The X-Men franchise has been my favorite of the Marvel franchises for some time, largely because of the worldview questions it brings up. Here, we’ll take a look at the themes in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” There will be SPOILERS for the film in what follows.
Evolution continues to be at the heart of many of the questions raised by the X-Men franchise. What does it mean to say that Mutants are perhaps the next step in evolution for humanity? For some, it means that Mutants should overthrow humanity; after all, they are the lesser-evolved form of life. How should humans and Mutants interact? Are they really a step of evolution, or is it simply a different expression of humanity?
These questions are obviously speculative, but I think the most poignant of them center around the notion of an evolutionary morality. If all we see is merely the product of naturalistic evolution without any sort of grounding for objective morality, who is to say that those Mutants and humans who say that there is a fundamental war between Mutants and humanity are wrong? It seems as though they are exactly right: it is a competition for resources, pure and simple. Yet the questions the movie brings up go beyond such simplistic reasoning. After all, it seems, there is right and wrong that goes beyond the reasoning centered around survival-of-the-fittest. Again, we must wonder: why? Moreover: how is it grounded? These questions get at the heart of worldview questions, and viewers who are left thinking that it is wrong to perpetuate a war between Mutant and human should wonder what grounds they have for thinking it is wrong.
The Heart of Hum…utant?
Many strands of Christian expression view humanity as depraved. That is, humans are sinful at heart, rather than being generally good. “Days of Future Past” aligns with this vision of humanity in a number of ways, but it also, interestingly, portrays mutants as just as frequently evil-leaning as humankind.
The inherent fear of the “Other” was felt throughout, as both Mutant and human worked to destroy each other. However, Mystique’s quest for revenge was a deeper look at aspects of character and worldview. Her quest, despite it being a futile gesture, was telling: she sought revenge despite the possibility that it could destroy all of her own kind. Professor X’s words, however, echoed through time: “Just because someone stumbles and loses their way doesn’t mean they are lost forever.” Mystique, through her choice to refuse to pursue the way of violence into oblivion, ultimately plays a kind of figure of reconciliation. The theme of darkness in the heart which may be redeemed is one which resonates powerfully with the Christian worldview.
A Spectrum of Morality
I think one area that is not explored frequently enough is the notion that there really is a spectum when it comes to that which is moral. I’m not advocating any kind of relativism, but rather the notion that there aren’t always (or even often) black and white moral choices. “Days of Future Past” brings this to the forefront as viewers are confronted with various ways to approach the question of the Mutant. Does one opt for a warfare model which is put forth by Magneto and Dr. Trask, a model which allows for coexistence with separation/secrecy as was generally being followed in the 1970s of the film, or perhaps even cooperation as Dr. X seeks? Perhaps instead, one should forge one’s own way like Mystique or (old) Wolverine, seeking a personal agenda in order to follow one’s own ends.
These aspects are front-and-center throughout the film, as viewers most likely will unconsciously lean towards a certain expression themselves. We discussed above the aspects of evolutionary morality, but I think the movie goes even deeper, trying to get at more basic questions like “What is truth?” and “What is moral/right?” The way viewers answer these questions may lead to further conversations. It seems to me the film clearly favored the kind of mediation road in which Mutant and Human could coexist. But what does that mean for those who favored evolutionary morality or a warfare model? Perhaps such notions are themselves outdated and put to rest because they are of a “Future Past.”
The latest X-Men movie has received much critical acclaim and box-office success. I think that’s for a good reason. It has a compelling plot, great action, and excellent pacing. Our analysis of various themes throughout the movie shows there is thoughtfulness behind it as well. Issues of morality are front and center, though many other themes are worth discussing as well. This is a movie that could be used to start discussions about the faith from many different aspects.
There are many more issues which could be explored in the movie. What are some that resonated with you? Let me know your own thoughts in the comments.
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Evolutionary morality? What might this mean… other than the heritable traits that form the biological basis for any moral sense? I’m speaking of a sense of, say, ‘fairness’ or ‘reciprocity’ – a shared sensibility that demonstrably crosses the species boundary and is the only source of any ‘objective’ claim we can reasonably make for this moral sensibility.
Obviously, moral sensibilities must precede religious belief because we bring this sense to our very first religious exposure. That’s why we pick and choose which bits to accept and which bits to reject. In addition, this also explains how secular society leads religious morals and ethics away from barbaric practices towards much more enlightened practices. Religions follow its societies in which they are exercised.
The notion of fitness in evolutionary terminology is not well understood in comparison to religious sensibilities… fitness presented by the religious as a ‘survival of the fittest’ moral basis for a world ‘red in tooth and claw’… as if the choice all of us face is either religiously based or a brutal version of an indifferent, selfish, and ‘sinful’ nature. This is a false dichotomy. Religious sensibilities are not the flip side of this; they must be taught to be held in esteem (we don’t inherit them).
In evolutionary terms, fitness (in a nutshell) means the ability to successfully reproduce. Then more ‘fit’ a species, the greater its population.
