Fighting for Control:

Present Masculine and Feminine Emotion in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The quintessential reunion.

I very much enjoyed X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Even with its flaws, who can complain about that ending, or the post-credits scene?

Hands down, my favorite element of the film, outside of the ending, is the relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Professor X and Magneto.  I knew going in that the fallout from X-Men: First Class would be great, but my expectations were very much exceeded, and I am certainly not alone.


As far as I was concerned after X-Men: First Class, there was no need to go any further in developing Xavier and Magneto — the foundation of their tragic friendship was there.  Days of Future Past, however, really does give us a fantastic development of that relationship.  I loved watching the two characters navigate the awkwardness of being together again, as two former — yet always — best friends truly would.  The inner rage of Charles wound up enriching the character tremendously.  Even more unexpectedly for me, the filmmakers gave Erik just as much legitimate pain, and for me, all of it plays out best in that scene in the private jet.  Charles viciously lashes out, lunging at Erik for what the latter took away from him. And Erik, releasing his own raw, arguably childlike fury on their surroundings after briefly — and very noticeably — struggling with his conscience, answers in a gradual, magnificent crescendo, reciting the names of all of those mutants Charles failed to help him protect.  Logan looks on knowingly while Hank McCoy pleads for reason.  On every level, this scene expertly illuminates the very real, deep pain that can exist between only the closest of friends, people who know one another better than anyone else — and know as much of the other.  On some level, Charles and Erik clearly want to be friends again, and Logan in that scene is both a kid of divorced parents and, thanks to time travel, a parental figure himself.  It all makes for great stuff.

I love it.

This scene, though, has gradually gotten me thinking about audience reactions to cinematic emotions.  I am one of the many fans who, without exception, love hearing the grandiose voices of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender ignite and echo across the screen.  The majestic passion they bring out in the X-Men movies, whether understated or shouted to the heavens, is unforgettable — the confrontations the four of them convey between the two massive presences of Xavier and Magneto, protagonist and antagonist, are quintessential, as they let it all out, again and again, always keeping us on our toes.

Audiences really eat this kind of thing up — when it comes to male stars.

Do female characters have confrontations like this in Hollywood? Are they lauded as much?

Just as Jon Stewart and the Daily Show team put it so skillfully about the acceptability of male and female emotions in politics, American film expectations also suffer from a double standard in portrayals of emotions.  Male characters letting it all out, “at long last” revealing their well-hidden emotions, is frequently praised, while women characters are generally praised more for being tough and guarded about them.  Emotions make men more accessible through awesome acting, and make women weak through sentimental acting.  This view has been thankfully declining, but it is very much alive, and the X-Men film series, despite its innovations, is a very interesting example.

Within the X-Men movies, from X-Men all the way to First Class, many of the female characters are very guarded about their emotions, only letting them out in little bursts or in tough one-liners, while the male characters wear it all on their sleeves — heck, Senator Kelly’s sleeve rips because of it.  (See what I did there?)

Control is a very prominent theme in the films.  It’s always been a central theme in X-Men comics, where male and female mutants alike struggle with various shades of it.  But it comes across differently in the movies.

The X-Men movies are certainly not “chick flicks” — a term still constantly in use today.  That would be ridiculous.  They are superhero-blockbuster-science-fiction-action dramas.  Yet, like many American films, regardless of genre (and especially in First Class and Days of Future Past), the male characters are cheered for their emotions while the emotions of the female characters are largely feared.

In the first three movies, Storm holds back simmering anger at humanity as best she can for the greater good, with the implication being that she might hurt someone if she lets it out.  Mystique is cold through and through.  Heck — and this almost isn’t fair me using this as an example, but it would have surely been a theme even if Bryan Singer had stayed on — in X-Men: The Last Stand (I will only mention it when I must), one of the conflicts is about who is in control of Jean.  At least Rogue is handled a little better in the first film, even if she has not been given much else to do since then.

Meanwhile, especially in Days of Future Past, the majority of the male mutant powers are manifested through emotions.  And despite their efforts to control themselves, Wolverine, Magneto, Xavier, Beast, and even Havok get to awesomely lash out.  We want them to.

And Days of Future Past is an open wound — one fighting to bleed in the face of cold, empty enemies that represent death itself — and we love it.  Take the jet scene again.  Erik thinks he is better than his emotions when Xavier comes at him, but is clearly unprepared, as Xavier gets right to his core without even reading his mind.  Erik’s reaction ends a shouting match that’s brief, but very much for the ages.

But throughout the movie, all of the male characters in the past — from at least three sides no less — are trying to control the dangerous emotions of Mystique, just as they tried with Emma Frost, and arguably Angel Salvadore, in X-Men: First Class.

This guy can monologue. Is this speech long enough to be considered a monologue?

What’s more, from Erik to Wolverine, this movie series is largely positioned around male loose cannons, and we’re supposed to empathize with them.  Progress has been made in recent years, but on the whole, American moviegoers certainly continue to enjoy antiheroes (male or female — more on that at the end), characters who are rough around the edges (preferably attractive) and prone to lashing out at any moment.  On the other hand, characters who are more emotionally put together are understood to be simple, passive, and boring, rather than having potential to contribute to the diversity needed for a really good story.  Ask any superhero fan who hasn’t read enough comics about Cyclops or Superman and you’ll see what I mean.

