X-Men: Days of Future Past is close to flawless, which is high praise indeed for a movie with as much background and complexity as it has. The seventh feature in a popular but uneven action series, it is packed with freakish characters, extensive back-stories, two distinct time frames, and an ambitious sci-fi plot that centers on the sticky wicket that is time-travel. But nothing is disappointing here, or damned little. This X-Men has substance as well as virtuoso technique.
Best of all, in my view from planet Chomsky, it respects sedition. Rebellion against governments (including actual governments, particularly Russia’s and our own) is not unusual in modern movie plots, though it is by no means the norm. In the flourishing and lucrative superhero genre, however, nakedly subversive ideas are finding plenty of fertile ground. Consider one of the best: the original 2008 Iron Man, in which Tony Stark fights his way free of his own iron weapons (ironically), which were made for the U.S. to deploy in Afghanistan. He survives only to turn against his own company’s purpose, its financial interests, and its mogul (Obadiah Stane, played by a sinister Jeff Bridges, who makes a fine foil for Robert Downey Jr.). Now a part-time Iron Man, he retools Stark Industries, transforming it into a force for good. In the 2012 The Avengers, Stark says, “Stark Tower is about to become a beacon of self-sustaining clean energy.”
Subversive politics are not unique to superhero pictures, of course, because defiance in the face of oppression isn’t a new theme to any art form. Far from it. Like Washington’s political cartoonists, Hollywood’s writers have always toyed with sedition, and gone for the throat of the government, especially Congress. In 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was written by Sidney Buchman, who was blacklisted by HUAC in 1953. Under the direction of Frank Capra, it is powerhouse propaganda in which one man, James Stewart as freshman Senator Jefferson Smith, faces down a thoroughly corrupt Senate in a shamelessly dramatic filibuster. Even earlier, in the bizarre Gabriel Over the White House (1933), a corrupt president survives a car accident and wakes up enlightened. Corrupt politics are a given in most countries, including ours, and they make for a lot of tough political movies, though few moviegoers consider action pictures in that light. We should. One of the best-ever action pictures, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), has one of my favorite-ever seditious lines, which is actually only one word. When confronted with the accusation, “You speak treason!” Robin replies, “Fluently.”
The evil entity in a lot of the 21st century’s super-hero movies is our own U.S. Government, or its contractors in the military-industrial complex. The Avengers, individually and together, often battle some partner of our Defense Department. Captain America, Hulk, and Iron Man all qualify. In Watchmen, destructive Dr. Manhattan is a government-sanctioned agent. In José Padilha’s under-rated Robo-Cop, a scientist (Gary Oldman) is instructed to turn Alex Murphy into an amoral killing machine by Omnicorp, or else lose funding for his otherwise worthy research.
In one way or another, those films reflect the realities of the military industrial complex, sugar-coated though it is in adult fantasy (read: powerful, sexy, violent). X-men may be the most overtly seditious of all, because in it, the U.S. government is relentlessly waging war against its own citizens, a minority population of mutants. America is the bad guy– the ruthless and powerful entity that destroy what it cannot understand or control. Continue reading