“So many battles waged over the years… and yet, none like this. Are we destined to destroy each other, or can we change each other and unite? Is the future truly set?” – Charles Xavier
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a story about free will and human nature. It’s many other things as well – an excellently crafted movie, an equal rights parable, a commentary on human atrocities, a discussion starter about evolution – but the latest installment in this thought-provoking franchise is perhaps the most cerebral of them all.
As he considers the carnage of the Mutant/Human war, Xavier wonders, “Are we destined to destroy each other? Or can we change who we are?” The Mutants have found a way to jump a few days into the past and avoid small catastrophes, but changing single events cannot alter the larger arc of stubbornly insistent history. All seems lost; both the characters and the conflict are succumbing to the chaos. Bryan Singer noted in an interview:
“[Days of Future Past] confronts the notions of hope and second chances. It’s characters that are lost trying to find themselves. In X-Men one and two, the characters had come into their own and knew who they were. In this one, they’re all lost. And they’re trying to keep it together.”
Of course, “keeping it together” only matters if their choices matter. An increasing number of voices are suggesting that our nature and the arc of our life have been established for us through our genetics and environment. We have no free will, no conscious self, no “I” at the center of who we are. If we are just moist robots, there is no “I” to keep together, and there is no choice we make as significant moral agents. That is the reasonable conclusion of this line of thinking. If that’s true, then there is no such thing as a meaningful choice. There is no way in which any of the characters can genuinely choose a different path. “Keeping it together” is a meaningless exercise in confirming their fate.
But this view does not resonate with what we see unfolding on the screen. The war within the characters rages more intensely than the war around them. Magneto can choose a better path if he so desires. The goodness in Raven can overcome the anger in Mystique. The cavalier, young, self-centered Xavier can choose to become a better man. The Wolverine we saw in Origins and First Class can, in fact, cage the animal. People may not choose their nature, but on any given day they can choose whom – or what – they will serve. C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity:
“Taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself…. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
An older Xavier tells his younger self, “Just because someone stumbles, loses their way, doesn’t mean they’re lost forever.” It’s easy to believe that the brokenness within us will inevitably result in devastation around us. Days of Future Past reminds us that it’s never too late to turn around.
(This article was originally posted at Empires and Mangers.)