The best fiction is never merely what it appears to be. I think we all understand this instinctively, and the role of the Critic is to go mining for greater, deeper and wider meanings in works that are not apparent from a surface reading. This analytical stance renders all fiction into a kind of allegory, where a Zombie is never just a shambling corpse. We could think about this as a kind of creative “soul” of a fiction. Shallow and incidental works are merely what they appear to be, great works make available hidden echelons of meaning through various allegorical prisms. The X-Men have always done this pretty well, only occasionally skirting a little close to the wind – when Bobby/Iceman is asked in X2 “have you ever tried not being a mutant?” by his concerned parent, it’s perilously close to rendering allegorical subtext as text.
The basic dialectic of the X-Men series is between Professor X and Magneto, and everything that happens revolves around the central question: why can’t we all just get along? It’s a question that can never be resolved, because Professor X believes that difference and diversity drives innovation, while Magneto recognises that they are also incredibly dangerous and powerful. Both are true, and so the dialectic can only ever control its own context. The “X-Men” as a superhero team is trying to frame the context of their diversity and danger as good. This is perhaps even clearer in the Ultimate X-Men sequence, “World Tour”, where Professor X drags his students around the world to demonstrate how safe they are – of course, that plan is destroyed by a pathological mutant with an axe to grind.
The premise of Days of Future Past is to ask what terrible event could reunite Professor X and Magneto into a team. The whole situation is engineered to show that only by working together, has humanity a chance. I think the problem with that in his film, is that it doesn’t really actually address the central difference of opinion between the pair. I think that in fact, the difference becomes the elephant in the room for much of the show because it was precisely the inability of either side to achieve victory that allows the Sentinel program to emerge. Professor X clearly never achieved an overall detente with humanity, while Magneto was never able to subjugate humanity, or presumably, even unite mutant kind. By the time the film opens, they’ve clearly accepted that the Sentinels are the perfect and unequivocal answer to the mutant “problem”. This answer, however, does not go back in time with Wolverine – there is no explicit dialogue between Professor X and Magneto trying to come to terms with this “future knowledge”, or see how it should alter their dialectic. They simply repeat the arguments that were in full play in First Class.
The other main structural aspect of the film is that it’s a “what once went wrong” time-travel narrative. Wolverine is sent backwards in time to prevent the one, singular, event that made the Sentinel program possible: the murder of Trask. This is surely reductive to the point of parody, to think that this was the sole opportunity for the scientists behind the sentinels to obtain Mystique, or that her genes were the sole factor in allowing the Sentinel program to become a major threat to mutant kind. Placing this kind of advanced genetic and cellular research in the 1970s also beggared belief – and I realise that I’m writing that in the context of a super-hero story. My already-strained credulity was further dampened by the method chosen to achieve the outcome. Rescuing her at the point of capture, averting the assassination is making life very much harder than it needs to be. When sending back in time a brutal assassin, why not have Logan execute Trask the day before?
This represents two major structural problems in the narrative. We have a negation of the premise that doesn’t lead to a reframing of the narrative, because nothing significant changes in the dialectic between Professor X and Magneto in their past encounters; and we have a Time Travel mechanism that treats everything purely as a MacGuffin, without addressing any of the usual interests or complexities of a Time Travel narrative.
To me, Days of Future Past felt very much like a throw-back to the previous iteration of Superhero films, where the story is framed and resolved by posturing and fighting. The film seemed afraid to properly grapple with the issues raised either by the franchise generally, or by its own premise, and once that started to become apparent to me, a lot of character actions stopped making sense. The most gross example was Magneto attempting to kill Mystique just after they’d saved Trask – that was monumentally stupid. Why not get out of danger and kill her later? Or why not let her kill Trask but use his powers to make a clean get-away? I think we’re supposed to regard the mission as at least partially about redeeming Mystique, a watery-eyed Future Magneto says he started her down a “dark path” – but since Wolverine kills 4 people within a few minutes of reaching the past, clearly murder per se isn’t the problem. Once you start pulling on those threads, the whole film comes apart, and nothing anyone does makes that much sense.
Super hero stories are always a little silly. Magneto’s plan in the first X-Men film, of transforming the world leadership from ordinary beings into mutants, is patently absurd; especially given the apparent lifespan of the transformed mutants. Yet it’s a plan that addresses the fundamental dialectic of the X-Men premise: are mutants a threat, or an opportunity? A chained-up Rogue engages him in a philosophical debate on the morality of his plan, questioning his willingness to let others die but not risk it himself. There’s nothing much in Days of Future Past that seems aware of these arguments, let alone is willing to address them. For my money, Days of Future Past is an empty shell, without much more going on than posturing and action for its own sake. Everything is written and directed to be dialled to 11, and nothing anyone does makes sense. Stupid, vacuous, boring.