Historically, the X-Men comics have mired themselves in multiple bogs of sticky plot complexities, from alternate universes to time travel to mysterious backgrounds slowly teased out and then retroactively overwritten. Try following the comics' history of the Summers brothers or Jean Grey and Scott's child (who is possibly Cable or Nate Grey? I have no fucking clue). The X-Men films, by dint of being a different medium with different conditions of production and market necessities, streamline the jagged edges of 60 years' worth of history. The films are more a distillation of X-Men mythos than a series of films; they're a greatest hits package. The Marvel movies have tried, artistically unsuccessfully, to provide the complicated backstory and have tried to replicate the stickiness of comic book history (think of Hayley Atwell's 10 second cameo in Ant-Man). The X-Men film series is less interested in plot continuity and more interested in thematic continuity. The zenith of the film series, X2: X-Men United, pushes the central metaphor that mutants are marginalized populations -- such as queer folks; this is not the world's most complicated metaphor, but Bryan Singer's deft hand and queer subject position provide a more stable position for the metaphor.
I rarely read the X-Men family of comics. They felt like a rabbit hole of plot knots, forever being tied and rarely being loosed. I did read Grant Morrison's run, if only because I love the writer enough to follow him wherever. Additionally, I was always a casual fan of the films. I saw X2 and X-Men 3: Last Stand (which is as atrocious as you have no doubt heard) in the theatre, but I skipped First Class until home video release. Singer's return to the film series with DOFP brought back my excitement. While the original comic book is pretty cool, it's certainly not a story I ever feel the urge to read a second time. The allure of the film adaptation is in the return of the original cast and the new cast, an ambitious bridging of the two continuities, but without getting bogged down in specific timelines. The trailers for the film pushed the time travel hook and offered the idea that the film would explore the complicated ethics of the situation. In fact, it felt like an organic continuation of the thematic concerns of First Class. The previous film ended on an ambiguous note, leaving Magneto as the anti-hero, and Raven torn between Xavier's idealism and Erik's pessimism. DOFP looked to extend this conflict by forcing Erik and Xavier to reteam to stop Raven's attempted assassination and remind her of her essential humanity. So not only was the film advertised as having a complex plot, but also having complex thematic concerns. I was sold.
Luckily, the film mostly delivered on these promises. So rare is the superhero film that uses the climax for concluding a thematic arc, yet this movie tried valiantly to continue exploring the meaning of humanity in a post-human world. However, the central metaphor of Singer's previous series was discarded in favour of continuing Raven's arc from First Class. This was no tragedy; I have trouble imagining how Singer could have kept running with it. His exploration of Raven's humanity or lack thereof was quite compelling, especially when fleshed out a smidge more in the Rogue Cut.
Released a year after the theatrical cut, the Rogue Cut, as it's been known, adds around 20 minutes of footage to the film, specifically the addition of Rogue's subplot into the future timeline. Rogue's character in the original trilogy operated as the audience surrogate (a new pupil to the school) and as the central hinge upon which the metaphor of marginalization worked. Her power did not manifest in cool acrobatics or teleportation but rather left her adrift among humans and mutants alike; she could not have her skin touch other skin for fear of accidentally killing them. Her character allowed for the films to explore the idea that sometimes people don't want to be different, they want to be normal, but self-acceptance is healthy.
In the Rogue Cut, her subplot is essentially about match cuts. Previously, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her power to psychically send Wolverine back into his past body. However, when Wolverine sees a young Stryker in the past, he gets upset and his body in the future flails around. His claws extend; they cut Kitty; she is wounded and losing blood. The solution? Free the imprisoned Rogue from the X-Mansion and have her use Kitty's power so Kitty can heal. Not the world's most clever use of Rogue or Anna Paquin but it does allow for this pretty nifty sequence that I have lovingly screenshot.
We open in the past, with a shot of the X-Mansion in its prime.
A neat dissolve to the dystopic future with the scary ships hovering in the background.
A cut to inside a tunnel. We hear Xavier give telepathic directions to Magneto and Iceman.
Cut to Past Magneto entering a hallway.
Reverse shot, showing the obstacle that prevents Future Magneto's forward progress, specifically a large metal wall. Since he is the Master of Magnetism, this is not much of a problem.
A thematic match cut as the metal bar represents the same obstacle for Past Magneto. Here, though, we get a shot of him exercising his powers.
This is matched with Future Magneto pulling the metal wall out.
