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Friday, May 23 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past, which opened this weekend, continues some hopeful trends in the sub-genre of movies about comic-book superheroes. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it shouts an important warning about the dangers of entrusting too much power, too much capacity for violent action, in government. And along with many recent superhero movies, including Man of Steel, The Dark Knight, and The Amazing Spider-Man, it celebrates and magnifies the power and worth of the individual.

More fundamentally, however—and to a degree none of these others can match—director Bryan Singer's newest entry in the chronicles of the fabled team of mutant heroes is a story about redemption and hope.

Based on a storyline published in 1981, Days of Future Past tells the story of an apocalyptic future, a shattered world where mutants have been brought to the edge of extinction by giant mechanical robots called "Sentinels," the invention of a fanatical anti-mutant scientist, Bolivar Trask (Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage, who is wonderful). Salvation lies in the use of an innovative form of time travel, which takes Hugh Jackman's Wolverine back to 1973, to change history by righting a crucial wrong.

Time travel to change the past is nothing new in science fiction. Usually, though, such stories tend in one of two directions: either the deployment of a plot-derailing temporal paradox, or else a fatalistic twist in which the heroes, in trying to change the future, merely confirm and guarantee that future. Days of Future Past deftly manages to avoid both cliches, and in so doing, tells a truly remarkable story of healing.

In an interesting parallel, the film also represents a different sort of redemption. In 2000's X-Men, Singer surprised everyone by writing and directing a mature, well-told story about (mostly) three-dimensional characters, in a genre that had been typified by shallow characters in tights and overwrought storylines. He followed that up in 2003 with the even more impressive X2: X-Men United, which not only delivered a more ambitious storyline but set up a future third movie that would bring the series to a glorious crescendo.  Sadly, Singer chose to leave the series in the hands of others, so the third fell instead to the doubtful skills of director Brett Ratner. To the dismay of fans, Ratner's contribution was at best a disappointing effort, and at worst an anticlimactic failure to live up to the promise of the first two films.

With Days of Future Past, however, not only does Singer return to the series he helped to establish, he produces perhaps the best X-Men film of them all. Even more remarkably, he manages to do all that while tying together all three original films, plus Matthew Vaughan's daring 2011 prequel, X-Men: First Class, unifying the storylines and making use of the best actors from both continuities (and alert fans will no doubt delight in a rather large handful of smile-inducing cameos).

So in righting the wrongs of Ratner's movie, Singer tells a parallel story of redemption nearly as miraculous as the one that drives the plot.

As ever, the actors do yeoman's work in their roles, an especially impressive feat given the size of the cast. Series stalwarts Patrick Stewart (Professor X) and Ian McKellen (Magneto) take back seats to their younger counterparts (James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively), though each has some truly poignant moments. Hugh Jackman does a reliably impressive job as Wolverine, but it's the luminous Jennifer Lawrence who truly shines as the young, embittered Raven/Mystique, torn between the damaged goodness MacAvoy's Xavier sees, and the vicious, violent revolutionary Fassbender's Magneto has helped to nurture. In many ways, Days of Future Past is Raven's story, a moral fable about the choice every person faces between wallowing in the pain and suffering of our past, and embracing the hope that always lies in front of us, ready to be chosen.

From the beginning, the saga of mutants vs. humans has always been an allegory for racism, which is itself one manifestation of a much larger, much more significant theme: the tendency to deal with people, not as individuals but as members of various collective groups. The writer Ayn Rand described racism as "the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage…which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors."

In the end, what saves the day in Days of Future Past is the decision of one courageous character to give up pain and hurt, to embrace hope, and to see adversaries as individuals worthy of that hope and capable of choosing the same. It's a triumph of individual will over collective guilt that Rand would have applauded.

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