus, he’s just genuinely puckish without being nuts like Loki.
Petri: Puckish! That’s exactly the word! It’s amazing how much fun it is to watch people who seem to be having fun with their powers instead of just moping around feeling great responsibility.
Rosenberg: I really think superhero movies need to give themselves some permission to be silly. I badly hope “Guardians of the Galaxy” will take us in at least some of this direction.
Petri: Hey, if a movie with a talking raccoon and a hip young Ent can’t do that (aaah my lack of nerd cred on this universe is showing), what can?
Rosenberg: “Hip young Ent” is now my new favorite phrase of all time. Also Andy Dwyer in space! Speaking of which, can we discuss Chris Pratt’s revolutionary silliness for a moment?
Petri: I am super excited! I’m curious why you say “revolutionary,” though! Do go on …
Rosenberg: Well, I adore “Parks and Recreation” and Pratt’s performance as a human puppy dog in it. He brought some of that to “Zero Dark Thirty,” where he was the slightly-inappropriately-lighthearted member of SEAL Team Six. Now, he is moving into this Grim Superhero space with that same sort of off-kilter energy.
What I think is sort of special about him, and that could be particularly special in this genre, is that Pratt is a reasonably masculine guy, but the characters he plays, even in a small part like the one he had in “Her,” tend not to be obsessed with status or afraid to admit what they do not know. It’s sort of masculinity without fear stalking it.
Petri: Oh, wait, he WAS in “Her”! I’d forgotten that! He’s always a welcome presence, and I agree that his is an energy that’s been absent from the superhero realm so far. You’ve got the motormouthy-too-cool-for-school Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, the Holden Caulfield by day/sassmaster by night that is Andrew Garfield’s new Peter Parker, but this kind of chill silliness is going to be fun to see.
Rosenberg: As a meta question, though, how did you feel about seeing the movie given the recent sex abuse allegations against Bryan Singer?
Petri: Oh, this question. My default position on things like this is that I try to judge things on their own merits — movies, books, chicken sandwiches. My feeling is that if you assume that only good people can make good or enjoyable things, you miss out on most of the great art in history. Ugly people can make beautiful things.
This being said: This obviously isn’t Great Art In History, it’s a movie right now. What am I supporting when I go see it? Ideally, it would just be an endorsement of the movie, not an endorsement of the behavior of people behind it. But when it’s something like a movie where you have to interact with lots of people on set and run a show, it’s a different question than a guy sitting writing a novel in an attic. The short answer is, I tried to judge it on its own merits; but equally I hope people will judge him on his own merits when the allegations are heard.
Rosenberg: Of course. This is an issue that has come up more and more often, though, be it Orson Scott Card’s anti-gay advocacy and “Ender’s Game” or any Roman Polanski movie ever. I tend toward a suggestion I first promulgated a while ago, that feels particularly salient to me with franchises or films that claim social significance: offsetting the price of my movie ticket with a donation. That way, however many cents of my ticket could possibly go to Singer’s parties, or Card’s political donations, or Polanski’s life on the run, more money is going directly to counter that.