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.
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.
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.