They walk down a hall. This shot shows all the pipes and whatnot, a set up for a payoff that comes at the end of the sequence. Here, the audience is primed to see these pipes.
This establishing shot is mirrored in a past establishing shot. The camera begins shooting 90 degrees down to the ground and...
...slowly pans up to show that Past Magneto is infiltrating the prison he just escaped.
Here we get a couple shot, reverse shots that's temporally distant. Future Magneto walks towards the camera....
...and in the past, Past Magneto walking away from the camera.
Another obstacle, this time guards. The previous shot (above) shows the audience two metal balls spinning above Magneto's hand.
Here we see that they are weapons in the hands of the Master of Magnetism.
He reaches out towards the wall.
And the wall opens for him.
This was tough to get a screenshot of, but there's a cut a reverse shot of Future Magneto opening a door using his powers.
Reverse shot to over their shoulders. Two unfortunate scientists are working on experiments with Rogue's body. Here, we have another delightful thematic match cut.
A clear shot of poor Rogue, the subject of invasive experiments.
Back in the past, Magneto approaches a glass display case.
We have Havok's chest thingamajigger and one of Angel's wings.
A close-up of Magneto looking at something specific.
We get a slow push-in of the coin that he used to kill Kevin Bacon in the previous film. A coin that symbolizes invasive surgery, oppression, fascism, hatred, racism.
A cut to Future Magneto looking at Rogue's strapped body, reminding him of the horrors he's seen in the camps and throughout his life.
The helmet, the symbol of both his imprisonment (Kevin Bacon originally wore it) and his freedom (from telepathic interference).
Rogue sees Magneto and is frightened because as long as Rogue has known the X-Men, Erik has been the villain.
Past Magneto uses his powers:
Cut to the straps coming off Future Rogue.
The helmet comes out of the glass display...
... into Magneto's waiting hand. He is ready to turn things around.
Magneto, Iceman, and Rogue prepare to leave.
The music and Xavier opening his eyes signals to the audience that something is wrong:
Sentinels are awakening.
Iceman tries to hold them back but...
...he dies. His sacrifice is not in vain though...
...as the pipes we saw earlier light on fire.
The X-Mansion is destroyed. Xavier's legacy is blown away.
This, to me, is one of the better scenes of the film, along with the bravura opening fifteen minutes. It kind of captures a lot of what makes both Bryan Singer and the X-Men so alluring: a combination of neat action and moments of introspection, deftly juggled. The match cuts here are quite excellent (my partner is a huge fan of match cuts. I should convince them to make a film essay cataloguing their favourites).
This also sums up another reason why I enjoyed DOFP more than other superhero films: the stakes are high and maintained throughout the film.
Consider the second sequence from the film (I won't screenshot it): Warpath, Bishop, Iceman, Firedude (I don't know his name), Blink, Colossus, and Kitty infiltrate this place to do something or whatever (supplies I think?). They are intercepted by Sentinels. In a series of action beats, Singer both establishes that this second or third generation X-Men team have fantastic powers that are used quite cleverly (eg Blink uses complicated portals to increase Colossus's inertia, increasing his hitting power) and establishes that the Sentinels are unbeatable through normal means of force. The Sentinels kill each and every one of the X-Men and absorb their powers. The main threat is well established: traditional strategies will not save the heroes of the film and thus an alternative stratagem must be executed.
The "classic" X-Men arrive, along with Magneto (always ambiguously a member of the X-Men, which is what makes him so fucking compelling) and the plot of the film is sketched out. With some clunky exposition, Kitty explains her power for the audience and then Xavier explains his plan of action: send somebody to the past to alter the future. The film cleverly steps aside objections that Erik and Xavier would have previous memories of this by having Kitty state that the timeline is affected the moment the traveller wakes up, which creates a single but changed timeline. Now we have a time travel plot that's simple enough to be explained in a couple minutes but thematically complicated enough to sustain and even extend the themes of the previous film.
The true cleverness of the whole thing is that Wolverine has already been established to not age so it makes sense to send him back as he'll look the same in the past. I mean, let's not pretend that Hugh Jackman is ageless but he looks pretty close to his initial portrayal in 2000's X-Men (good god has it been 16 years?).
The rest of the film fulfils the classical Hollywood storytelling techniques perfectly. A main characteristic of this paradigm is the dual narratives, running parallel. Normally, this would involve an A-plot and a B-plot (sometimes a C-plot). In action films, the A-plot is the threat that the hero must stop and the B-plot is the romantic or interpersonal relationship problem to be solved. Consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Indy must stop the Nazis from finding the Holy Grail and he has to mend fences with his estranged father. With DOFP, the B-plot is depicted concurrently, but not temporally as it occurs in the future. Cutting between the two allows for clever cross-time match cuts though perhaps not quite as cleverly as the climax to Inception (with its nested cascading movements), but it works.
