Days of Future Past Celebrates the Psychology of X-Men (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

X-Men: Days of Future Past poster

Time-travel is my favorite type of science fiction story. It lets us see dystopian futures, wander into nostalgic pasts, explore cause and effect, and visit characters at key moments in their lives – all within the same story.

That's why X-Men: Days of Future Past, a beloved X-Men comic and an awesome episode of X-Men: The Animated Series, was my most anticipated movie of the 2014 summer season. Despite stumbling in a couple of areas, the film sets a new standard for superhero films because it celebrates everything that makes the X-Men unique.

Uniting the X-Men Franchise

X-Men: Days of Future Past  brings together the X-Men film franchise.

X-Men: Days of Future Past brings together the X-Men film franchise.

The X-Men continuity is expansive. There are six X-Men films (3 good, 2 bad, 1 in between). Each is loaded with mutants. Some have been played by multiple actors. Major characters have died, only to return in subsequent films. It's all rather confusing (just like the X-Men comics).

Miraculously, Days of Future Past ties it all together. I'm not just talking about references and cameos (though there are plenty of those). It feels like everything from the original X-Men trilogy to the solo Wolverine films and the First Class prequel are converging on this story. At the same time, the movie remains accessible enough for casual fans to enjoy.

Days of Future Past pulls this off because it focuses on the essential story of the X-Men – a persecuted group of people coming together to promote understanding.

Prejudice and Empathy

 Dr. Bolivar Trask has no empathy for mutants.

 Dr. Bolivar Trask has no empathy for mutants.

The film is about survival. Magneto's Brotherhood wants to end mutant persecution. Dr. Bolivar Trask's Sentinel program is an attempt to protect humanity from the threat of mutants. Both groups work towards their own self-interests. Only Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men want coexistence. 

These group relationships are based on real science and highlight one of the most nefarious principals in social psychology – the ingroup/outgroup bias. People consistently prefer their own group to others. Even when psychologists randomly assign individuals to groups for no reason at all, people will like the group they are in and dislike outside groups. This finding is stronger when you believe your group is being persecuted in some way (like Magneto and Trask).

There are good reasons why mutants and humans have such a strong bias against each other. Magneto doesn't believe mutants are the same species as non-mutants (even though they are). Growing up in the Holocaust, he has seen the inhumanity of humans first hand and has no empathy for them. Trask fears that mutants could result in the extinction of humanity (kinda like what happened to the Neanderthals). By hunting mutants and experimenting on them, Trask believes humanity can build strong defenses against their threat. It's easy for Trask to justify his actions because many mutants don't look like humans and the less something looks like us the less empathy we have for it.

We don't see Magneto or Trask as villains though. We know both characters are only trying to help their own groups. Unlike the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which has failed to create any memorable villains outside of Loki, Days of Future Past gives us multiple antagonists with complex motivations.

Why don't the X-Men show the same prejudice as Magneto or Trask? The ingroup/outgroup bias is overcome when people learn about other each other, come into continuous contact, and experience empathy. Charles Xavier has dedicated his life to promoting these exact goals at his School for Gifted Youngsters. Why does Professor X care so much about mutants and humans? His telepathic powers give him the ability to see past group differences. Having read so many minds, Xavier knows that humanity and mutants are both guided by the same basic thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

It's too bad the writers of every X-Men film feel the need to depower Professor X in some way. The explanation of how this occurs in Days of Future Past just doesn't scientifically make sense given what we know about the human nervous system. 

Cooperation and Teamwork

Diversity makes the X-Men a stronger team.

Diversity makes the X-Men a stronger team.

Another way to overcome prejudice, at least temporarily, is by finding a common goal. We see this throughout Days of Future Past. Humans consider working together to stop the mutant threat. Trask even calls stopping mutants a "common struggle" that could unite all of humanity. Meanwhile, Magneto and Xavier (in both past and future) collaborate to fight the Sentinel program.

There is a scientific basis for this type of cooperation. In Muzafer Sharif's robbers cave study, groups of boys who hated each other learned to get along when they had no choice but to cooperate. These types of superordinate goals sometimes lead to long-term cooperation (the 12 British colonies coming together to form the United States of America) while others alliances end after a goal is achieved (the US alliance with Russia to defeat Nazi Germany).

My favorite example of collaboration in this series is the X-Men team itself. Research has shown diversity makes a team stronger. Having people with different perspectives fights the dangers of groupthink and is why NASA recommends having a mixed gender crew on all of its missions. With the X-Men, the more diverse the team is in mutant powers, the greater their ability to achieve their goals.  Check out the opening battle from Days of Future Past to see what I mean. Kitty Pryde, Bishop, Iceman, and Blink do much more as a team because of their different abilities.

