X-Men: Days of Future Past, Perfect Present Tense
Bryan Singer’s 2014 movie X-Men: Days of Future Past depicts a nightmarish near-future where rogue robotic sentinels roam the remnants of human civilization, wiping out pockets of mutant resistance. A band of mutants, led by father figures big-brain Charles Xavier, the magnetically charming Erik Lensherr, and Wolverine (of course!) decide the only way to prevent these mechanical terminators from enslaving humanity is to prevent the linchpin assassination which started this domino effect. According to history, in 1973, a mutant named Mystique—a former raven-haired ally—shot Bolivar Trask, a diminutive scientist who was experimenting on mutants in the name of national security. His death and her capture spurred the development of these biblical nimrods that are indefatigable, indestructible, and utterly inhumane.
Wolverine (of course!) is elected to become the marvelous champion to brave the past in order to save the future. Although he is the best at what he does, our time-traveling Wolverine enlists the aid of a young Charles Xavier, a prematurely aged Beast, a quicksilvered-tempered youth, and Erik Lensherr, the dubious enemy-turned-temporary ally. Of course, they are successful—if only so the franchise can continue—but their success hinges upon the present’s, that is, 2015, conception of the time period the movie revisits. Wolvie’s trip in time not only sends him back to the future, but also re-interprets the present day moviegoer’s sense of history. Specifically, the movie rewrites the Vietnam War as an American triumph and provides a whitewash of Nixon during his administration’s downfall.
Not a Typical “Identity Crisis”
The storyline “Days of Future Past” was originally published in Uncanny X-Men #141 with a cover date of January 1981. This means Marvel probably released it in Octoberish 1980 (to give it an extended run on the newsstands) and produced it significantly before then. The comic’s hero, Kitty Pride, journeys from the twenty-first century to this “present.” In other words, the original story did not take place in 1973, as the film does. Rather, the “present day” for the comic book was the waning days of the Carter presidency and the election which brought in a dubious, untried Ronald Reagan into the Oval Office. Had the screenwriters kept the original storyline intact, Jimmy Carter, not Richard Nixon, would have taken center stage in the film’s finale.
The film’s change of date is more than just a screenwriter’s artistic license. The depiction of President Jimmy Carter, very much alive during the film’s production (and of this writing!) might have given Twentieth Century-Fox ethical and/or moral qualms about using a living historical figure. Although the decision to move back the time frame denies viewers to see Carter playing himself, the larger question is more than just an issue of casting. If not Carter, why didn’t they select Ford? Or Lyndon Johnson? Or Nixon during a different part of his administration? Why the particular year of 1973?
If the film takes place in 1980, the X-Men would combat much more than Trask and his Sentinels. They would have faced-off against the “malaise” which had set in during the late ‘70s. In such a scenario, Wolverine’s self-healing power would have been useless should he face off against the OPEC oil crisis, economic stagflation, and Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech in which he asked his countrymen to self-reflect upon their own moral values. Although initially well-received, the speech quickly left a sour taste in the mouths of the public once they realized Carter was asking them (rather than, say, government or blaming some foreign country) to reassess themselves and collectively sacrifice material comforts. A 1980-centered film would be less about battling evildoers than a large therapy session. The young mental case, Professor Xavier, in his drug-addled state, might shoot up a feel-good jam session in the minds of Americans, but a lecture about economic responsibility would make for a dull two-hour movie.
Multi-trasking the Past
Rather than ask audiences to undertake this herculean task of questioning their moral cores, Trask becomes a better villain. Director Bryan Singer and his superheroes thus target 1973, the year the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam and the quagmire surrounding it. The movie makes pointed references regarding the Paris Peace Accords of January 27, 1973, the day Mystique kills Trask and the Sentinel program begins in earnest as a form of retribution. More than a setting for location shots, Paris becomes a symbolic moment signifying the extension of the Military Industrial Complex that sank the American war machine in ‘Nam. The United States could not succeed against “gook” guerrilla fighters abroad, so it started targeting “muties” at home as a form of catharsis. The X-Men must win the war America lost.
Within this framework, Trask becomes the ultimate traitor for audiences to hiss. During the peace accords, he initially approaches the Vietminh to help fund his robots. Viewers have reason to boo: they see these same unsavory Commies in an earlier scene cavorting and boozing with loose women in the wilds of Paris while making derogatory remarks about the “American devils.” (General Nhuan even attempts to seduce a white Mystique—the veiled miscegenation only encourages audiences to cheer when our villainess kills him) That Trask would sell out his country’s national security strikes at the heart of freedom-loving Americans everywhere. Indeed, at the film’s end, we learn Trask is arrested for selling security secrets to the Communists—that is, betraying the Cold War mission—and not for the persecution of American citizens. The U.S. may have lost Vietnam, but here, they redeem themselves by thwarting a traitor and preventing top-secret plans from falling into the wrong hands. They kick the “Vietnam Syndrome” before it even starts.
