Hugh Jackman’s acting chops take on a literal presence in the X-Men movies. Illustrious sideburns are one of two defining features of the franchise’s most famous character, a singlet-clad centrepiece of bad attitude named Wolverine.
The other is a set of freaky retractable claws that jut out from his knuckles, making Freddy Krueger’s scissor gloves look like wearable butter knives.
Notwithstanding a gluttonous amount of shots framing Jackman’s bulky physique, so puffed-up and vein-ridden he looks kind of freaky, the grizzled hero wears a surprising amount of clothing in his latest outing. Not just any old rags, either: Wolverine is garbed in funky ’70s outfits, hurtled back in time in the hope he can prevent the past from becoming a dystopian future where indestructible robot-like beasts slay the franchise’s beloved mutants.
It is in these movies (seven in total, including two spin-offs) Jackman has worked hardest to shirk his middle of the road persona: the all-singing all-dancing Boy From Oz; the happy-go-lucky Uncle type who appears in Lipton Tea commercials and seems to genuinely appreciate their, erm, artistic values.
What began as a good aesthetic fit from the casting couch (Jackman and those beefy chops certainly bear a resemblance to Marvel’s grizzled comic book icon) has evolved into a good routine all-round. Well-versed in Wolverine’s semi-wicked ways (the films would like us to see him as an anti-hero; really he’s an angry sounding good guy), Jackman is in fine form in director Bryan Singer’s balls to the wall superhero spectacle, which has in its SFX stuffed bag a big surprise for audiences fatigued by endless caped crusader adventures.
The surprise isn’t spectacular set pieces, first-rate CGI or quality performances from an all-star cast. It’s the brains behind the brawn: Days of Future Past is a tirelessly creative chunk of blockbuster bravado, stuffed with technical and dramatic innovations that put playing smart before playing hard and fast.
The title suggests something of a time travel soap opera. Notwithstanding huge bursts of CGI splattered carnage to break up interpersonal dramas — including a long-running feud between friend-n-foes Magneto and Professor X — that’s not completely off the mark.
In the era of Nixon and bellbottoms, Wolverine must convince younger versions of Magneto and X (Ian McKellen/Michael Fassbender and Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy) to a) get along and b) collaborate to prevent the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing a mutant-hating dwarf. This provides governments an imperative to develop technology that eventually sends the world to hell in a computer rendered handbasket. As McKellen says when asked about the whereabouts of his character in the ’70s (underneath the Pentagon, well away from anything made of metal): “It’s complicated.”
Co-written by Singer and Mathew Vaughn, Days of Future Present appears to take its thinking from the opening sequence of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, one of cinema’s sterling examples of post-modern superhero narrative.
Singer and Vaughn pick up the ball and run with it: history is up for grabs, and much of their brainstorming revolves around rethinking their characters as they rethink their context.
Through medicine the young Professor X, for example, has regained the ability to use his legs at the cost of being addicted to injecting drugs, becoming one of the superhero universe’s highest profile junkies. Magneto was involved in the JFK assassination, his power to manipulate metal a fitting explanation for the magic bullet theory.
It’s this sort of thinking – pursuing how to reinvent familiar characters while weaving them further into the fabric of their reality – that sends the script rocketing into all sorts of interesting directions. Mixed with stunning action sequences, including a fast-paced battle that borrows from puzzle-platform video game Portal and a whoa mumma moment involving a football stadium dumped on the White House, there’s plenty of popping candy to help the medicine go down.
It may have taken the talent behind the X-Men movies seven attempts to make a great one, but the wait was worth it. If every superhero movie of recent years were as smart as this one, the genre would be celebrated with words like “New Wave.”