What differentiates First Class, and by extension Days of Future Past, from the other five X-Men films is the emphasis on relationships. Of course, other films (especially The Wolverine) focus on specific relationships. But First Class examines a myriad of relationships that seamlessly power the story it wants to tell. Days of Future Past eloquently builds off of the primary relationships that defined First Class: Raven/Charles and Charles/Erik. By extension, we also have cursory follow-ups to Raven/Erik, Raven/Hank, and Wolverine/Charles, among others. We also have the relationships between younger mutants in the future (which carries over from The Last Stand), unspoken relationships (Erik/Quicksilver), and relationships that will occur in the future but haven’t yet in the past (Stryker/Wolverine, Wolverine/Jean). The sequel, by nature of its narrative conceit, also allows the viewer to examine the relationship between past and future iterations of the same character and how these might differ given a change in circumstance.
X-Men hinges (and wants to hinge) on the relationship between Charles and Erik. Their friendship, while often extremely estranged, is an emotional counterweight to the drama they face in the main story of any given film. They must continually navigate how to maintain a relationship with no trust but complete understanding of each other’s motivations. The future indicates that these men, despite these differences, find a way to come together and regain a complete friendship. Another core relationship, that First Class fostered and Days of Future Past capitalized on, is that of Raven and Charles. Their bond is showcased in First Class, but under the new influence of Erik, Raven leaves Charles to pursue the more radical side of mutant advocacy. Ten years later, they are out of touch. Raven is radicalized, even by Erik’s estimation, and Charles is desperate to rekindle their lost connection. After repeatedly appealing to her throughout the film, the ending rewards both Charles and the audience by his words finally reaching through to Raven. It’s a powerful moment and the film earns it by crafting the building blocks throughout the story. Days of Future Past ends with little clues on how these events affected future Charles/Erik and Charles/Raven, but I imagine it will be an important component of the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse.
Other things I enjoyed about Days of Future Past:
A heavy reliance on First Class plot lines and characters, primarily because it is obviously the future of the franchise. It is the gateway between the camp of the original trilogy and the kind of comic book films being made today. As the relationships deepen, so too does actual plot from First Class: Raven’s blood is integral to both stories. In First Class, her blood is the key to suppressing obvious mutant traits (or at least that is what Hank deduces before injecting himself and completing the transition to Beast) and in Days of Future Past, her blood is the key to the destruction that the Sentinels will eventually unleash on mutants and humans alike.
Subversion of genre tropes: A downside to being any kind of genre buff is the recognition of the reliance on certain tropes. Some tropes define genres and are necessary as well as expected. (Why else do you think we still learn about the hero’s journey in English class?) The dominance of good and bad comic book movies prepare us for the typical narrative arc we are likely to encounter: origin, transformation, conflict/challenge/threat, resolution. The cleverer scripts will tweak various stages of the formula to offer up a fresh, compelling take on a familiar story. While it is impossible to shake off the skeleton of a coherent narrative (unless you are aiming for confusion), I prefer for films to allow for dynamism. Multiple times during Days of Future Past I found myself assuming where the story was going to go (and was proved wrong) and by the end, I wasn’t sure how it was going to wrap up. That’s exciting and rare for today’s Hollywood climate. For instance, while we can expect Erik to double-cross and/or use his reunion with Charles to his own ends, it happens very quickly — he attempts to kill Raven to “secure the future.” This seems destined to set up a Raven vs. Erik dynamic for the rest of the film, but only a few scenes pass before their first confrontation and it ends more “amicably” than I would ever expect. The overall plot moves with rational purpose but leaves the viewer unclear of what, where, and how the climax of the film will occur.
Parallel storytelling: Whenever you have stories taking place in different time periods or locations, you have an opportunity to use the difference in space to examine and mirror the same themes in both narratives. It can be underutilized or a crutch, but Days of Future Past finds a nice balance that doesn’t draw too much attention to this device. In fact, I wish they would have used it a bit more. There are parallels in action: the Sentinels go on the attack in both 1973 and in the future, at the same time; Wolverine’s consciousness momentarily jumps back to the future at a time of heightened activity in both times. There are relationship parallels: an examination of Erik and Charles’ relationship in 1973 and in the future, as well as Charles’ relationship to his older self.
Time travel conundrums: No time travel movie is complete without addressing the consequences of time travel. This can come in many flavors: what happens when you change something in the past? Can you change the past or will the universe course correct? What happens if you die/get injured/kill someone else who wasn’t supposed to die? Every story approaches these ideas differently and more often than not, the principles of time travel often contradict, even in the same narrative. Days of Future Past keeps it simple and only briefly touches on the idea that you cannot change the past. The public spectacle that Raven, Erik, and Hank put on in Paris ramps up the demand for Sentinels and exposes the “mutant threat” decades before it happened in the original timeline. This leads Hank to question whether they can actually prevent the future. Of course, they can change it — leaving that time travel potential a mere thought experiment. Even Wolverine seems to be confused about the consequences of his own mission: when trying to convince Charles to join him, he focuses on what Charles will tell him in the future (when Charles says he’s never told anyone about his childhood fears, Wolverine replies, “You will.”). He fails to consider that if he fails in the past, that might not happen in the new timeline.
The Star Trek approach: The resolution effectively erases the arc of the original X-Men trilogy, allowing future films to tell the stories of Erik, Charles, Raven and other X-Men however the new writers wish. They are no longer constrained by what those films depict as the future for these characters. Just as J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek creates an alternate timeline to seal off the original series and give itself narrative space to tell new stories, Days of Future Past changes the timeline. Of course, in this case, the alteration to the main timeline indicates that every event in the original X-Men trilogy is now erased. (Not that it seems like many people will complain about this revision.)
These are the aspects that I keep coming back to when I examine the merits of Days of Future Past. As my title indicates, I find the relationships to be the essential part of the story. The actors (namely James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence) all elevate the material by their heartfelt performances. As I rematch these films, and look toward Apocalypse, the relationships between these three characters remain the biggest draw for me. Mutant or superhero, when you acknowledge your powerful characters are emotional as any human, you strike gold.