Expectations were sky-high for this film. You have a blending of the young and old cast, a beloved comic book storyline, the first encounter with some of the best villains in the Sentinels, a director returning to the film franchise that practically launched the superhero industry and a pressing need to breathe new life into a franchise weakened by mediocre entries. In the end, the film presented to us gives us everything we could possibly want in a summer movie: action, drama, comedy and fun. It is the best X-Men film ever made and pushes its way into discussion of best superhero film ever made along with The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers (2012).
What’s most striking about this big-budget, special-effects driven ensemble is its insistence on story in today’s summers of blowing stuff up for the sake of blowing stuff up. The characters are clearly loved by the filmmakers and cast and this rubs off on the viewer. While there are certainly many sequences of action and destruction, they supplement rather than subvert the story of Charles Xavier trying to convince his younger self of finding hope during dark times. Every character has a purpose and their own emotional arc (Wolverine to save the future, Beast to save Charles, Charles to save himself, Magneto to save mutantkind, Mystique to exact vengeance) and they all converge in the film’s epic conclusion to give the viewer an emotionally satisfying finale that not only wraps up the story of this film, but serves as a springboard for other X-Men films to further explore an ever widening universe of mutants that delve into themes of violence, acceptance, bigotry and compassion for one another.
It may be harder for some viewers to follow along with the story if they are not knowledgeable about the previous X-Men films, but if you are interested in having a fun afternoon with action and heart, there’s really not a better choice out there this summer.
At the heart of the film is a belief in the ability to change one’s fate. Intrinsically, we all relatively know where our destinies are headed, but the film examines whether or not we have the ability to change it, especially if our future selves told us what would happen to us and presented us with unvarnished truth, direct proof that we will endure suffering. Charles Xavier of the future understands the mistakes of his youth that led to the cataclysmic events of his present, most notably his failure with his adopted “sister” Raven aka Mystique. I am not much of a fan of X-Men: First Class (2011) (Mystique and Xavier growing up, Beast inventing Cerebro, Kevin Bacon as a one-dimensional villain and a straying from the relationship of Xavier and Magneto have always irked me). But in this film, the relationship between Mystique and Xavier finally makes sense thematically. By failing her and sending her on a path of destruction and pain aided by his former friend, Magneto, he has ultimately set in motion the destruction of all that he cares about. We can all think of our pasts and wish that we had done something differently and wondered how our lives would be different because of it. Xavier’s failure with Mystique before the time travel probably initiated his desire to form the X-Men to make up psychologically with his failing, but the appearance of the herald Wolverine allows a complete representation of Xavier as a man full of regret, pain and hope. If given the opportunity to change our fate, could we do so?
The younger Xavier is a man torn apart by failings and without hope. He has been betrayed by his best friend, abandoned by the woman he grew up with and decimated by a war that stole his students. At this point of rock bottom, his failures are represented rather obviously by a drug habit that gives him the ability to walk, but in the process removes his powers. He is not being true to himself, rejecting who he is, a mutant, and hides from his need to help others. Upon receiving news from the future that what will transpire is a global apocalypse, there really is nowhere to go but to further despair. There is an interesting dynamic in that young Xavier has no hope in himself, but old Xavier does. Older Xavier understands his pain better than anyone else and knows that it can indeed be overcome because he has done it before. The film implies that belief in yourself despite your failures and the pain of living is necessary for any hope for the future. Younger Xavier bears a tremendous burden as a telepath because he takes in all of the fears, pains and emotions of others. Only by overcoming his fears, accepting his destiny as a teacher and believing that he can make a difference can he help those around him and give the world a chance. By confronting Raven at the film’s conclusion, he gives in to the hope that he can indeed change the future by instructing his first of many students towards the right path and gives hope to all of us as well.
The role Wolverine plays here is not only as Herald of Xavier’s journey, but also Mentor as well. Wolverine teaches Xavier about the value he will have on so many lives including his own. In a way, he is a symbol of the good that Xavier will accomplish with his life, a rogue animal changed to a better human being through the X-Men. His quest to save Xavier is not only to save the future, but his own life as well. Just as Xavier gave Logan a stronger belief in life, he must give Xavier the same so that in the future he can learn from him.
The X-Men films have always been an examination into the role of prejudice of racism in the world. In this film, this theme is taken further with an exploration into how violence develops out of hate and then grows until it consumes everything. The film is set against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam in the past and the war against the Sentinels in the future, conflicts exacerbated by hatred of the other and a need to match violence with violence. The Sentinels are representative of that hatred, blind to compassion, symbols of mankind’s inhumanity and how hatred blinds us until the killing from it consumes everything. Magneto has always used violence because he is beyond hope for peace and this violence overtakes him. By drafting Mystique into the Brotherhood, he has influenced her towards his methods of conflict and away from Xavier’s teachings. The film constitutes a battle for her soul between the two men and their competing philosophies, Xavier’s that offers peace a chance and Magneto’s that will only escalate into a war that will destroy all. The dedication that Magneto and Bolivar Trask, inventor of the Sentinels, put into their beliefs assures each of destruction, a theme that can be echoed in many conflicts around the globe to this day. They are motivated by hate (even though Trask states he is not) and even though they believe themselves justified, their methods against peace doom the future for everyone. By helping Mystique choose to accept a less violent path, Xavier gives hope for the future of the X-Men universe and for our current times as well.
While you may drive yourself silly thinking about all the plot intricacies (How did Magneto escape the Pentagon in the first place? What is going on with Wolverine’s consciousness?), X-Men: Days of Future Past succeeds as not only a good popcorn film, but also a meditation on prejudice and its accompanying violence, the endless cycle of which burdens our past, present and future. It is refreshing to see a Hollywood film go to such emotional depths.