Action movies often hinge on whether the good guys can defeat the bad guys in a giant battle royale. But “X-Men: Days of Future Past” presents a different question in its story: namely, can an act of nonviolence – specifically, preventing the murder of someone who arguably deserves to die – result in the desired victory?
As the story begins in the year 2024, the X-Men we know from the original series of films (X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand) are fighting for their lives against a group of robots called Sentinels, which can absorb their individual powers and easily kill them. The reason the Sentinels can do this is because the shape-shifting character Mystique/Raven Darkholme was captured in 1973 after murdering the Sentinels’ creator, scientist Bolivar Trask. Other scientists experimented on Mystique’s DNA and were able to recreate her powers, applying them to the Sentinels.
Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), his longtime frenemy Magneto (Ian McKellen), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) enter the fray with the idea to use Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) power to send Wolverine back in time to 1973 to prevent the murder. However, Wolvie will need help from the young Xavier and Magneto, who at that time, were the most bitter of enemies.
This premise allows Wolverine to enter the universe of the X-Men origin film “First Class” from a few years ago, which starred James McAvoy as a young Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, and Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique. For fans of the series, it’s like getting the best of both worlds by connecting the two sets of actors.
To Kill or Not to Kill
Much like the comic, X-Men movies include a layer beyond action/adventure to make a statement about human dignity. Though mutants in this story have been trying to hide their powers and simply blend into the human race to avoid persecution, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” shows us the black ops program run by Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) that has been secretly killing, dissecting and experimenting on them to see what makes them special and physically superior to ordinary humans. In other words, they’re viewed as objects, not as people, which allows all kinds of horrendous things to be done to them.
Trask believes he’s doing a good thing by uniting humanity, which has just been divided by the Vietnam War, against a common enemy: mutants. In his mind, killing mutants is the path to peace and the only way to save humanity from extinction.
SPOILERS AHEAD: When Mystique breaks into Trask’s office and discovers that some of the dead subjects include her friends from the last movie, she feels devastated and grows even more determined to kill the man who did it. This approach is the opposite of what her idealistic childhood friend, Charles Xavier, would advise because he has always been committed to peaceful co-existence between humanity and mutants.
In the past, Xavier tells Wolverine that the day she killed Trask was the day Raven officially became Mystique and left behind the kind and compassionate girl he got to know decades ago. That murder, Xavier suggests, destroyed a big part of her soul. In addition, the law of unintended consequences kicked in and unleashed a fate on mutants that was the opposite of Raven’s intention. Though there’s no way for her to know that at the time (before Wolverine explains it to her, at least), the choice of murder leads to its own ends.
Mystique’s turn to the dark side was depicted in “First Class” when circumstances led her to fall under the spell of Magneto, who believes that mutants will have to kill and dominate ordinary humans in order to escape persecution. In that sense, Magneto is the same as Trask who rejects the inherent dignity of those who are different from him, deciding instead that violence and murder are the path to peace. In his case,he’s even willing to sacrifice Raven, whom he considered a friend, in pursuit of his ultimate goal. It helps her discover that Magneto’s approach can be just as dehumanizing as Trask’s.
A New Beginning
Over the course of the film, Wolverine has his work cut out for him because he finds Xavier a broken shell of the man he knew in the future after having his ability to walk destroyed in “X-Men: First Class” – and his dream of an education center for mutants taken away by the draft for Vietnam War. In addition, the Magneto of 1973 is nowhere near as enlightened as the one who had rediscovered a common bond with the X-Men of 2024.
Despite the seemingly heavy subject matter, the film deserves credit for not being an overly earnest affair. There are plenty of jokes about the 70s, and a wonderful sequence involving the young mutant Quicksilver, whose ability to run at supersonic speed is matched by his goofball revelry in his power. And in a completely unexpected turn, the story even brings a little redemption to Richard Nixon.
Primarily, though, the film defies convention in that the resolution comes not through an act of violence, but through an act of peace. Xavier and Wolverine’s appeals to the better angels of Raven’s nature prevail and ultimately lead to a better future.
“X-Men Days of Future Past” is a worthy addition to the slate of Marvel movies already released this year (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Amazing Spider-Man 2). It manages to be both entertaining and meaningful, with its focus on higher values and principles. And its cast is filled with actors who bring a great deal of gravitas to their roles. (As an aside, the long-haired, bearded McAvoy struck me as someone who would be captivating to watch playing Jesus.)
If you’re looking for a winning super-hero film, make “X-Men: Days of Future Past” a part of your present.