It’s nearly impossible to pry this film from its many contexts to just judge on its own merits as a film. Is there a context that exists for this film to be viewed “objectively”? I think not.
It’s number 7 in the X-Men series, counting the various Wolverine iterations. It’s a “fun summer movie” not meant to be analyzed. It’s a fanboy’s dream, with past and future crashing into one another. It’s also stuffed to the gills with so many good actors, some Oscar winners and some “just” nominees, but all so talented, that it rivals the greatest films in history in terms of casting and thespian talent: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Barry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, and, oh yes, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. And that’s just for starters.
Perhaps the abundance of talent, the two time frames, and the accompanying two X-Men casts have pressed the fanboy button just a bit too much, and have set some reviewers into raves of ecstasy. The film is enjoyable, but its stock will fall over time, and it will find its rightful middle place in the oeuvre.
The film may have a great cast, but only makes great use of two excellent actors and one beloved one. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender get to show their acting skills, with the weight falling more on McAvoy, who obliges well (though with too tight a camera at times). Stewart and McKellen don’t phone anything in but they don’t have that much to do. Lawrence, still the “It Girl” until Shailene Woodley displaces her, leaves her acting skills at home and shows us her fighting skills instead. The talented Ellen Page is called upon to hold her hands up to Jackman’s head for a very long time and look tired. The talented Sy, so delightful in The Intouchables—for which he won the Best Actor César Award—has very little to do and he does it covered up to the point of near unrecognizability. Same for Halle Berry, except we can see her beauty shine through. And Dinklage is fine, though he did better film work in The Station Agent.
The best thing the film does is to use Wolverine to hold things together. Jackman’s best role by far, Wolverine is always a little out of place and time, which holds the two time frames together well; he doesn’t really fit into either place. Wolverine is also—due in great part to Jackman’s performances—the most sympathetic of the X-Men, and one that most viewers would enjoy taking the journey with through time. The only negative is the shot that shows us what incredible shape the man is still in—a shot that completely redefines the word gratuitous.
For several reasons, the film doesn’t add up to the sum of its incredible parts. The balance between the future and the past doesn’t quite work. (And what is it with our love for the ‘70s and Marvel Comics? We just had the newest ‘70s film with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) Since we don’t start in the present, we’re given a rather abrupt intro into the typically blue-grey dystopian world of the near future. (And if I don’t have to type the word dystopian again for a year, I’d be happy.) We don’t become familiar enough with it to care as much as we should, and since we know that the series isn’t going to end, the outcome is as predictable as a TV crime drama with the lead in “mortal” danger.
Then the actual plot line is a problem. With The Avengers, we had a battle that resonated with meaning; we had a knockdown, drag-out worthy of the best action films accompanied by the brand-new and perhaps tentative unity of a bunch of superheroes with issues. Here we have some destruction, but it simply shows how mean the mean people are. The climax (of sorts) is whether Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) is going to shoot someone. We already know the answer, and while the film tries to provide us with reasons why Raven would be acting this way, she comes off as someone more stubborn and self-centered than as one struggling with her internal issues as she seeks her “justice.” The climactic moment is tense to some degree, but is far too stretched out (must everything be down to the last nanosecond?) and not quite weighty enough to support the two time frames, the time travel, the extensive cast and the idea of the entire future of the mutants.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see New York City survive. And not every superhero movie has to end with a battle royale. The attempt to narrow the scope of the plotline is admirable. Yet even with the confines of a superhero world, the climax isn’t quite believable, and it’s too thin a plotline to support the film.
For fans, just another entry in the series is a cause for celebration. For the rest of us, it’s an action-packed, imbalanced film with a great, mostly underutilized cast. Yet for all of us, it is a visit to a fairly well defined alternate universe with strong (and now familiar) characters, with the presence of some of the best actors of our times.