Not perfectly, obviously. The problem with a film this size is that certain cast members will be cast aside. The same problem occurs with Age of Ultron: what character development does Thor have? Answer: none. Unfortunately, the same is true here; Wolverine undergoes little change, just as an example, though I could list the other dozen cast members where this is true.
Mostly, this is a film about the intersecting desires and motivations of Raven, Erik, and Charles Xavier. Though, even Magneto is barely changed by the end of the film. He begins angry and misanthropic and end feeling roughly the same about the human race. Of course, since this is a prequel, we already know that Magneto won't see the error of his ways until he is much older. But then, the same holds true for Raven, doesn't it? We know that the Mystique of the 2000's trilogy is mean, lean, and ruthless. How do we reconcile the Mystique of the 2000's with the Raven of the First Class trilogy? Unfortunately, this will have be reckoned with in the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the 1980s, also directed by Singer.
A few final thoughts: the digital cinematography of DOFP looks awful, really awful. As an avowed fan of Michael Mann and other digital film adopters, even I found myself turned off by the ugliness of the film. The camera cannot keep up with any change of light in a single shot, which creates a subtle strobing effect whenever the angle of light changes. The actors all look sallow or conversely caked in makeup. And the disparity between CGI and real life is increased. It doesn't help that the CGI in DOFP looks cheap as well. Though these superficial elements annoyed me, I was still entertained by the film.
I was especially impressed with some of Singer's more subtle stylistic tics. I noticed that Singer likes to use multiple planes of movement within a shot, one that gives his shots a dynamism (definitely something lacking from Age of Ultron and other Marvel movies -- which look like they were shot for television). He juxtaposes motion in the foreground with motion in the background, which increases visual interest for any given shot. Here's an example.
This is the shot before the shot I want to talk about. Here we have "amateur" Super8 (or something like it) footage of the Past Sentinels starting their flight. Notice that they move from left to right.
Here, we cut to the future; Bishop and Storm notice the coming of the Sentinels.
We cut to what they are looking at.
Back to the X-Men. The following 6 stills are an unbroken shot that lasts about 3 to 4 seconds. Bishop says that they cannot stop them.
Storm says that they can slow them down.
She begins to levitate as the camera begins to move.
The camera moves to their left. Notice now that they are turned to face the same direction that the Past Sentinels were moving towards. In other words, Singer follows the 180 degree rule across time.
Storm levitates out of the frame while Bishop moves forward, to the left of the frame.
This opens space, compositionally speaking, in which Blink teleports in, filling that very same space.
This "call to action" shot is typical of Singer's work with the X-Men film series. In his other two previous films, the frame is usually quite busy with different X-Men moving in different ways. I'm somewhat reminded of Tony Zhou's observation of Kurosawa's planes of motion. In this case, it's a type of parallax motion. It works not only to increase visual interest but it also works thematically, as the different powers of the various X-Men manifest in different ways. Their combined difference is what gives them their edge in conflicts.
Finally, I did enjoy that the end of DOFP is not overly concerned with setup for the next film. There is not a moment where Xavier says to the audience, "there looms a larger threat than this" because that's a stupid thing to do in a story. Doing so undercuts the threat of the current antagonist, diminishing their effectiveness as villains. The Sentinels, in DOFP, share with Ultron only the fact that they are all robots. The differences are huge: Utron never stops talking (it is a Joss Whedon movie after all) and is presented as barely a threat (his drones are easily killed, even by Hawkeye, a dude with no powers whatsoever), and whatever threat he poses is immediately undercut by everybody going on and on about Thanos. Not only that, but DOFP doesn't take 40 minutes to establish the Sentinels as a substantial problem; in 15 minutes, not only are the Sentinels shown to be the primary antagonist but also shown to be pretty much unbeatable. The stakes feel real as opposed to AoU's placeholding status ("guys, just wait until the next movie; it's going to blow your mind").
The Rogue Cut is no substantial improvement over the first version, which I still quite enjoyed. However, it's nice to have if only for that complicated match cutting sequence that I detailed above. Overall, it's a better movie than I think people give it credit for, just because it's so efficiently executed. Also, it's not Age of Ultron; fuck that movie.