Fox’s mammoth ‘X-Men’ panel unites old and new casts for a great Hall H moment

SAN DIEGO – By far, the worst kept secret at this year’s Comic-Con was the planned “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” panel, but I will give 20th Century Fox this much. While everyone was sure the film would be part of the panel, I don’t think anyone knew quite how far Fox planned to take things, or how much of an emotional charge it would pack.

The “X-Men” films in general hold an odd space in the evolution of the genre. They are absolutely pivotal in terms of pushing the entire idea of superhero movies forward. The first film was a game of Russian Roulette as far as Fox was concerned. Even after they greenlit the movie and watched dailies as they came in, they panicked and cut the budget and forced the filmmakers to adapt on the fly. The studio made choices out of fear regarding costumes, marketing and even casting. They held their breath when they released “X-Men,” sure they were about to get clobbered…

… and then people liked it. It wasn’t massive, but it was a hit. And it was a big enough hit that they moved forward with a second film. And again, just as soon as they started into production, they started losing their nerve, and it turned into another corporate game of chicken with filmmakers pushing hard to do something cool and execs pushing hard to make sure it wasn’t all too damn “comic book.” It was a fascinating era, and as much as fans are sure they know the story of how the first three “X-Men” film got made and what the decisions behind those films were, they don’t. Not really. There were battles about everything. There is a reason you still haven’t seen the Sentinels in the movies, and that reason left the studio not too long ago. A comic book with decades of history was held hostage by any number of outside influences, and the results are movies that genuinely try to capture the spirit of a world, and they succeed in ways, and they fail in ways, and they are all covered in development battle scars that define the movies.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” felt like an attempt to start one franchise that could stand separate from the main stories. They could just do a movie about some of the major mutants, looking at their early days and tracing their development. That way they weren’t married to the same continuity they’d already established. Except by doing the first film with Jackman once again playing Wolverine, they sort of did marry it to the early continuity by default. I’ll be honest… I’ve seen that film one time, and it rubbed me the wrong way so completely that I have no interest in seeing it again. I don’t need to recall all the ways it failed. It is enough to have witnessed it once. More than any of the others, it felt like a laundry list that marketing submitted to the producers that someone mistook for a script.

But the idea of going backwards is an idea that seems to have taken root at every studio in town. Prequels became all the rage, and the “Origins” series was all about the idea of the prequel. And who says you have to do a prequel about a hero, necessarily? Couldn’t you do just as interesting a movie about one of the villains in the world? Especially a villain who survived the death camps and was part of the formation of the X-Men in the first place?

I confess that I don’t know the full story of how “X-Men: First Class” came together, but I do know that it was a project that had a ticking clock attached to it the moment it was announced. Matthew Vaughn is a fiercely independent filmmaker. As long as I’ve known him, he has had a fairly evident disdain for the ways studios spend money, and he’s believed that he could do it better for a better price. He’s made a career of it, so it was surprising to see him take this Fox film that was sort of the exact situation he walked away from when he chose not to make “The Last Stand” after helping to develop it. Whatever his reasons, however it happened, I think “X-Men: First Class” is a really interesting restart for the series. I would be perfectly happy if they just moved forward from that film and started everything else over.

Except once again, they dropped Hugh Jackman into the film. And joke or not, that suddenly tied “First Class” to the continuity of the original three films, which was just weird, and which didn’t totally sync up.

It is little wonder a post-Rothman Fox, looking at what an asset the overall “X-Men” universe can be, has decided to make “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” a great big shiny reset button of a movie that can erase all mistakes, forgive all sins, reset all origins, and, hopefully, give “X-Men” the long legs it needs to be a cash cow for decades to come for Fox.

