Why X-Men: Days of Future Past Could Only Work In 1973

Feature David Crow
8/2/2015 at 11:18AM

With X-Men: Days of Future Past (The Rogue Cut) now out, we deduce why the 1973 setting makes for a unique superhero homecoming.

Like millions of other card carying geeks, I recently spent an evening in front of a Blu-ray player watching dystopian CGI futures and retro superheroics. And during that new viewing of this action-adventure spectacle, I remembered a requisite truth: X-Men: Days of Future Past, (The Rogue Cut)  or not, is a fantastic homecoming for its mutant superheroes, as well as a return to their most authentic of troubled Baby Boomer roots.

To be sure, X-Men: Days of Future Past (The Rogue Cut) is also easygoing entertainment for our post-Avengers world, which nicely complements some of the weightier blockbuster aspirations that defined director Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies. And by adapting the comic book “Days of Future Past,” a masterpiece of time travel storytelling by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Fox found a nifty excuse to combine the recent X-Men: First Class cast with their (so far) more box office friendly counterparts of the “Original Trilogy” from 10 years ago. The savvy business decision allows viewers to watch Hugh Jackman trade barbs with Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy to square off face-to-face with Patrick Stewart. As a superhero event, it's hard to beat.

But as the second consecutive “X-Men film” in a row (i.e. not just Wolverine) to primarily take place in a period setting, the mutant franchise is revealing itself as something more. Intentionally or not, Singer, executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner, and everyone else involved with this franchise have gone back to the roots of these characters, as well as the Marvel superhero form in general, finding the Baby Boomer angst that writ them large on the pop culture imagination for 50 years and counting.

While superheroes are a defining piece of the 21st century cinema landscape, their origin is still thoroughly rooted in the 20th century—with a careful distinction between DC's Golden Age heritage and Marvel's Silver Age grooviness—but there has been something lost in those recent translations. Until now. By setting X-Men: Days of Future Past in 1973, after the previous team entry of X-Men: First Class was placed in 1962, 20th Century Fox may have stumbled upon the most pure and undiluted superhero franchise currently vying for box office attention, an aspect that allows their X-Universe to continue standing a world apart from everything else.

The smartest thing about Days of Future Past’s setting is its specificity. If it had been a few years earlier, the film would have returned to the 1960s like its previous entry, however it would have been a time of turmoil and unrest. A few years later and the “Me Generation” would have settled in for bellbottoms and disco dance floors. But 1973 was important because of a crucial, generation-defining event: it was the year of the Paris Peace Accords that brought about an official end to the Vietnam War, at least for papered power. Of course, one could ask Saigon and the troops stationed there what cold comfort that was two years later.

While never explicitly dwelled upon due to the movie’s ensemble nature—as well as the necessity for all non-DC superhero movies to be “uppers”—the Vietnam War casts a shadow over the entire film, much as it did in American life, particularly for the Boomer Generation that grew up reading Marvel Comics. When we left Charles Xavier during November 1962 in the last movie, McAvoy’s heroic leader was freshly paralyzed but hopeful for the future. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended with peace prevailing (in no small part thanks to the X-Men), and he and Moira McTaggert had just watched President John F. Kennedy’s rosy Thanksgiving Day address to the nation. Like a generation of real-life comic book writers and readers, Xavier was wounded but optimistic about the country’s destiny and a coming Civil Rights shift in the public consciousness.

Vietnam changed all that. By jumping to 1973, we skipped the real Civil Rights movement’s most intense boiling points in the late 1960s, which the social outcry for served as an inspiration in the X-Men comics, as well as many of the assassinations that defined the decade that also gave us the Beatles, Woodstock, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yet Vietnam, due to its long-lasting and permanent scars on the American consciousness (particularly for those who lived through it) could not be overlooked. Perhaps, because it was so entrenched in the politics and social upheaval of that era, the war's mere dwindling presence in early '73 was enough to implicitly comment on those dense, painful issues the franchise skipped. After all, the damage from the most turbulent times are immediately felt simply by the mileage on Xavier's face. If he is the personification of hope of human empathy, a fact that Stewart's older variation all but concedes in this movie, then the fractured American zeitgeist from the intervening decade is immediately witnessed in young Xavier's visceral misery; a psyche literally as broken as a country's post-Woodstock funk that would define the materialism to come.