My point is that emotional moments are essential in audiences’ minds to the ever-popular tough antiheroes, and that being in control is seen as less appealing.

In any case, the strong, spot-on — and antihero-rich — drama in X-Men: Days of Future Past has been consistently praised, as it most definitely brings the human element to the fantastical.

So what’s the difference between “guy” movies and “chick flicks”?  Why are males praised for emotional performances while females are praised for being tough “like guys”?  Why does a crying female get dismissed with an eye roll by so many?

When one thinks about it, the relationship between Charles and Erik in Days of Future Past is, however arguably better implemented, very much like something one would see on a show like Melrose Place, Dynasty, or something else in that vein, where women punch and slap each other before or after a clever one-liner — which is somehow different than a Die Hard movie.  Days of Future Past also has a little romantic drama melodrama thrown into the mix.  But however justifiably it is all achieved in the film, it’s all coming from just as emotional a place.  When Charles first sees Erik, he goes in for a punch.  Erik is certainly not much better, as he is willing to kill willy-nilly, both humans and mutants.  Even though Erik knows full well what is at stake (or thinks he does), his emotions cloud his view, and he tosses Wolverine into the Potomac River.  After a clever one-liner.

In the X-Men films, the men lash out, the women keep it channeled, and when the latter don’t, sort of like the “crazy ex-girlfriend” archetype, it is something to be feared more than anything else.

And yet Days of Future Past also acknowledges its own irrationality, as the whole story revolves around the future trying to both hone and embrace the emotions of the past, complete with an almost Thelma & Louise handshake between the future Xavier and Magneto.

Days of Future Past is not only a quintessential X-Men movie, it’s a quintessential Hollywood movie.  But, much like the majority of time-travel movies (but thankfully not this one), it is also a paradox.  Despite its great strides — strides that took me by surprise as much as Quicksilver’s — it nevertheless starkly reminds me of just how far we have to go before our hypocrisy, however subtle, begins to finally recede into the past.

Humans are clearly more complicated.  Emotions are a natural part of the human experience, and, as Days of Future Past shows both consciously and despite itself, are even tougher than stadiums being dropped around the White House, or giant genocidal robots.

People like feelings.  So why not just acknowledge it?  Ask anyone who’s seen Aliens.

Luckily the ending of Days of Future Past gives audiences worldwide a great deal of food for thought.

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With a background in television production, film studies, and communication theory, Ian Boucher earned his Master of Library and Information Science at Kent State University to become a librarian to advocate for information literacy. He is fascinated with the stories cultures tell themselves, and writes about film and comics in that regard. Continue the conversation with him on Twitter @Ian_Boucher.

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Also by Ian Boucher:

Humans and Paragons: Essays on Super-Hero Justice

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  1. ...David Whittaker says:

    Now. This is an interesting notion. Suddenly a lot of things make sense, particularly where Singer has been involved. Logan and Scott getting a bit too weepy over Jean’s sacrifice. Yuriko as Stryker’s cold automaton. I’d argue it’s also a plausible convention that could permeate almost all X-media, particularly the psycho ex girlfriend hypothesis. Jean eternally undying and tempestuous? Rogue as essentially frigid?

    • Ian Boucher says:

      Great points on Logan, Scott, and Yuriko — and the filmmakers most certainly have a major hand in the path of the series in many interesting ways! However, a main point of concern here, outside of why are male emotions considered to have more gravitas than female emotions in movies and storytelling in general (and where the differences between “guy” movies and “chick flicks” really lie), is what constitutes too weepy?

      And in the comics, I always thought Rogue’s emotions came out well, but I haven’t read much of her in a while. Very interesting point on Jean — yet at the same time, I feel like the comics are also leagues better in this case (although still have a long way to go!), because Jean is a much more active character in the comics, like a real person with beliefs, hopes, and able to have a stake in her own life.

      • Ian Boucher says:

        And Jean’s constant resurrections have a ton of other interesting implications too in addition to what she represents to the other characters.

  2. ...David Whittaker says:

    Apologies, I feel in grokking your ideas and trying to convey them back to you I may have cannibalised and lobotomised them. Thinking in the basest of sweeping generalisations. I mistook the map, or rather my hastily constructed conception of it, for the territory.

    I’ve recently watched the first two X movies as a consequence of reading your article, and it’s not so much the raw emotional honesty of Wolverine and Scott that bothers me, it’s more how it just crescendos out of nowhere.

    In the first film Logan tells Jean to tell Rogue his heart belongs to another, implying Jean of course. I don’t mind the whole Jean/Scott/Logan triangle I just found it weird he tells a women he’s known for barely a month that he loves her. As you say Jean is so much more than the rope in some juvenile tug of war, and yet it’s something that is almost always indulged. One could argue that All New X-Men simply adds in (Young) Beast.

    Of course the second film has Scott and Logan consoling one another. I don’t begrudge the act itself it just seems a little too out of nowhere in it’s raw emotional honesty.