That brings me to my second complaint – while the future X-Men are a diverse team, the X-Men of the past are a boys only club. Sure, Mystique plays a central role in the story (and Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful in the role), but I would have liked to see more key female characters working alongside Magneto and Professor X.

A Bold New Future

While much of the time-travel doesn't add up if you do the math, I really like where Days of Future Past ends. The mistakes of past films have been corrected and the future is wide open for new stories.

The next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, has already been described as a "disaster movie, extinction level event". If the producers are able to weave in the core elements that make the X-Men stories so compelling, as they did on this film, the franchise will continue evolving beyond what we typically see in the superhero genre.

Check out my guest appearance on Out Now with Aaron and Abe where we explore all things X-Men and Days of Future Past. To learn how Days of Future Past fits into the larger superhero genre of films, check out AV Club's review. I also like what Variety has to say about the lack of wide scale destruction in Days of Future Past. io9 does a nice job discussing the important relationships in the film.

The Wolverine Searches for Meaning, Avoids Fun (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

The Wolverine Poster

I was first introduced to Wolverine through the early 1990s X-Men: The Animated Series. I thought he had the coolest mutant power and loved how he always did what he thought was best (even if Cyclopes hated the idea). The first comic book I bought was Wolverine (issue #67, "Valley O'Death!"). When X-Men: Children of the Atom came out in arcades, I spent countless hours (and quarters) mastering Wolverine’s “berserker barrage”. Looking back, Wolverine was an essential ingredient in my origin story as a geek.

Did my nostalgia for Wolvie set me up for unrealistic expectations for his new movie, The Wolverine? Nope, his last solo adventure, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was so bad that it completely destroyed any hope I had of seeing a good Wolverine story on the big screen. I went into this film expecting nothing.

Logan travels to Japan in  The Wolverine.

Logan travels to Japan in The Wolverine.

To my surprise, I enjoyed a lot of The Wolverine. It was refreshing to see a movie take place entirely in Japan (with a little bit of Canada) and feature a predominantly Asian cast. Compared to the rest of this summer’s genre films, The Wolverine has better representation of women (3 female leads who speak to each other and kick ass). It met the needs of fans by including major threads from the comics while also making the movie accessible to anyone who hasn't seen a X-Men film.

What I enjoyed most was Logan’s internal struggle. His mutant power is superhuman healing. Combine that with an adamantium reinforced skeleton and our hero is nearly indestructible. The film explores how such abilities impact Wolverine’s psychology. Since pain and fear have no consequences for him, we see Logan habituate to these feelings. This leads Logan to become impulsive, quickly reacting to threats without any concern about what might happen to him (because nothing ever happens to him). Since Wolverine is constantly losing those he loves (because he outlives them), his only source of meaning is his quest for enduring justice. This film challenges Logan by stripping him of his purpose in life. Seeing Wolverine go through this as a psychological ronin gave the film surprising depth and reminded me of some of the ideas raised in Viktor Frankl’s seminal work - Man’s Search for Meaning 

Yukio stole almost every scene she was in.

Yukio stole almost every scene she was in.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is shallow. The villains bored me (I've been spoiled by Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison from Star Trek Into Darkness). Besides one fight on a train, the action was uninspired. Remember that epic Wolverine/samurai battle you played out in your head as a kid? Yeah, it never happens.

It's sad that this film will be mostly remembered for its post-credits setup for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Wolverine consumed my imagination as a kid and I'd like to see him done with the same attention to detail as my adult obsession - Batman. That probably won't happen anytime soon. I'll just wait for the next X-Men movie, for which I now have enormously inflated fanboy expectations.

Rating: 6.5/10

AV Club had a nice take on the film, calling it the only standalone superhero movie of the season. However, I agreed most with NPR's more critical review (but watch out for minor spoilers). 

5 Leadership Lessons From Science Fiction

Today is Presidents Day in America. While the holiday is supposed to honor President George Washington's birthday, we don't actually do anything to celebrate besides take the day off work and buy stuff that's on sale. 

This year's holiday has me reflecting on leadership. I just completed a one-year term as the executive leader of a psychological association. As a part of that leadership transition, I wrote a letter to my successor about the lessons I learned, the mistakes I made, and advice I had for the future of the organization.

I referenced science fiction many times in that letter. It wasn't just because both of us are big geeks (though that certainly helped). After writing that letter, I realized how much the genre influenced the decisions I made as a leader in psychology.

Here's a peek at what I wrote in that letter. 

1) Have a bold vision.