Just as the Cold War’s hottest moment made for an amusing Forrest Gump-styled backdrop in director Matthew Vaughn’s more swinging prequel, the peace treaty begrudgingly tolerated by U.S. President Richard Nixon (and executed by the perpetual pragmatist Henry Kissinger in no small part because he intended them to be the previous year’s “October Surprise”) defined the direction of events in this movie. For Days of Future Past, Lawrence’s Mystique leaves the jungles of Vientam, where a mutant platoon appears just as browbeaten as the rest of the enlisted young men, and heads straight to France in order to assassinate a war profiteer who has been illegally experimenting on mutants (Peter Dinklage). This assassination is the crux of the movie, because it sets off a chain reaction that will irrevocably lead to a war between mutants and the robotic Sentinels 50 years later, bringing about a manmade Armageddon.

To stop this dire event, Hugh Jackman’s evermore lovable grump Wolverine is sent back in time, leading him to the front door of Charles Xavier, but the young professor is far less receptive to meeting new mutants than he was as the newly minted teacher opening up his school 11 years earlier. Instead, McAvoy’s Xavier has given into a funk as grim and hairy as anyone who appeared in Easy Rider. The intervening years did not see him conscripted to serve in Vietnam for obvious reasons, but apparently all of his male students, save for Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), were. Indeed, several are mentioned in passing dialogue to have died off-screen.

Xavier has since given in to despair and apathy for everyone but his own misery, which he feeds with a magic cure-all drug that looks suspiciously like a heroin needle when used, allowing him to walk at the cost of mutant powers and compassion. The obvious arc of the movie from that point forward is Logan patiently convincing Xavier to put down the needle, accept his disability, and to mend fences with old frenemies like Magneto (Michael Fassbender), so they can bring about a new age of peace by soothing the anger of Lawrence’s wayward youth.

This might mean a lot of daring gee-whiz action set pieces, such as a Pentagon prison break for Magneto and a glorious third act involving Tricky Dick Nixon turning off the tapes long enough to cut a deal with Dinklage’s weapons manufacturer, thereby bringing Magneto’s not-so-civil disobedience to the White House’s South Lawn (along with a baseball stadium to encircle 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). However, none of it falls victim to the “Destroy the World” aesthetics of recent superhero movies like Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, or even the rather arbitrary (and unnecessary) third act of the otherwise pleasant Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

X-Men instead opts for a surprisingly suspenseful and character-driven finale in which a wheelchair-bound Xavier reasons with Mystique’s youthful rebellion long enough to convince her that killing Trask would be meaningless, and that Magneto’s vision of a race war can be avoided. As a subtle companion scene for Xavier failing to persuade Magneto into not killing the villain of X-Men: First Class, we are witnessing the younger characters reject the warring nature of the previous generation. It also nicely allows Mystique’s entire character trajectory to change in future films (returning Lawrence to the side of the angels) and should leave audiences with a big goofy grin.

But most importantly, the moment cuts to the core of the X-Men in a context that is painfully vivid—Mystique and Charles, reappropriated from their more paternal statuses in previous X-Men movies and comics, here represent the post-Vietnam Boomer youth who when faced with the choice, take the path of “make love not war.” They give peace a chance. And in this pitch-perfect 1973 setting, it feels revelatory for characters who have been stripped of the frills that come with decades of suddenly obsolete continuity, both of the page and the screen.

