The X-Men movies suffer from such a mess of a continuity that it took Days of Future Past, featuring the same cast of characters from two different timelines, to revise it. Thankfully, Future Past didn’t end up being just a fun superhero time-travel story; instead, it ended up being one of the most thematically and emotionally powerful entries of the franchise—nay, the whole genre.
It helps that the dynamic between James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto clicks with me in a way that not even Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine does, and while we get plenty of the franchise’s poster boy, the trio takes the spotlight.
The X-Men movies as a whole are significant not only for bringing Hugh Jackman to the mainstream but also for taking comic book movies out of the slump of camp that nearly killed their genre in the 90s, and they did so by introducing not just one superhero but a whole cast of outcasted ‘mutants’ born with superpowers, which the series uses as a basis for social commentaries. Like any franchise, the quality ranges from pretty good to mediocre; the first X-Men especially shows its age.
Admittedly, Future Past‘s decision to bring back the cast of the first trilogy and throw us straight into a Terminator-esque post-apocalypse—which is set up only by a mid-credits scene in the second Wolverine spinoff that only remotely makes sense due to the post-credits scene of the first trilogy’s capper, The Last Stand—is a plain odd way to follow up the brilliant prequel First Class, which in of itself is more of a revision than a prequel.
But not only is its setting Terminator-esque, but so isn’t its very premise: somebody getting sent back in time to prevent the world’s population, both human and mutant, from getting ravaged by machines called Sentinels. Considering which members of the population the Sentinels were originally built to target exclusively, their very existence lies in society’s fear over the potential danger of mutants, and their production begins when the shape-shifting Mystique proves that fear true at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.
In the ravaged 2023, Kitty Pryde’s ability to send someone’s consciousness back in time allows only a mutant with healing abilities to be sent back fifty years, and that mutant is, of course, Wolverine, the least qualified person for the job.
If the job were to destroy a Terminator, it might be up his alley (except his iconic claws were yet to be made of metal in 1973). Instead, he has to convince a young Charles Xavier, who’s fallen into despair after the losses he’s experienced in the wake of his short-lived school for mutants, and a young Magneto, who’s now held as prisoner in the Pentagon, to convince Mystique—Xavier’s former sister figure and Magneto’s former target of manipulation—not to carry through with the assassination that leads the world to destruction.
While the spectacle is spectacular—with the coolest mutant power doing everything I wish I could do with a portal gun—, the whole story comes down less to blowing up the bad guys and more to redeeming souls. “Just because someone stumbles and loses their way, it doesn’t mean they’re lost forever”—a theme that deeply resonates with me as a Christian, and a Christian who knows what it’s like to be lost (which is why “The Prodigal Son” is my favorite parable).
Obviously, Mystique—crusading against mankind for what it’s done to mutantkind—is a lost soul, yet she needs to be convinced by somebody who needs to break from his own demons: Xavier, unable to bear either his own pain or the pain of others. Eventually, Xavier glimpses into the future to meet his alternate self whose message to him—delivered through the warmth Patrick Stewart’s always brought to the role—is to find hope in order to bear the pain.
While many comic book movies are plain entertainment, the X-Men movies have always meant to say something about society, and they haven’t delivered stronger truth than in Days of Future Past.