I used to believe that an organization's greatest challenge is limited resources (money, staff, tools). I now know that what is much more important is having a bold plan for the future. Creating a simple (and powerful) mission, vision, and strategic plan is the most important job for a leader. When done correctly, a strategic plan energizes all members of a group, prioritizes tasks and the allocation of resources, and helps the organization move forward. Without it, organizations risk fading into obscurity.

Science fiction has one of the most inspiring mission statements ever written and you probably already have it memorized.

Space, the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Starfleet captains prioritize exploration above all else. 

Starfleet captains prioritize exploration above all else. 

The mission of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise is short, powerful, and makes you want to enlist in Starfleet. Everything on the Enterprise is organized around its mission. That's why Captain Picard has so many scientists on his starship while the Klingons have drunk warriors with swords (their mission is to fight honorably and drink blood wine). This also explains why the Federation has become the dominant group in the Alpha Quadrant—they have a plan that inspires while their neighbors keep changing their minds about who they are and what to do next.

2) Build a leadership pipeline.

I didn't seek my position. I was encouraged to run by someone else. Once I was elected, my predecessors trained me. Since most individuals won't seek out leadership opportunities (because they’re intimidating), it's the job of those who are currently in positions of power to always be on the lookout for potential successors. That's how leadership works—experienced people transitioning out mentor new passionate folks in. This type of leadership pipeline keeps an organization nimble and creative.

The Jedi have perfected their leadership pipeline.

The Jedi have perfected their leadership pipeline.

The Jedi (and Sith) of Star Wars know this well. As Yoda said, "Always two there are…a master and an apprentice." Jedi masters identify children with a strong connection to the force and pass down their knowledge through an apprenticeship. What I love about this example is how integrated it is throughout the Star Wars universe—anywhere you see a Jedi Knight or Sith Lord, not too far away you'll find their apprentice observing, learning, and getting ready to step in and continue the mission of their mentors. 

3) Honor the past.

I campaigned on a platform of change. After settling into my position, I learned in order to be an effective agent of change I had to balance change with continuity. That meant learning my organization's history, understanding how it worked, and talking to experienced staff and leaders about the changes they (not I) would like to see happen. By honoring the past, leaders ensure consistency with an established plan and open people to the possibility of change.

Can human and cylon leaders overcome the mistakes of their ancestors? 

Can human and cylon leaders overcome the mistakes of their ancestors? 

Understanding the past is a major theme in Battlestar Galactica. Both the cylons and humans believe "All this has happened before…All this will happen again." Patterns of creation, destruction, and rebirth are common throughout the 12 Colonies. Past leaders failed to understand how these patterns repeated. The major question of the series became whether or not the current generation could understand the mistakes of the past in order build a peaceful future.

4) Diversity makes a team stronger.

In the first meeting I chaired, I tried to get everyone to agree with each other. That was a mistake. Not only is it impossible to get complete consensus, but that type of groupthink is also incredibly dangerous. I learned the hard way that a leader's responsibility is to create a space that allows people with different perspectives to engage in honest dialogue. Then, the team acts on an idea that makes the most sense for the existing strategic plan. Without diversity in a group, leadership is stuck kicking around the same stale old ideas.

Charles Xavier: "I always believed I couldn't be the only one in the world. The only person in the world who was different."

Charles Xavier: "I always believed I couldn't be the only one in the world. The only person in the world who was different."

Someone who knows about the advantage of diversity is the founder of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier. He built a team of mutants with different powers and personalities. While members of his team often clashed (the conservative Cyclops never really got along with the anti-establishment Wolverine), the X-Men were much more powerful because of the diversity of talent within the group.

5) With great power comes great responsibility.

Sitting in a meeting surrounded by many of the psychologists I grew up reading about helped me realize that my position gave me privileges others did not have. Shaping the future of science, education, healthcare, and public policy skyrocketed my career forward. But with that power came a lot of responsibility—meetings to attend, agendas to review, reports to write, emails to send, conference calls to schedule, and crises to resolve. The work was crushing, especially since it was on top of my day job. Last year all of my vacation time was used just to attend meetings, which really took a toll on my friends and family. The experience was deeply meaningful, though it was not without sacrifice.

Power and responsibility play a major role in the origin of Spider-Man. 

Power and responsibility play a major role in the origin of Spider-Man. 

Marvel's Spider-Man had a similar experience. A radioactive spider bit Peter Parker, giving him arachnid strength, agility, and the ability to climb walls. Peter first used his powers for fame and ignored an opportunity to stop a criminal. Later, the same criminal killed Peter’s uncle. The experience helped him understand what his uncle meant when he said, "With great power there must also come great responsibility". Accepting the responsibilities of power is what separates heroes from the villains.

Based upon your own experiences, what advice would you give to individuals entering leadership positions?