X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past makes one thing abundantly clear to me–the superhero genre, though I enjoy and appreciate things about it, is never going to be my favorite, at least not in the way it is currently being expressed. Broad appreciation of these movies appears to depend heavily on how well the latest entry into the “canon” fits into or reconciles inconsistencies in the greater superhero cinematic world. The universe seems to matter more than the individual films. This is a burden, for the filmmakers, the audience, and the films themselves, and few films can stand up under it. World-building, as Josh Larsen explained in his 2012 review of Prometheus, is a distraction at best and disastrous at worst.

In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the world-building is merely a distraction. The film is probably as good as any film can be that exists primarily to reconcile discrepancies created by the post-X2, pre-X-Men: First Class X-Men films. It does this magnificently. I was engrossed throughout, and I highly recommend the film if you’ve enjoyed the other X-Men films. I just wish these superhero films felt the freedom to explore their characters without being beholden to the created consistency of their narrative world. (And it is created, by committee nonetheless, a camel-like meta-narrative made for marketing purposes.)

X-Men: Days of Future Past‘s characters, the actors portraying them, the philosophical values at stake, and the scope of the action sequences on which the narrative depends are all laudable. I would watch any movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Hugh Jackmann, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellan. Xavier and Magneto’s continual argument about the appropriate method of societal integration for their minority group continues to resonate, and particularly so as our own society argues about whether or not you and I should be allowed to eradicate those citizens we deem dangerous. I also liked how, while the whole world is at stake in this film, those stakes aren’t exemplified by a city crumbling to the ground. It was fun to see something new.

Compared to other superhero movies, these X-Men movies—The Last Stand aside—have always been the most Boetticher-esque of superhero films. Budd Boetticher was a director who worked primarily in the 1940s and 1950s, and he mainly made Westerns. Unlike his contemporary, John Ford, whose Westerns were known for their sweeping panoramas, cascading cavalry charges, and broad emotional arcs, Boetticher made simply structured, emotionally complex, and character driven oaters. Ford’s star, John Wayne, is famous as the strong, silent type, but the Duke wasn’t averse to slapstick. Boetticher’s most frequent collaborator, Randolph Scott, is positively terse by comparison. (If you’re unfamiliar with his films and want a recommendation, pick up Ride Lonesome from your local library. It’s a Western Wolverine would love.)

Once again, compared to other superhero movies, these X-Men movies are much more moderately scaled. The Avengers films feature intergalactic wormholes and city-sized aircraft crashing to the earth. Man of Steel tried to terraform the planet. Even Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, a thematically complex superhero franchise if ever there has been one, grew and grew until Gotham itself seemed to be rebelling against the very idea of the superhero. The good X-Men movies’ resolutions typically depend on one-on-one showdowns and instances of moral character-defining decisions for its characters. I mean, the tensest moments in all these films feature two old men playing chess. I love that about these X-Men films.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is similarly scaled. The outcome of the plot hinges on two things: 1) whether or not one character can be convinced to lay down her gun and 2) whether or not another character can be convinced to risk being hurt again. I appreciate those stakes. I can recognize myself in those choices. I like movies that encourage their audiences to end cycles of violence and to open up their hearts to the rest of humanity. I’ll get behind that. X-Men: Days of Future Past is worth seeing, because it truly longs for a better world, and it has a pretty good idea how to get there.

In the days since I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past, and as I’ve watched the other X-Men movies in preparation for an episode of the RS Podcast Jonathan Stoner and I are recording later this week focusing on the series, I do have one question though that I’d love to ask Professor X. I’d like him to explain the hope that he has. He certainly contends valiantly for the underlying goodness of humanity. Magneto, his friend and rival, contends for the opposite, that humanity will only ever try to control and kill the mutant kind. Magneto’s argument is better founded. With each successive film, Magneto’s claim gains credibility as humans try again and again to subjugate the mutants. Still, Xavier’s hope persists. Why?

The X-Men were created in an age of civil rights. Professor X represented the Martin Luther King, Jr. side of the civil rights struggle. Magneto is a sort of stand-in for Malcolm X. (The metaphor oversimplifies both these men considerably, but nevertheless.) Professor X wants non-violent, societal integration. Magneto wants violent revolution. (Unlike Professor X, King did want a kind of revolution, and unlike Magneto, Malcolm X didn’t want to kill everyone. LIke I said, the metaphor is much to simplistic.)

Unlike Professor X* though, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hope is based in something–his faith in Christ. King had a vision of a better world to share, because he believed that the coming of that world wasn’t dependent, ultimately, on him. Jesus will reconcile everything. King was able to rally so many to the cause, because he offered a grounded hope. Xavier appeals to the better nature of human and mutant-kind. Xavier basically argues that good inspires good and bad inspires bad. I agree with that, but I don’t think it leads anywhere except to six sequels with the same thematic value at stake every time. King’s hope has a destination and a guaranteer. X-Men: Days of Future Past is even the first film in the series where Xavier’s philosophy is actually enacted by the characters, and it serves merely to reconcile its universe to itself. It’s more of a cosmic reset than it is a redemption.

It’s kind of ironic, actually. For a movie so concerned with world-building, it can only, ultimately build a moderately better one than the one it has already created. It can do nothing to make all things right. The Marvel universe, of which these X-Men films are a part, is a cosmos full of would-be saviors, none of them ultimately up to the task of truly redeeming the world.

*I suppose one could argue that Xavier’s hope is based in his empathetic ability. He knows the brokenness at the heart of even the worst of humanity, and he recognizes that many of our violent tendencies are based in anger, fear, and grief. There’s something to that. It’s good to give others grace in recognition of the trauma their psyches have endured. However, this argument psychoanalyzes away sin. It proposes that if everyone was properly cared for all the time, there would be no evil in the world. I don’t believe that, because I believe sin springs up unfertilized in the human heart, and it is only uprooted by a force both within and without what is human. In fact, the Without had to become human to dig out the sin from within us. Humanism, like Professor X at even his most powerful, is always limited by its inability to see beyond the human.