For something called a superhero movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past is remarkably ambiguous about morality and heroism. Beginning in a dark, post-mutant-holocaust future world, the movie doesn’t show what happens when “good” is pitted against “evil.” Instead, it focuses on the choices that are made when people come face-to-face with annihilation. In this version of the future, there are 12-foot flying robots that are programmed exclusively to hunt down anyone with mutant DNA. Couple that with the robots’ ability to adapt to any mutant attack and you have a situation that can seemingly only result in the complete eradication of the mutant species. The few remaining mutants in this world have their backs against the wall and so, when the suggestion is made to jump back in time in order to prevent these giant robots from ever being made, no one objects to the plan. At this point, it’s not about beating a “bad guy,” it’s merely about doing whatever it takes to avoid turning being turned into mutant ash.
Even the Sentinels, providers of mutant extinction, are not inherently evil. Back in 19-somethingty-3, a man named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) recognized that mutants exist and that they could possibly represent an incalculable threat to humanity as we know it. Early on, he reads an essay, written by Charles Xavier, which seems to suggest that mutants represent the next stage of evolution and will promptly overtake homo sapiens as the dominant species. Seeing this domination as a threat, Trask devises the earliest Sentinels, hoping to provide protection against a global danger, which will, hopefully, unite the world against a single enemy. It’s like the scheme from Watchmen but with more humans and fewer papier maché space vaginas. In retrospect, Trask’s research and the robots he created can certainly be labelled evil but, at the time, they were both born out of a combination of intellect and desperation. What is the point of morality if there is no one left alive to assess your moral compass?
Many of the rest of the characters experience either a duality of conscience or a moral ambivalence. Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), for instance, is very aptly described by Pajiba writer Vivian Kane when she calls her a “tortured human pawn.” Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender & Sir Ian McKellen) both share a history with the character and both feel compelled toward bringing her into line with their respective ideologies. When influenced by Xavier, she expresses compassion, whereas after a conversation with Magneto, she is prone to decisive action and the creation of permanent change. In Mystique we see that this is, again, not a battle between good and evil, it is a story about circumstances and the free will to decide how to respond to them.
Magneto himself, the villain from several of movies in the franchise, is painted as a man who is not truly evil but rather one who leans heavily toward cynicism. Toward the climax of the film, two timelines are shown in alternation. In the past timeline, Magneto’s actions lead him to a point where has torn a baseball stadium out of its foundations, dropping building debris everywhere before holding a gun to Richard Nixon’s head. In the other timeline, Magneto sacrifices himself in the process of protecting the surviving X-Men. Shown side by side, we have the same character, affected by different circumstances, demonstrating, both a willingness to take life and a willingness to protect it.
For one last example, I do want to take a moment to discuss the most entertaining and talked-about part of X-Men: Days of Future Past: Quicksilver. New to the movies, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is a mutant with the power of super speed. The scenes where he exhibits these powers are among the most entertaining in the film but even in a mostly comedic role, Quicksilver is morally neutral. His incredible speed allows him ability to do and get pretty much anything he wants, which he does with reckless abandon. His basement living space is littered with stolen goods and he only agrees to help the X-Men when he is told that the mission involves breaking into one of the most highly secure buildings on the planet. It’s not a question of wanting to save the world. In fact, he barely blinks an eye when he finds out that one of his teammates may have been involved in the Kennedy assassination. Yet, Quicksilver is a character we celebrate for his abilities and charming sense of humour.
The era of the superhero seems to be at an end and we are now living in the reign of super-antiheroes, where even Superman is flying around, snapping dudes’ necks. These are no longer stories about an obvious protagonist demonstrating clear cut virtues. Now, they are discussions of complex ideas dressed up with cool special effects in order to create a spectacle to go along with the conversation. It’s safe to say that when Wolverine is your most ethically unambiguous character, you’re not going to come away with easy answers.
Dylan Clark-Moore is a podcast creator and blogger at NetFlakes. You can find him on Letterboxd and Twitter.
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X-Men: Days of Future Past is also available from Amazon.