X-Men: Days of Future Past opens in a very near future Manhattan aglow by the neon gleam of prison camps for the Mutant-Other. Recalling present day Palestine and no doubt the Jewish ghettos of WWII, which too served as opening stages for X-Men (2000) & X-Men First Class (2011), we immediately receive what’s at stake here. Though not quite the allegorical militainment of other Marvel film franchises (Iron Man, Captain America) the X-Men franchise has always offered liberal’s length commentary on contemporary
societal ills via narrative parallels and character metaphor.
The thematic debate from which the X-Men and Brotherhood of Mutants are born somewhat follows that of MLK and Malcolm X, personified in professor Charles Xavier and Magneto, respectively. However this future timeline of DoFP’s speculative history proves Professor X’s respectability politics (“if only we show the humans how kind and safe we are, we can peacefully coexist”) as toothless and in many ways giving agency to the genocide we witness. This debate is tossed aside in DoFP as there’s a sincere fight for survival by the last remaining mutants held up in a Himalayan outpost. Here they must traverse, literally, time and space to duck an endless army of sentinels fading mutants in Mortal Kombat fatality fashion.
Let’s pause for a moment. I don’t wish to review the plot of DoFP as the anachronisms of time travel narrative loop holes would obscure the purpose of this response. Just know these robotic sentinels were created in 1973 by the military scientist Bolivar Trask (caricatured by the misused yet masterful Peter Dinklage). Now Wolverine’s consciousness must be sent back in time to stop shape shifting Mystique (yes somehow the future genocide of mutants is the fault of another mutant) from murdering Trask. This murder frames Trask as a martyr and fuels his cause and creation of the sentinels as Mystique’s DNA is weaponized providing the robots the skill to adapt to any mutant attack. This set up supplies the thesis of Professor X and indeed director Bryan Singer’s argument that violence begets violence. We’ll speak on this in a minute.
One note about this set up though. DoFP subtly shows us a bleak vision of the world not unlike our own. This is a world in which the U.S. and its military industrial complex may invade any nation to rid the earth of terror(ists) here represented through mutants. The sentinels and those who created them have an obligation or mission to liberate the world from the mutant threat in the same way drones operate transnationally with near impunity. Cause when the U.S. labels you a threat, there’s nowhere to run or hide, not even in alternate timelines or Himalayan temples. Whether this set up encourages the existence of the U.S. military industrial complex or serves as a point of critique remains to be seen.
Mystique’s character in DoFP provides a point of entry for understanding comic book logic, its narrative tropes, and the ideological underpinnings of the X-Men (film) series. The creative liberties and chaos of comic book storytelling lies outside of traditional cause and effect narrative momentum. Simply put, any fucking thing could happen at any moment and it’s all good. All one has to do to resolve a dramatic problem is have a character (indirectly) explain a solution to the audience. No matter how ridiculous it is, it will succeed. I don’t mention this critically but rather with childlike excitement and awe. This lends itself well to spectacle storytelling equipped with all the CGI and SFX our eyes can intake.
For example, the very nature of Mystique’s mutant ability to shape shift into any character is exploited countless times in DoFP. Within each scene, I felt as if Mystique could reveal herself to be anyone. ANYONE. She could be me writing this response provoking my mutant brethren readers to enslave the humans. She could be you watching the film in the theater. However, with these endless plot driven possibilities, we get great action set pieces but dramatically there is no emotional depth or weight anchoring them. The constant plodding forward to the next spectacle proves any plot point, be it death or genocide, can be undone (and indeed the narrative of the first X-Men trilogy is entirely erased in DoFP). The creative chaos inherent to the comic book multiverse and the non-rules it abides by can be endlessly exploited by wanton capitalist interest to constantly reinvent a franchise.
Shape shifting killing skills aside, Mystique’s agency is called into question as Professor X finds fault with Mystique’s anarchist drive (a drive up until the climax is supposedly driven by her weak will being corrupted by Magneto…cause god forbid she wants liberation for herself, on her own behalf), but not with military scientist Trask’s beliefs nor with the humans which buy into those beliefs. It’s here we land at the ideological trappings of the X-Men film franchise and its creators.
Director Bryan Singer’s thesis, communicated via Professor X, displays a corrosive bleeding heart liberalism which attacks the symptom and not the disease of systemic genocidal oppression. Just as racism is so often framed as a problem for its victims and not the perpetrators, the plea for cultural and political tolerance is never the burden of the humans, always the mutants. How many times throughout the series have humans devised a way to murder mutants? The films, time and time again, relegate a supremacist ideology to the individual. They present anti-mutant hysteria belonging to a single evil entity which can be defeated. It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple.
This is not to champion the fixed binary counterpoint of Magneto who is more mutant Zionist than Malcolm X. This is no slight to the character as Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is easily the trillest Jewish character we’ve seen in cinema since Eric Bana in Munich. The X-Men franchise appears to believe humanity will never change. And perhaps this latent idea is humanity’s biggest evolutionary defect as Magneto would claim. But if we do away with the binary of Professor X and Magneto’s methodology for mutant liberation, we are presented with a much deeper problem, one which perhaps comic book cosmology in all its illogical glory can provide a response to. That is: how to kill an idea?
It’s not sentinels, or military scientists, or humanity, which needs to end, but the supremacist belief systems fueling it all. DoFP obscures this supremacist ideology by painting the carriers of it (humans) as childish arbiters who know no better and must be defended from themselves. Furthermore, there is no true judgment of the military industrial complex as it’s only called into question once the sentinels are hijacked and turned on human Americans.
It’s disheartening that out of all the endless possibilities of comic book narratives, X-Men, just like Shakespeare, falls victim to the hubris of modern western narratology attributing shifts in political history to individual character flaws. Change in human history isn’t due to individual (wo)men or singular events, but collective ideas and belief systems which produce men and events.
How can the X-Men change the future if they can’t kill the ideology which has hunted them throughout history? There are moments in DoFP when characters sit around theorizing about how time works but fuck time man, time isn’t what’s committing genocide on (y)our people.
Final Note: Just take the following as the literary equivalent to those short ass teasers after all the credits in Marvel films…
The X-Men film series is built upon genetic diversity however most of the screen time and dramatic depth is given to white males (I’ll remain infinitely curious about Rogue’s storyline in DoFP, which was shot but cut into a cameo). This melting pot myth is only furthered by the characters’ transnational identities (Wolverine-Canadian, Magneto – German/Jewish, Professor X and Mystique are of British origin) represented merely by their accents. And PLOT TWIST! Doesn’t matter what their individual mutations are, 90 percent white and 10 percent other isn’t diversity.
I’ll catch you in the very near present.