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.

5 Reasons Why Jocks & Geeks Are Really the Same People

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Tomorrow's Super Bowl has me thinking a lot about jocks and geeks. We see both in opposition to each other - strong versus weak, stupid versus smart, cool versus awkward. These stereotypes often lead to fear and hate. As a freshman in high school, I have a vivid memory of a football player mocking me while I read a magazine about Star Trek at a bookstore. I was angry and wanted to do something to change my geeky image (this was before I was "out" as a geek). I joined the wrestling team to prove that I too could be a jock. The experience wasn't what I expected. It taught me that jocks and geeks aren't really that different. In fact, they share almost all of the same qualities.

Here are 5 facts about jocks and geeks that show how similar they really are.

1) Loving Data

Moneyball  is a movie about how data is a part of sports.

Moneyball is a movie about how data is a part of sports.

The definition of a geek is someone who has "an eccentric devotion to a particular interest". Usually these interests are non-mainstream like computers, video games, comic books, science fiction, and fantasy. Geeks devote extensive time to understanding every detail about their interests. For example, knowing all the plots from Batman comics, constantly optimizing computers just for the fun of it, and engaging in intellectual debates about who would win in a fight - Kirk or Han Solo?

Jocks get ragged on for being dumb, but the reality is many love information just as much as geeks do. Whether as an athlete or a fan, jocks consume statistics about sports. Knowing batting averages, net yards per passing attempt, and rebounds per game are key to understanding baseball, football, and basketball. Jocks also love knowing all the details of an athlete's career, understanding the rise and fall of a team, and engaging in hypothetical crossovers debates (e.g. who would win in a match - the 1994 San Francisco 49ers or the 1976 Oakland Raiders?). 

2) Engaging in Fantasy

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Geeks and jocks enjoy pretending to be a part of the worlds they love. Geeks do this through role-playing games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons) while jocks play fantasy football (or baseball, hockey, etc). But it's simpler than that - young kids might wrap a blanket around their neck and pretend to be Superman flying around their home or make believe that they've just hit a home run in the World Series. The point is that when both groups let their minds wander, they tend to imagine being right next to their favorite characters and athletes.

3) Playing Dress Up

Left image by Doug Penner via Getty Images; Right image by  Rizwane . 

Left image by Doug Penner via Getty Images; Right image by Rizwane

Probably because of #2, geeks and jocks often dress up. Geeks call this cosplay while jocks just call this game day. Cosplay can be as simple as wearing a Captain America t-shirt or as elaborate as creating a Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess from scratch. Similarly, on game day jocks might wear a jersey of their favorite team or completely paint their bodies in their team's colors. Both serve the same function - publicly showing your devotion to something that means a lot to you. 

4) Getting Together

New York Comic Con is one of my favorite places to meet geeks.
New York Comic Con is one of my favorite places to meet geeks.

Contrary to popular belief, geeks are very social people. We love getting together at comic-book stores, movie screenings, and conventions. Jocks do the exact same thing, though it's usually at sports bars, Super Bowl parties, and tailgates. Whenever you go to these events, whether geek or jock, you can immediately connect with someone you've never met before and dive right into a detailed conversation about something you both feel passionate about. That's a really cool (and incredibly rare) experience.    

5) Becoming Pop Culture

Image by  drsethery  .

Image by drsethery.

Both geeky and jockey things have transcended their niches and become pop culture. Just look at the data - sports and geeky films continue to dominate TV ratings and the box office. Tomorrow's Super Bowl will be one of the most watched events on TV. If you look at the top 5 movies of 2012 (Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, Hunger Games, Skyfall, The Hobbit), all but one came from geeky origins. This isn't a contemporary phenomenon; it's a pattern that's existed for a long time. Going back to the 1960s, half of the most watched televised events were Super Bowls. Adjusted for inflation, the second movie of all time is Star Wars (#1 is Gone with the Wind). It turns out that most people enjoy consuming geeky and jockey things (though in a more casual, less intense way).

Why Don’t Geeks and Jocks Get Along?

Movies like   Mean Girls   highlight the ingroup bias in high school cliques.

Movies like Mean Girls highlight the ingroup bias in high school cliques.

If geeks and jocks are so similar, why is there so much opposition between the groups? The psychology of ingroup/outgroup bias provides a simple explanation - people consistently prefer their group to others. Even when psychologists randomly assign individuals to groups for no reason at all, people will really like the group they are in and dislike outside groups. This finding is stronger when you belong to a group you believe to be less powerful than others (lots of geeks think they are smaller in number compared to jocks while jocks might see their team as an underdog compared to their competition). For many geeks and jocks, our identity is strongly linked to our groups and we react very strongly when we think our group is being attacked by others. This gets back to the self-serving bias (a theme within social psychology), which helps us feel better about our ourselves and the identities we belong to.

Joining the wrestling team forced me to face my own ingroup/outgroup bias and helped me realize how many of my stereotypes about jocks just weren't true. Honoring our similarities, rather than focusing on our differences, not only helps geeks and jocks get along, but all groups of people who believe they are in opposition to each other.