It felt like Fox rushed through their “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” and “The Wolverine” presentations today in order to preserve as much time as possible for “Days Of Future Past,” a pretty clear sign of just how important to them this film really is. Bryan Singer came out to introduce the clips package and to talk about what he’s been doing with the film. He pointed out that they’re actually shooting the film in native 3D, and it was pretty evident when we saw the footage. I saw it twice today, and I’d still have trouble describing it in any sort of detail. There’s a lot going on in what we saw. What’s apparent is that Wolverine is approached by Professor Xavier and Magneto, played once again by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and Xavier is well aware that at some point, he died. He remembers what happened to him in “The Last Stand,” but somehow he’s back, and he tells Logan that he needs his help if they’re going to prevent a full-scale war that will wipe most of the world’s mutant population out completely. We get a glimpse of Bishop (Omar Sy), and we see a much older Rogue (Anna Paquin) as well as Storm (Halle Berry). They figure out a way to send Wolverine back in time so that his consciousness will appear in his younger body, and Xavier needs Logan to convince the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and the younger Erik (Michael Fassbender) to set their differences aside for the good of everyone.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Stewart asks as we a see a close-up of his eye opening.

A much-older Wolverine (an interesting image after you see how little he’s aged from WWII to today in “The Wolverine”) replies, “I had a little glimpse into the past.” When we see the place where they are, it’s one of the most surreal sets I’ve ever seen in an “X-Men” movie. I want to see the future they have ended up in, because I guarantee we barely saw any of it in this footage. Everyone’s wearing armor of some sort, with both Stewart and McKellen in very similar outfits.

“You’re going to have to do for me what I once did for you,” Stewart says.

McKellen steps up next to him. “You need me as well. Side by side to end this war before it ever begins.”

It seems like the McKellen version of Magneto has been humbled based on what we see here, like he’s finally seen the price of the path that he advocated for in all of the films. He knows what it will cost everyone, human and mutant alike, and it’s not worth it.

Logan asks what he’s supposed to do and they tell him to find Xavier and convince him first. We see a shot of McAvoy heading into Cerebro, and it’s obvious it’s far more refined than it was in “First Class.” We also see a shot of Fassbender, floating above the front steps of a building, using his powers to rip aside some sort of gate. He warns Wolverine that the younger Erik is on a darker path than Charles, and we see Mystique, one tear rolling down her blue cheek.

Xavier is pleading with Logan by this point. “Lead me. Guide me. Be patient with me.”

With his best Eastwood sneer, Logan says, “Patience isn’t my strong suit.” And then  a quick cut and ZAP. He’s back in time.

Here’s where things get crazy. We see a door in the floor of the Oval Office open. I’m pretty sure we saw a shot of Nixon. We got a great shot of Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Task, complete with a ’70s porn-stache that has to be witnessed to be fully appreciated. There’s a crazy shot of a shirtless younger Wolverine positively shredded from bullet holes. We see the Beast freaking out at one point. We see someone being held underwater, unable to breathe.

And then at the very end, we see McAvoy, tears in his eyes, touching Logan’s face, and in voice-over, McAvoy says, “I don’t want your suffering. I don’t want your future.”

The final shot gave me chills. It’s McAvoy and Stewart in frame together, looking at one another, as Stewart says, “Please. We need you to hope again.”

Wow. It looks like the thing that this movie is pushing more than anything else is the emotional crescendo of this philosophical battle that has defined the Erik and Charles relationship since the very start of the series. And if they do that, if they can pull that together, that’s a powerful spine to use to build the rest of the film.

What followed was, by far, the biggest emotional moment that I saw happen in Hall H yesterday. I think the “Guardians Of The Galaxy” footage may have been my favorite stuff all day, and I suspect “Gravity” is a better film than anything else we saw advertised during my time in Hall H this year, but in terms of pure fan bliss, it was amazing to watch them bring out Omar Sy, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, and Evan Peters together, perhaps the single largest cast gathering I’ve ever seen for a film in Hall H. You have to remember… for people who are there to cover the even for the press, it’s one thing to see a number of actors together. I always try to sit near the back of Hall H because I think it’s ridiculous for me to try to sit where I can see the movie stars. Those seats should be for the people who spend 15 hours camped outside, the people who traveled to San Diego from other countries, the people who may never see these actors in person again. And those people, the ones sitting around me at the panel? They lost their minds. They went berserk as each new person filed out.