The beauty of this newfound shift is that continuity, for all the fan whining and nitpicking that comes with it, is relatively meaningless. Howl as some might, no comic book writer or film director should shackle themselves to decades-old stories or even a few particularly bad movies. It might please a certain type of purist's anal retentiveness, but if one gets past such trivalities, an artist can unpack the real reason these characters work. And far more important than Mystique's comic book origin, crafted by a thousand different hands, is the era in which she and her literary universe were conceived from into something so inescapably special.

Along with Spider-Man, the X-Men are probably Marvel Comics’ most fascinating creation from the Silver Age of comics (the 1960s), which are firmly, firmly rooted in ideals of that era. To be sure, while Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita Sr.’s vision of Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, and the rest of “the Coffee Bean Gang” was more directly informed by their concept of ‘60s youth culture than any of the other comic creations of that era, X-Men were still originally presented as students and young adults being taught by Charles Xavier to be accepted into an intolerant world that hates and fears them as second-class citizens. Unfortunately, Lee and Jack Kirby's original X-Men vision never quite took off in the ‘60s like Spider-Man did.

However, when the characters were semi-rebooted in 1975 by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, things changed dramatically. They became comics’ first diverse and multicultural cast of young do-gooders trying to proselytize a world into their own vision of civil rights, including with Kenyan-born Storm, blue-haired German Nightcrawler, and even a young man hailing from the Soviet Union, Colossus (who along with Halle Berry’s Storm briefly appears in the future sequences of Days of Future Past). Stan Lee has even since claimed that the X-Men were very much inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s. Indeed, X-Men #1 was released on newsstands one month after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoed across the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Later writers of X-Men comics wholeheartedly admit that they see the Charles Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr dynamic, the heart of the two most recent ensemble X-Men movies as embodied by McAvoy and Fassbender, as a parallel of MLK and the more confrontational philosophy of Malcolm X. And while arguably the most respected X-Men writer, “Days of Future Past’s” Chris Claremont, disputes that reading of the material, he was the first to really dig into Magneto being a survivor of the Holocaust, which obviously influenced his X-Men runs in the 1970s and 1980s, complete with mutant concentration camps.

All of this has clearly been visible in the X-Men films since the first shot of Bryan Singer’s 2000 movie, which also begins in the 20th century when Magneto as a young Jewish boy witnesses his parents trotted off to the gas chambers in 1944 Poland. Subsequent X-Men movies may have strayed further away from these social underpinnings—such as Brett Ratner’s markedly bland and oblivious studio checklist, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), and the all but forgotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)—but that harrowing opening sequence defined Ian McKellen’s motivation for three films and still hangs over the series. So too has it now defined First Class and Days of Future Past, whose mutual inclination to dig into the cultural context that birthed and refined these characters has also discovered their source material’s appeal better than almost any contemporary.

Unlike DC's Golden Age, whose heroes reflect a previous generation's Depression and World War II hopes and anxieties, the X-Men and Marvel gave readers a new kind of superhero. Prior to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and company's Marvel revolution, kids were meant to admire these saviors like they would John Wayne: the stout role model who taught life lessons on the edge. If children were allowed into the American power fantasy of the self-righteous individual fulfilling his manifest destiny, it was as the dippy, annoying sidekick. But with characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, Marvel tapped into a more youthful burgeoning teen culture that didn't long to be adults, because they already thought they knew better than the over-30 crowd. If you trust those hypocritical squares, you might end up like Gwen Stacy.

The X-Men were very much a part of this era when readers grew up as angry as Days of Future Past's very rebellous Mystique and disheartened Xavier. Sure, most comic books failed to ever seriously address the war until after it ended, but the Marvel revolution of the “Silver Age” was about appealing to the youth culture with heroes for that era, as opposed to talking down to them like the draft board. The actual X-Men characters spent their 1960s comic book life oblivious to the Vietnam War, but chances are they would have been at the protest lines of Kent State if given the chance.

