The X-Men are mutant superheroes who each boast different abilities. In the world of X-Men: Days of Future Past, mutants are discriminated against and hunted relentlessly by robots called Sentinels. It is in this future that the few remaining survivors invent a desperate method to send one of their own back through time to try and change history.
The X-Men were created in a 1963 comic as a reflection of Martin Luther King’s and Malcolm X’s struggle to end the segregation of African-Americans in the U.S. The wheelchair-bound Professor X was the MLK figure who favored peace and passive resistance, while Magneto was the Malcolm X analogue who believed equality would only be earned through more violent means.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Robert Kennedy and King in 1968. We may look at civil rights now as a story of achievement removed from its images of suffering and struggle, we may be told by commentators with airtime to fill that it was a bloodless progression that ended racism in America, but such is the neglect of history that 50 years’ time can lend our worst moments.
Days of Future Past understands that cycles of violence are how history is defined and, as we become more efficient at killing each other, moving beyond this infinite downward spiral may be the only way we survive as a species. In the past Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent to change, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is imprisoned deep underneath the Pentagon, accused of the assassination of JFK. Wolverine’s mission is to stop sometimes-villain Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from a botched assassination attempt on a mutant hunter name Trask (Peter Dinklage), who invents the Sentinels. Even the climax involves the potential assassination of Richard Nixon, and the risk of an even worse future than the one from which Wolverine is sent.
It’s a complex plot handled deftly, based on one of the original comics and fusing the X-Men trilogy’s cast with the rebooted X-Men: First Class cast. Days of Future Past has a lot of story to tell, but it strikes a fine balance – its action scenes each twist the screws on the plot tighter, while its dialogue scenes subtly hint at characters growing into the decisions that will effect the plot later.
The past and future timelines also allow a style of simultaneous action that is often forgotten in today’s movies. In the service of realism, we usually see one action sequence at a time. This can be important in a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones leaps from truck to truck. All the tension is in the physical performance and choreography. On the other hand, consider the climax of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Three very different battles take place simultaneously: a ground war on Endor; a fleet battle in space; and an intimate duel between the hero and villain. The tension is in the hands of the editor. In Raiders, we have to believe Indiana Jones can do everything he’s doing, that every punch is connecting, so we never cut away. In Jedi, the outcome of every individual battle relies upon the next. Cutting away ratchets up the tension.
Days of Future Past uses the latter approach, taking advantage of its dual timelines beautifully. Because Wolverine’s consciousness travels through time, and not his entire body, in order for Wolverine to save the world in the past, his friends have to keep him alive in the future. In order for his friends to stay alive in the future, Wolverine has to change the past. From an action standpoint, it’s an emotionally charged choice – some characters die more than once and, for the first time in a long time, I saw a superhero movie in which I couldn’t be sure who would survive.
That timeline cycle is built from if-then relationships. If one situation worsens, so does the other, which worsens the former, and so on. From a conceptual standpoint, it’s an emotionally challenging choice. It confronts the viewer with yet another infinite downward spiral, a narrative one, and the only way to break it is to break the cycle of violence that started it. In the end, we’re not rooting for any hero to save the day. We’re rooting for humanity to be better than we have been, to improve and make a far better choice than we have before, to let the cycle of violence go.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is rated PG-13 for violence, brief nudity, and language.