The present world of the X-Men (2023) is desolate, and life has been delineated between mutants (and those humans who support them) and the rest of humanity. Giant, adaptable Sentinels (artificial intelligent robots) hunt and destroy all of the mutants they can find. As a last ditch effort, Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellan) use Kitty Pryde (Page) to send Wolverine’s (Jackman) consciousness into ‘young Logan’ in 1973. It’s up to him to unite young Xavier (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) so that they can stop Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) from killing the Sentinel creator, Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), and loosing violent anti-Mutant sentiment.
Based on Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men run in the early 1980s, and directed by X-Men and X-Men 2 director Bryan Singer (also… Superman Returns), the film is in the darker vein of X-Men: First Class, based in a realistic world where the Cuban Missile Crisis has been averted but the lingering effects of the Vietnam War remain. Wolverine proves again to be the most central character or “glue,” which makes sense given FOX’s success with the Wolverine spinoffs and Jackman’s star power. But here, he’s the conduit that provides an opportunity for Xavier and Magneto to make world-shaping decisions, and allows others, like Beast (Hoult) and Mystique to make their mark on history.
What follows isn’t as insidiously evil on screen as Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, but it’s more intent in exposing the way that we think and relate to one another. We meet the young William Stryker (Josh Helman) who will grow up to torment Wolverine as the head of Weapon X, and we see the aftermath of Trask’s dissection of an array of dead mutants (from the Hellfire club, circa First Class). That is the main visible sign that Trask isn’t just intent on protecting humans from mutants he doesn’t understand but that he sees the mutants as less-than-human, lab rats to be studied so that humanity itself could be improved, whatever the cost.
We’re faced with two sets of competing and parallel psychological developments. The first revolves around Xavier and whether or not he will give up and remain in the shadows, nursing the wounds of what he’s lost (see First Class again), or whether he will take a more proactive approach to using his gifts for good in the world. It’s a similar question raised by various superhero movies, the most recently by Amazing Spider-Man 2. But it’s most shocking here because of the sense of will and emotional power that’s been displayed all along by ‘old’ Xavier thanks to Stewart. Thankfully, Wolverine is enough to jog Xavier out of his pity tea party.
The second scenario revolves around the Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique/Raven triangle. We see that Lawrence’s blue woman is caught between the peace/defense view of Xavier and the war/attack/conquer of Magneto. All three of them have been dealt series blows by humanity, but while Raven can hide, she can never truly be accepted by the humans as one of them thanks to the color of her skin. [This raises another point about the social/psychological agenda of the X-men from comics to film: the way that the X-Men stand in as a parabolic ‘other’ in our conversations about race, class, etc. Some see this as a pro-homosexuality argument, but the way that many of the mutants cannot hide their mutations makes racism the most obvious comparison.] This war of points of view comes to a head (again) by the end of the movie, but it’s always interesting when we’re set up to believe that there are two sides to something… and learn that there are various subsets to the various sides. Xavier and Magneto may be the extremes but their followers, from Wolverine to Raven to Beast, all fall at different places on the spectrum.
All of this seems to come to a head in a soliloquy between the old and new Xaviers. We know what the X-crew in 1973 will do because of their conversation: there’s a recognition that just because someone stumbles (i.e. doesn’t act the way they should) doesn’t mean that they are beyond hope or can’t be redeemed. It’s so blatantly spelled out for us in the course of the movie that it’s impossible to miss: Raven can be redeemed somewhat immediately, but so can Magneto. It’s an interesting additional point to the ‘parable’ of the X-Men: how would our worlds be different if we believed that no one was without hope or beyond saving?
There’s a parallel scene around Cerebro where Wolverine ‘reignites’ old Xavier’s hope, and the power comes back on. It’s a reminder that when we have hope, we’ll run through walls, dream the impossible, strive to be better than we believed we could be. The opposite, despair, tells us that there’s nothing that can be done, that the future is written out, played out, broken … before we even get there. It says that this is all there is so why bother? Unfortunately, people of faith often fall into that trap, and rather than working to improve the world they live in (an ark motif), they settle for waiting for ‘end times’ to hurry up and get here (lifeboat motif). In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, it says “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” The future Xavier did not give up hope (Dumb & Dumber: “so you’re saying there’s a chance?”) and that allows the old Xavier to save the future.
“And this hope will not lead to disappointment” (Romans 5:5).