Now, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, that alternative version of X-Men history can be fully appreciated with a Vietnam War that enlisted Charles Xavier’s earliest students and broke his heart, while also eventually leading to a scene where Michael Fassbender’s Magneto gets to stare down Richard Nixon and come off as the scarier man (not an easy feat). Much like a youth torn assunder by that conflict and the other social tipping points of this time period, the varying heroes of Days of Future Past react differently to the War, Trask, and Sentinels. Magneto believes that authority should be punished, however the movie ultimately rests on Mystique's shapely blue shoulders as she is torn in two directions by Xavier and Magneto's answer to the Mutant Civil Rights problem. She begins the movie literally assaulting military liars who won't let their drafted mutant soldiers go home, and she ends the picture by giving in to Xavier's call for peace.

Like X-Men: First Class—and unlike competing superhero franchises that treat period setting as a chore that must be overcome to reach the desired box office rewards of crossover franchise cross-promotion—Days of Future Past and the series as a whole now use the eras that created these characters to explore their original appeal in its truest form.

X-Men: First Class also begins again in 1944 when Kevin Bacon dons an admittedly hammy German accent and plays a concentration camp’s version of Josef Mengele, executing young Magneto’s gas chamber-spared mother right in front of the boy as a form of social experimentation. While the movie swiftly moves to 1962 after that horrific opener, the movie, much like Days of Future Past and Vietnam, keeps its feet rooted in the shadow of Magneto’s Holocaust origins and his distrust for humanity. It defines the first act’s conflict with Fassbender playing Erik Lehnsherr like a Sean Connery-esque Nazi hunter in the famed grey-and-white glen plaid Goldfinger suit. And the rest of the movie, with all of director Matthew Vaughn's space age glee, still finds the teen angst of isolation at the heart of X-Men comics in the adolescent forms of Mystique and Beast.

These two kids grew up between First Class and Days of Future Past, like many of their real world peers, filled with disillusionment and bitterness following a decade of culture war that needlessly left 58,000 dead and 303,000 wounded in the jungles of Southeast Asia. It is a cultural context that made Charles Xavier’s school for civil disobedient hell-raisers a top selling comic by the 1980s, and it has now brought these characters to life onscreen in a way that has never felt more kinetic or honest to the real spirit and energy of Marvel's genesis.

It has been reported that the next X-Men movie, 2016’s already slated X-Men: Apocalypse, will be set in the 1980s with another 10-year time jump for the original four heroes of the “First Class” cast, plus Wolverine. Even more than the 1970s, the X-Men flourished in '80s comics when by the end of that decade they briefly became Marvel Comics’ hottest selling property. Indeed, they still hold the record for the most purchased comic book in history with X-Men #1 from 1991. But the Baby Boomer appeal is not necessarily lost. While the X-Men comics found a new audience in this prime decade with the children of Generation-X, the '80s were still a time where those who read Marvel growing up were suddenly in a position of power, and the ideals of youth clashed with the practicalities of age.

When glimpsed in that context, X-Men: Apocalypse could very well be Xavier and Magneto's big chill moment. It fits with what Patrick Stewart said at a New York press conference for X-Men: Days of Future Past that I attended: “Where we leave [Xavier] in this story, we are waiting to see the transition—the reformation if you like—to happen. That's a movie I would pay money to see.”

In many ways the “First Class Trilogy,” as it will inevitably be called, has zeroed in on the decades that define all major X-Men stories to this day—the kind that on page or screen seek to recreate in their 21st century backdrops an American landscape where the social unease and culture war is as intense as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s. And the Vietnam War. The 1980s, when Claremont and Byrne gave the world its original “Days of Future Past” story, is far less removed from that than 2015.

Indeed, it would complete the circle with a trio of films set in the generation that the X-Men were invented for. That would make this retro superhero franchise the most honest genre experience currently in production.

***A Special Thanks to Mike Cecchini for being a sounding board and laser-focused Sentinel on this one.

This article was originally published on May 27, 2014.