These Stories Aren't About Superheroes: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"
Days of Future Past is a fantastic movie, we’ll just get that out of the way right up front.
In the future,
Skynet the Sentinel program has won, and its robotic soldiers patrol the world, hunting down every vestige of resistance. The world is a gray dystopia of citizen slaves and pyramids of skulls. But the X-Men fight on in the ashes, though it is a desperate and losing fight. They’ve pinpointed though where it all went wrong, and with professional grade exposition, the Picard version of Professor Xavier explains that someone has to be sent back in time to 1973 in order to prevent Miles Dyson Bolivar Trask from developing Skynet the Sentinels in the first place. As Terminators Sentinels close in on their location, they send Kyle Reese the Wolverine back in time to prevent the catastrophe from ever happening.
And yes. He arrives naked.
Look, I know my audience here, so I’ll cut right to it: you get the full Hugh Backman. And yes, while I didn’t pay the extra two bucks because of not liking the inevitable pounding headache, the film is also playing in 3D.
I’m kidding here about the Terminator parallels, not seriously criticizing. There are similarities, but only in the way that we do tend to tell and retell stories with similar elements. The hellish futures imagined by any particular culture do tend to be interchangeable, the solutions too in broad terms. But the beauty of stories is in the detail work, in the steps of the journey. And to head off the pedantic, and point it out to those who don’t know, the story in the movie is from an early-eighties story arc of the X-Men comics, so they drew blood before Cameron anyway.
There are several set piece scenes that are masterful exercises in special effects. Not mere superhuman fist fights, the battles take place using the full advantage of the powers of those involved. Blink and Quicksilver stick out in particular. The former has the power to create portals, yes exactly like the game Portal, though without the signature color coding. Those scenes take place almost entirely in slow motion, not as an annoying directorial affectation, but because it takes the screen slowing down for the audience to really appreciate the four dimensional maze that the battle becomes. Quicksilver, the one who can move superhumanly fast, is played back in the 1970s with a gleeful attitude of manic fun. And his grinning bullet time scene manipulating an entire battle while time is frozen, all while listening to Time in a Bottle on headphones, is both gorgeous and hilarious.
And that’s the thing, the film for the most part lets the side characters have the set piece fun, and then lets the main cast focus in on character driven drama. There is no contrived big bad for the Wolverine to fight for ten minutes at the end. We’ve seen that before. Instead, the focus on these characters, and to be sure some of the best actors working today, is on one of the better stories to come out of superhero comics. And the last ten minutes of the film, though I won’t spoil anything here, but they are a payoff of every X-Men film since the first, and heartbreaking in their joy.
The appeal of the X-Men was never really the superpowers they had, and rarely in the evil threats they fought. It was always in the philosophical tension between Erik and Charles. That’s something that the movies have by and large understood, almost always contriving to put the two on the same side, yet simultaneously in complete disagreement with each other. They’re men who want the same thing, but cannot see eye to eye on how to get there, to the point that they fight each other with far more vehemence than they reserve for their enemies.
The X-Men has appealed to generations of nerds, not because superpowers are wicked cool, or because the Wolverine is everything young Canadians want to be, but because it took that basic idea that “some of us are different, and other people hate us for it” and turned it into a grand opera. But further, instead of just being an exercise in wallowing in victim hood and turning it into a twisted badge of martyrdom, it instead took those who would wear that badge and shone a harsh light on them. The enemies, they are interchangeable and all the same underneath, but my friends we ourselves have two paths: one of empathy and one of power.
Notice there is no way to resolve that conflict of philosophy by brute force, but only by the chess game of ideas. The film’s climax, in one of the best narrative decisions of all the superhero films of the last fifteen years, does not depend in the least on super powers or CGI battles or blowing up a plot MacGuffin. It depends solely on giving a person a choice, and believing the future will be better.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.