Fitness in the X-men movies should mean the same thing… but it doesn’t. It’s presented here as if it means the ability for an individual to survive…. aided by the powers from mutation. Exercising this power then becomes worthy of our moral consideration.
But the basis of this moral consideration remains fully with the biological sensibilities inherited – sensibilities that ‘evolve’ only by the reproductive success of our species. The same should be true of these mutants (assuming the mutations are heritable) and not the success of their individual survival. Because so many religious people arbitrarily determine survival at all costs to be the primary ‘source’ of evolutionary morality, it’s no wonder they mistakenly condemn evolution as an immoral scientific explanation – the wrong metric based on a wrong understanding using evolutionary biology as the scapegoat to elevate religious morality by default.
It is because the mutants retain their shared moral sensibilities (with not just us humans but other moral species that share this biological inheritance) that we allow them to be considered similar autonomous moral agents as ourselves faced with a difficult choice about exercising power. If they were utterly lacking this shared sensibility, then we would allocate the mutants to be a different moral species altogether worthy of eradication as the viral threat they would be to our own. But because we share our biological moral sensibilities with them, we can ponder how we might fare in a similar circumstance, and so the movies become ways of learning about ourselves.
You’re right to call out the difficulty with “evolutionary morality” as a term and I admit I used it knowing it was fudging a bit. It was chosen simply to try to fit into the theme of evolution found throughout the X-Men universe of how the next evolutionary step of mutation will bring all these different moral questions. So yes, I do admit fudging a bit for the sake of using the term, and you’re right to wonder about my meaning. Basically what I am trying to say is if one accepts the argument of someone like, say, Magneto in the movie–that the Mutants must necessarily displace humanity because they are the evolutionary superior–then one has bought into a system of moral choices guided by that.
Does that help explain more what I was trying to get at?
Yup. I understand. I’m just saying that ‘evolutionary superior’ is a misnomer in that the superior critter in evolutionary terminology is the one most fit, meaning it successfully produces the most offspring that survive to reproductive age. It might be a wee critter or a big one, a carnivore or an herbivore, a parasite or a host; in terms of evolutionary fitness, the mutants would only be ‘superior’ if they could outproduce humans!
This notion of individual survivability has long been mistakenly associated with evolutionary theory and informs the charge behind eugenics and selective breeding leveled against evolution in general and Darwin in particular, yet these very notions – of guided reproduction – is exactly contrary to natural selection – Darwin’s mechanism for changes to life over time and now only one part of several mechanisms whereby the environmental interactions (and its indifference to the critters that inhabit it) end up determining, so to speak, which critters successfully reproduce their genes through successive generations (we can thank Dawkins for this notion of the selfish gene as the benchmark by which fitness is measured, meaning genes don’t care about anything other than reproduction… caring is an emergent property of a gene pool).
My point is that the moral considerations raised by X-men only works because these are shared considerations between mutants and humans. The evolutionary step of increased physical ability inherited by the mutants’ next generation is not necessarily an improvement in evolutionary terms unless it translates from nature’s point of view into more and more babies spreading the mutated alleles greater than the spread of non mutated alleles.
The moral considerations of how this competition might occur (mass slaughter of humans, for example) is an interesting thought experiment, as are the possible moral results. Would the species be improved and, of so, by what definition? This really is something worth pondering.
Such pondering should be reminiscent of social programs purported to do just this: improve the human condition, perhaps to ‘better’ the human species by, say, selective breeding for particular traits… and all of us know these results if we study history.
This ‘evolutionary morality’ isn’t connected evolution at all but its opposite. This remains my point because it’s neither accurate nor fair to suggest that such selective pressures through breeding for selected traits like the ones the mutants possess is properly labelled as ‘evolutionary morality’. It’s not; it’s something else entirely (even though I think it’s worthy of serious moral consideration).
Thanks for sharing this…I still need to watch the movie
You should definitely go see it. There is some great cinematography in it as well, particularly one scene which I’ll let you experience. Trust me, you’ll know which one I’m talking about.
Though, to be fair, if your choice were between this and “Edge of Tomorrow” I’d recommend the latter. See my reflection on that one here.
Maybe even the franchise’s best- Days of Future Past scores twice, first as a funny and engaging scifi drama and secondly as a huge middle finger to Brett Radner. Unfortunately, Marvel just doesn’t make them like Nolan does. Although this easily ranks in Marvel’s Top 5, I want a better, darker, grander superhero movie. This movie was very good. It just doesn’t compare to the visceral crime drama that is The Dark Knight, or the ambitious epic that is The Dark Knight Rises.
John, I’m with you on the thought that this movie is probably top 5 for Marvel, but not close to the Dark Knight trilogy. I do think that Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is perhaps their first flick that can stand on its own without having to bank on the fact that it’s a superhero movie to have people ignore some of the major faults. I thought it was fantastic. If you’re interested, my look at it is here. Thanks for stopping by!