As a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of time travel. What started as curiosity became much bigger in my mind; as with many other children, the realization of my inevitable death overwhelmed me, and thoughts of time travel helped, in their way, assuage things. Though I was too young then to know about the existing theories on the subject (they would have been over my head even if I had been familiar with them), I nitpicked over the moral and logistical particulars. What happened if you altered history in ways you couldn’t mediate? What if you got stuck in a time loop? What if _____? Because I spent so much time fixating on time travel, I scrutinized any narrative that dealt with it, and, over time, an unspoken knot tightened within me. I became one of those curmudgeons who demands Primer-levels of consideration if I’m to enjoy a given piece of media or literature that uses the trope. After seeing the most recent installment of the X-Men franchise—something that activates in another way the ghost of childhood—I was able to reflect on what time travel means psychologically, and realized the potent metaphor it embodies in contemporary American culture. There’s a beautiful escapism in it: the chance to use hindsight to prevent the problems of the past from metastasizing into the even more daunting problems of the present.
As the trailers indicate, Days of Future Past merges the two X-Men timelines: the one set in the “present” and the one in the “past.” In the beginning of the film, we discover that the world of the “present” has gone to shit. Humans trudge through their dreary slave lives (think Metropolis), enslaved by the sentinels, android-y killing machines constructed of a virtually indestructible non-metal polymer that shares Mystique’s ability to morph on a moment’s notice. What’s worse, they’re programmed to sniff out the “mutant gene,” living with the sole intent to destroy our heroes in the most grisly imaginable ways.
It’s so bad, it’s hopeless; so hopeless that the finest of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters would be long dead if not for Kitty Pryde’s ability to send knowledge back in time. Reunited as they face a common enemy, Professor X and Magneto decide that the only option left to them is to send knowledge of this dismal future far enough back in time to prevent the creation (and the events leading to the creation) of the sentinels in the first place, through the only vessel capable of sustaining the resulting physical damage: Wolverine. So off we go to the ‘70s; bell-bottoms and chest hair abound.
Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that what we learn is that the sentinels came into existence because America—motivated by fearmongering, greed, and bad timing in equal measure—made some pretty bad choices in the face of some exceedingly reasonable warnings against said choices. If this sounds familiar to you, you may have been paying attention to the recent publications about the “irreversible collapse” of the Antarctic sheet, which scientists expect will cause a the sea level to rise by 4 feet over the next two centuries.
Or that overfishing and the swiftly dwindling bee population (U.S. beekeepers reported 40 to 50 percent losses in the Winter 2012-13 alone) will leave us without major food sources alongside our own overpopulation.
Or that, when the resulting shortages hit home, likely externalities will be bumps in crime and class violence.
Yeah, if you’re paying attention, it feels pretty bleak. It would be amazing to go back to the year 1973 and try to stop those silly imbeciles from getting us into this mess in the first place.
But that’s the point: we can’t. And by perpetuating hopes for a reset button, we only distance ourselves further from the solutions we need to be generating at present. Focusing on what could have gone differently, while an entertaining exercise, averts our eyes from the hard truths about the world we live in now. The world has provided us with incredible resources, and, to borrow a cliché from another Marvel franchise: with great power comes great responsibility.
So, here’s my claim: movies that rely on time travel as a problem-solver are harmful for us right now. The reasons we turn to narratives for entertainment are numerous and too difficult to encapsulate, but maybe one of the most important reasons is to see our ghosts turned into metaphor, to see fictional depictions of our problems and witness how others opt to handle them. Whether or not our heroes succeed, we enjoy the experience of seeing them (forced to) try. Last summer, I wrote about a growing trend I called “apocalypse porn,” showcased in zombie and disaster movies, which, I argued, provided us catharsis in its offering of a “clean slate.” Time travel films do the same thing, only with the added gloss of the supposed reclamation of the lives we could have had, rather than the imposition of messy new ones (a la World War Z). Time travel is hardly new, but there’s been an inarguable resurgence in mainstream cinema in recent memory, seen in Star Trek, Looper, and most recently, The Edge of Tomorrow, among many others. Hindsight, and what we do with it, is a valuable part of our existence, and there’s certainly something to be said for the ways this type of narrative helps us see that, but we don’t have time to focus so much on the past anymore. Except in maybe the broadest, most metaphorical terms, we’ve never faced anything like the problems we face now. New challenges demand creative solutions.
It’s likely that by this century’s close, for instance, my hometown will be underwater, and even if it wasn’t specifically any one of our faults, it’s still what we’re left to manage. While developers focus more and more on creating virtual realities, we’re losing the opportunity to salvage the world we already have—or at least our ability to continue living on it and enjoying it the way we have for millennia. And, for all the problems any of us might face, this world is a pretty miraculous thing, a thing worth fighting to save, even if we lose that battle.
Look, you’re not wrong for enjoying Days of Future Past. I enjoyed it too (I especially loved Quicksilver’s bullet-time jaunt to “Time in a Bottle”). And I’m not implying I have the answers, or that writing this crotchety ramble absolves me of my complicity in the system. To argue that art has a moral obligation is a subjective viewpoint not shared by all, but it’s important not to underestimate how integral media is in shaping our cultural ideas and mores. Days of Future Past got a few things right on that score, prizing teamwork over individual triumph and empathy over revenge. With the kind of budgets afforded these franchise movies, though, there were any number of plots—whether original or adapted—at the filmmakers’ disposal. In choosing one that involves a convenient reset, there’s an implicit hopelessness that, if not downright poisonous, is at least unconstructive. With its hyperbolic depictions of human prowess and battles of epic proportions, the superhero genre is perfectly suited to offer useful, nuanced metaphors for ways we might confront our problems rather than wish them away. If you ask me, we’re in desperate need of a wake-up call. We’ve been in desperate need of a wake up call for a long time, but we can’t do anything about that now. We’ll never get now back.
Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison, WI.