Trask fails to sell his plans to the Reds, but he does entice Richard Nixon for a bit. Nixon, obsessed with national security, sees the Sentinels as a way to safeguard the U.S.A. from subversive mutants. Initially, this trope plays upon Nixon’s legacy as a Cold Warrior as he agrees to implement Trask’s Sentinels. Moviegoers see Nixon’s secret tape recording at work and he is surrounded by various warhawks who urge him to declare war on the mutant population, regardless of their targets’ civil liberties. Nixon, it seems, will fulfill the role the history books assigned him.
Not so! If the X-Men are to prevent the gloomy future from occurring, they must correct every facet of national disgrace. Hence, the film redeems Nixon by the end reel. After all, as Professor Xavier lectures to us, just because someone stumbles and loses their path doesn’t mean they’re lost forever. For starters, audiences see the President as the man squaring off against JFK’s true assassin, Magneto (Lensherr says he was trying to save Kennedy because JFK was “one of us,” suggesting Kennedy was either a mutant or pro-mutant rights; still, by betraying the team, Lensherr leaves doubt on anything he says). In this climax, Nixon comes across as a noble leader literally kicking the badguy off the White House lawn. [Note: “Nixon” is actually Mystique in disguise, but his crowd of cronies does not know that, and the television cameras broadcast “Nixon’s” show-down on live T.V.] The Commander in Chief takes the high ground, willing to sacrifice himself, but asks Lensherr to “spare everyone else.” When Lensherr refuses, Nixon shoots his antagonist and becomes a national hero: the same newspaper that shows Trask’s arrest also heralds him as a friend of a minority population, the mutants. Nixon even appeals to the war protestors as he prevents mutually assured destruction by deactivating the Sentinels. Lensherr may have dropped Nationals Baseball Stadium around the White House, but Nixon proves he is more than capable of defending the national pastime as aptly as he safeguards the American Way.
As a result, Nixon’s historical legacy is vindicated…even though apart from this one scene, he does nothing. The film conveniently ends at this point, ignoring the President’s invasion of Cambodia and Laos—and extending the military industrial complex at the expense of ethnic groups unable to defend themselves. Likewise, despite his arresting Trask, Nixon’s abuse of civil liberties goes uncommented upon: the Watergate scandal, slowly unfolding in the press during this year, appropriately has no place in this narrative.
The film leaves a redeemed thirty-seventh president at the expense of Mystique. Even though the movie portrays Mystique as a victim of anti-mutant bigotry, she is the one who must change, not the Cold Warrior occupying the White House. Mystique says Trask has “murdered too many of us,” but she ultimately yields and forgives Trask, Nixon, and his gang of creeps. She does even more: in the last scene, she impersonates Major Bill Stryker as they fish Wolverine out of the Potomac River. “I’ll take if from here,” she says, eyes glowing. X-philies know Stryker is responsible for Wolverine’s subsequent experimentation and adamantium infusion—as a brief flashback scene shows. The possible reading, that Mystique “is” Wolverine’s future tormentor, implies she is responsible for much of his future pain. Does this mean that the future United States would sanction mutant experimentation? If so, then Mystique not only forgives Trask—she adopts his mission in the guise of American Cold War militarism and the patriotic fervor to create a super soldier. The U.S. has it both ways: a public refutation of mutant persecution and a secret program to do the same. The future, it seems, is truly never set.
Mind Out of Time! (or not)
But that’s far, far away. For now, audiences know Nixon is not the crook history has portrayed him. In the midst of failure in Vietnam, Americans redeem themselves and their values of democracy and liberty. The Commies are foiled once again. The Establishment triumphs and will win the Cold War…Sentinel-less, perhaps, but at least with a whitewashed record for a formerly disgraced president. Heck, even Wolverine’s future agony has a happy ending. As Logan repeatedly says, he needed help finding his way again and Professor X helped make it so. The restored future extends to 2015 and the conclusion shows Wolvie waking up in Xavier’s restored institute for gifted youngsters. That the last thing he remembers was his drowning in 1973 suggests even the unpleasantness of Stryker should be questioned in this brave new world he has helped shape by rewriting history (although I’m sure he has his adamantium regardless of what this new timeline holds). Dead or disenchanted comrades—Jean Grey, Scott Summers—are alive and well. All are dressed not in black battle gear, but stylish designer civvies. A gentle sunset bathes the screen in a healthy yellow tint. Wolverine now teaches history, as well he should. He helped create it. The days of the future are past.
Charles Xavier concludes the movie describing the past as “a new and uncertain world. A world of endless possibilities and infinite outcomes. Countless choices define our fate: each choice, each moment, a moment in the ripple of time.” Wrong, professor, because the movie posits that if you don’t like the present, just violate history and refashion it to your liking. You can control the past to remake the future until you have just one outcome—the choice you prefer. There is no real uncertainty about it. American politicians do it all the time in campaign speeches. Scholars do it all the time—just as your resident historian, Wolverine. In X-Men, Days of Future Past, we had the opportunity to see Richard Nixon’s turn, where a tarnished blot on the American experience becomes a celebratory victory of American prowess and democratic values. Enter the present, perfect.
by Patrice Reyes and Peter Lee
Peter W. Lee
Peter W. Lee is a doctoral candidate at Drew University, where he focuses on American history and youth culture. His dissertation examines the construction of boyhood through American films in the early Cold War. Among his most recent publications are chapters in The Ages of the Avengers, Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, and The Journal of the West.
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