    I think if the female characters should be allowed as much, if not more, screen time, dialogue, exposition and action sequences. We could then see their emotional depths, strengths and intelligence and the X-Men movies, and comic book movies as a whole, might be a lot more rewarding.

    • Ian Boucher says:

      No apologies necessary David! Thanks a lot for the explanation. I think I knew you were getting at this.

      After my last watch of X2 a few weeks back for the first time in a long time, that Logan/Scott scene — which I used to love — did kind of come off as clunky to me; not that it came out of nowhere for me, but more like it could’ve been executed a little better somehow. And why couldn’t Kurt teleport Jean once the jet started working again? haha. Anyway…

      Logan having such strong feelings for the “woman of the movie” is a requirement, that’s why he cares about her so much, haha. You said a mouthful right there about movies in general!

      Very well put on the tug of war, and Young Beast. And Old Beast in that arc too from what I’ve read!

      Very interesting point about Scott and Logan consoling each other. I love the part when Logan tells Scott she chose the latter. It was all set up for great stuff in X3 between Scott and Logan as regular teammates, and the focus on the climactic story between Jean and Scott. But nope…didn’t end up happening.

      Very well put on the screentime. Characters should get their moments based on who they are and how they can serve the story, and nothing else — they should certainly not be immediately thrown into a particular corner, or to the side no less, because of their sex or gender. Filmmakers may say that there are a lot of characters in X-Men movies, but if they can’t balance that, they have a lot of thinking to do.

      • ...David Whittaker says:

        I’m going to have to watch Last Stand now just to remind myself how the triangle wraps.

        We could’ve had some female narrative in X2, the set up was there. Have Jean and Ororo discussing the love triangle, issues of the day, heck anything whilst they fly to pick up Kurt. Alas, no they are just a taxi service, supporters of male narrative. Or have them interacting with Rogue, who seems to only exist in terms of her relationship with Bobby now (?).

  3. Ian Boucher says:

    Godspeed as you watch The Last Stand, David. Godspeed. Also, I forgot to say that I think it’s so cool how you’ve been inspired to rewatch the movies. This continues to be a great discussion.

    We definitely could have used more female narrative in X2. I mean there was a bit there with Jean and Ororo, and I think it did enrich the story, but there wasn’t much dialogue, and what was there was all business, for the organization/team they care about. It is a wonderful ensemble movie in many ways, but in other ways it could be greatly improved. The only deleted scene with the two of them that I know of focuses on talking about Logan.

    I like the Bobby stuff, but YES, Rogue certainly has a great deal more to bring these movies than that.

  4. ...David Whittaker says:

    Any excuse to watch the original movies to be honest, and even though I’ve shared the stigma over Last Stand as I rewatch it now, for only the second time in its entirety, it doesn’t seem that bad. Maybe I’m just allowing myself to be drawn in because it has been so long?

    There definitely seems more of a focus on female narrative. Jean obviously, Rogue’s continued frustrations albeit defined by her relationship with Bobby, the tragedy of Mystique again essentially only in relation to her interactions with Erik. The interesting thing of course is that Jean’s narrative is, like her power, struggling to manifest but free of being defined by male interaction. Scott is obliterated. Magneto and Wolverine mistakenly think Charles was repressing her. I kind of like to think Charles was nurturing her, but initially protecting her whilst slowly empowering her until the day she could control herself. That of course could be because I’ve always liked the protege and teacher dynamic between these two great psychics.

    There’s also something going on with Bobby and Kitty, but I paused the movie just to jot down these initial ponderings.

    I may drop by later. I say may. I will.

    Oh and you’re right, I am enjoying this discussion.


    • Ian Boucher says:

      Hey David, sorry for the delay. My thing with Last Stand mainly is that with what the first two movies built, there was absolutely no excuse to make an average movie with such a small-minded palette. And the repetitive score very much annoys me arguably even more, haha, and I’m not even a big fan of John Ottman’s work in general — although I respect what I know of him and his process a great deal.

      In a way, Last Stand does have a lot of female focus, at least on a surface level, but the majority of it is indeed from a male perspective — very interesting point on Scott. But he needed to live through and be there for that story. In general, these movies have unfortunately only been ensemble movies to an extent. I think Charles was definitely just trying to help, but he also definitely made a huge mistake. I don’t think that thread should’ve been in the movie anyway. The way they did it just continually undermined Jean as a person; that’s a very interesting point about helping Jean control it eventually (the teacher/student thing is very cool between them and it would’ve been so great to have that a little better fleshed out in the movies!), but I don’t remember it coming off that way for me in the movie. I would’ve enjoyed it much more if the Phoenix was something that just manifested as Jean got older.

      I hope the rest of the screening was productive! God, I really, really hope so. haha.

      • Ian Boucher says:

        And about John Ottman, I may not be a big fan of his work, but he is an artist who has been able to shine, and his work in general is of course leagues better than what assails our ears in Last Stand.

  5. Ian Boucher says:

    And Ottman’s X-Theme, Jean’s theme, and Xavier’s theme just rock!

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