If I were forced to describe X-Men: Days of Future Past in one word, it would be “hope.” Hope despite the mistakes of the past. Hope for the future. Hope that change, no matter how difficult, is still possible. Hope that, surprisingly, finds a parallel message in the New Testament’s treatment of violence, retaliation, and sacrifice.
Ironically, Days of Future Past begins with anything but optimism. The world is a dark, post-apocalyptic wasteland, ravaged by years of war. In a nuanced parallel to the opening scenes in X-Men and X-Men: First Class, mutants—and their sympathizers—are herded into internment camps, their bodies dumped into mass graves after execution. Apart from a few all-stars, robotic hunters named Sentinels have all but exterminated the X-Men.
How will we be peacemakers in a world filled with injustice, violence, and mistreatment?In a last ditch effort to save their species, Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), and company devise a plan to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to prevent shape-shifter Mystique from assassinating Sentinel program founder Dr. Bolivar Trask. Trask’s murder in 1973 sets off a chain of events, culminating in the Terminator-esque future. After waking up in the seventies, Wolverine heads off to reunite the broken, depressed Xavier with his eternal frenemy Erik Lehnsherr (AKA Magneto).
Combining the cast of the original X-Men films along with their younger selves in First Class, Days of Future Past is part prequel, part sequel, and most importantly, a mulligan for the train wreck Last Stand. If you’re an X-Men fan, this is your Avengers. It might even turn out to be your favorite of the two.
The plot works because as a whole, DOFP isn’t as much a character building process as it is the payoff of characters already developed in previous installments. The best way I can describe the film is by comparing it to a climatic episode of a slow-burning series like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead. This isn’t to say the characters aren’t given space to run (I mean this literally). The scenes between young Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) drip with emotion that makes it all look too easy. And the stellar, though short, addition of Quicksilver is the film’s high point—his kinetic energy creating one of the most imaginative sequences so far in the series.
Yet, DOFP is much more than the sum of its technical parts. It also serves as a thoughtful look at humanity’s incessant grasp for hope and reconciliation and, perhaps inadvertently, making a few underlying spiritual connections along the way. We see these themes first crop up in Hugh Jackman’s character. Wolverine’s story arc throughout the series finds a striking reflection to McAvoy’s Xavier in DOFP. Much like Wolverine in the original X-Men, Xavier is disillusioned with the world. As Wolverine would also come to experience with Jean Grey, Xavier too finds himself on the heartbroken side of an ill-fated love triangle. In a powerful reversal, the film pits Wolverine as the mentor. He attempts to do for Xavier what Xavier would do/has done for him. In many ways, Wolverine is a product of the hope the professor must find. The abandonment of his violent past is proof that change is possible.
This theme of hope bleeds through the entire Days of Future Past story. As I pointed out in a recent article, the X-Men films have never shied away from tackling issue like racism, discrimination, and sexuality. Yet, surprisingly, the film moves beyond these subtexts, taking them one step further. The movie explores the question of how peace among numerous social and political hierarchies can be achieved. How do we combat injustice and persecution? Erik and Mystique’s solution is violence. They paint an “us versus them” picture, refusing to believe mutants and humans can coexist. As the dystopian future shows—and the aging Magneto later admits—this perspective only breeds havoc.
Days of Future Past espouses the idea that bloodshed only leads to more bloodshed. Trask (Peter Dinklage)—painted as a human version of Erik—cannot fathom this idea. In a scene that hits on a number of political undertones of 1970s America, Trask blames the failure of the Vietnam War on the military’s lack of weaponry. The solution to the mutant problem isn’t diplomacy, he argues, it’s a bigger gun (i.e., the Sentinels).
There’s also something to be said about the original Days of Future Past comic storyline being written during the height of the Cold War (1981) and sending back in time a character to warn the past of a global apocalypse birthed through retaliation. This setup alone seems to have something pertinent to say about America’s involvement in the nuclear arms race and Vietnam.
What aging Professor X knows and what young Xavier would later come to realize is that despite missteps, peace is still achievable. The key is finding middle ground between the bloodshed of Erik and the nihilism of Xavier. Love, empathy, and mutual understanding are the only elements that will allow for the survival of the mutant species—an idea that also fits nicely into the climax of the film .
For Christians, these themes aren’t anything new. The idea of peace through nonviolent, sacrificial means find a reflection in the New Testament words of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. Words that greatly inspired leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.—a model for Professor X’s character. Paul writes in Romans 12 that Christians are to bless instead of curse those who persecute them (14), to “repay no one evil for evil” (17), and if possible “live peaceably with all” (18). It was also Jesus’ famous words during the Sermon on the Mount that said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9); a phrase that seems to encapsulate Professor X’s perspective. Even after experiencing the rift between humans and mutants, dystopian Xavier still possesses a “turn the other cheek” mentality.
While the explicit topic of religion is absent from DOFP, the film forces its audience to consider the ideas of violence and retaliation—ideas that you might even say have biblical roots. We are left to wrestle with where to place the line between physical confrontation and peaceful diplomacy. How will we be peacemakers in a world filled with injustice, violence, and mistreatment?
Days of Future Past is being issued as an action-oozing summer blockbuster—which it is—but don’t let this description fool you into thinking the film sacrifices depth for explosions. Sure, it has a few continuity problems and the time-travel details don’t always add up, but there’s a heart to the film–a gem of a theme wrapped into the context of ice-shooting, mind-reading, mutants. This film allows us to catch a brief vision of two futures. One marked by an “us versus them” mentality, built around violence and retaliation. The other is glaringly different. No, it’s not a fairy tale world void of all physical confrontation, but it understands a very biblical idea—true harmony comes from acts of sacrifice and reconciliation.
Now that’s a future we can hope for.