Finally, with writer/producer Simon Kinberg, producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, and producer Hutch Parker settling it at the far end of the dais as well, they began to introduce themselves and try to describe something about their characters without giving away any of the plot details. Evan Peter described Quicksilver as “really fast, and a bit of a spaz.” Dinklage seemed to take great pleasure from announcing himself as Bolivar Trask. Fassbender seemed preoccupied with a “You’re Next” mask that he found behind the podium. Geoff Boucher asked him what it was.

“I’m not sure,” Fassbender said, “but I think we’re becoming friends.”

Singer talked about how crazy the logistics of making this film have been and how hard it’s been to schedule, but it seems like the sort of problem he’s pleased to have. I would imagine there was a point where Singer must have figured he was never going to be able to return to the series thanks to the way things went down when he chose to do “Superman Returns” instead “The Last Stand,” and he seemed very pleased by the reactions of the crowd. He said he’s loved blending the casts like this and watching how things work as a result.

Boucher asked Stewart how this film family compares to the “Star Trek” family he developed over the course of his “Next Generation” career. Stewart seemed very sincere when he said, “We’ve heard the word ‘blessing’ here several times today, but to get this experience once in a career would be amazing. Twice is extraordinary.”

One of the things that I love most about Ian McKellen is the way he has forced a certain segment of fandom to be more open-minded simply by virtue of who he is. He has never disguised himself or played down who he is or who he loves, and for fanboys who have no personal experience with gay family members, it was no doubt valuable for them to have to get their heads around the idea that Magneto and Gandalf is an openly gay man. More than that, he is an enormously charming speaker, and I would imagine he has shattered stereotypes for many people who needed it. And yesterday, he opened with, “I feel safe here again now that you got rid of Prop 8, so I’m here looking for a husband. Nice to meet you, Michael.” The smile on Fassbender’s face when he waved back at Ian was hilarious.

McKellen also took advantage of the moment to mention that he and Stewart are doing “Waiting For Godot” and a Harold Pinter play in rotation this fall on Broadway, and if he can turn fanboys on to Beckett and Pinter, that’s an even more amazing feat.

Halle Berry shared one thing she loves about Storm and one thing she hates about Storm. “I love that she’s the Earth Mother of the group. She’s the calm cool voice of reason. What I hate, though, is that she never gets any love.” She turned to the crowd and admitted that they know the comics better than she does. “Is she asexual?” she asked. Several people shouted back to her that Storm ends up married to Black Panther, but I’m not sure she heard the replies.

Kinberg talked about what a preposterous bench of talent they’ve got to draw on in a film like this and how much they’re working to honor the books. There are many X-Men fans who probably cringe when they hear that, just as there are fans who roll their eyes when the makers of “Star Trek Into Darkness” talk about honoring the original series. I think Kinberg is sincere, and I think he’s really trying to do right by the spirit of “Days Of Future Past.” I think there are also going to major differences that are more a function of continuity to the film series than anything else, but knowing there are fans who still can’t get past Hugh Jackman’s height, it is evident that you can’t please everyone, nor should you even try.

The truth is that the Fox series has never hewn particularly close to any one story from the books, playing mix and match instead, and “Days Of Future Past” is certainly going to be more of the same. If you’re not onboard at this point, I doubt this is going to be the band-aid that suddenly fixes everything, but if you’re a fan of the films, this looks like it could end up being a summation of everything we’ve seen so far.

The last big question for the panel was “What X-Man character is your favorite, besides the one you play?” I think most of the panelists answered it more as “Who else would be fun to play?”, but Jennifer Lawrence had the best answer, shrugging when it was her turn. “My character can already do that with everyone else, so…”

When the panel concluded, I saw the only standing ovation of the entire week, and it seemed to be everyone in the hall. They screened the footage a second time, but it was the entire legacy of the series that people were on their feet cheering, and that’s the exact bait Fox is hoping will get you into the theater when the film opens.

Oh, and just for comparison’s sake to the opening paragraph of this piece, the best kept secret in San Diego this weekend? The “Avengers” title reveal. Well-played, Marvel. Well freaking’ played.

“X-Men: Days Of Future Past” hits theaters May 23, 2014.