Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Merits of Metal Versus Bone and the Ethics of Time Travel According to Old, Bald, Wise Men

Watching X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, it suddenly dawned on me how all of the X-Men would have been court-marshalled and/or Vulcan neck-pinched into a goddamned coma for the temporal mission that lay at the heart of the movie. This may seem like a particularly geeky thing to say (or if you are unfamiliar with either cultural reference, like complete honkey jibber-jabber), but it actually represents a useful dichotomy when considering the moral implications of the movie, moral ponderings--of course--being the primary consideration for shelling out one’s money to see a blockbuster comic book movie. Well, that and attractive young actresses wearing nothing but blue paint and some (in)conveniently placed prosthetics/skintight blue body suits.

While the thematic core of the series has always remained constant with respect to the competing tensions of discrimination and exploitation of segments of the population based on genetic/cultural differences and a hopeful vision of peaceful cohabitation and cooperation (and fucking women with blue skin whose dermal hues are not the result of becoming recently deceased due to (totally accidental according to the official coroner’s report) asphyxiation), DAYS OF FUTURE PAST also ventured into the philosophical quagmire of time travel as an added bonus. 
The temporal mechanics of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST are unique, however, in that they run thematically parallel to the genesis of the text itself.  DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is one of those rare instances where the content of the endeavour is almost inextricable from the larger cultural concerns from which it was birthed. I n this case, the womb that gave life to DOFP also spewed forth some demented, disfigured creations that in Days of Yore would have sparked accusations of witchcraft and incited decent, hard-working village folk to commit depraved acts of violence against their friends and family. Yes, X-MEN 3: THE LAST STAND and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE were the kind of offspring that even a mother would find difficulty conjuring up any love for and would almost certainly inspire the urge to disinfect her birth canal with boiling bleach to remove any hint of corruption thereof.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS did an admirable job of steering the series back towards some semblance of respect that it had not held since 2003, though it did so in large part through completely ignoring everything that came before and “wiping the slate clean” so to speak, a strategy that (mostly) worked and was, at the time, the only conceivable way to proceed short of a full reboot. This is sort the cinematic equivalent of getting a blow job but then having the benefactor of said blow job finish you off with her hand. It still feels good, but in the end, you could definitely tell that something was missing.

There’s no arguing that, in large part due to the departure of Brian Singer for X3, the series became a complete mess, but now with the advent of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, there is also no arguing that it is a beautiful mess. DOFP actually made me appreciate--or, at least, tolerate--X3 and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, easily the two weakest entries into the X-Men film series, slightly more. Perhaps it is only because they were more palatable in the wake of the massive (and necessary) retconning that made up so much of the metatext of the movie.  With brilliant execution, Singer took a page straight from the source medium and used some narrative slight-of-hand to demote lesser elements of the series into the realm of existential meanderings on the path to the One True Story.  All undesirable elements in the series can now be banished to that strange forbidden zone of Alternate Timelines, so that we in the omnipotent audience can sleep easier at night with the knowledge that these characters did, indeed, end up on the Right, True Narrative Path, and we now have one less reason to drink ourselves to sleep each night (but still not enough to actually stop the nocturnal ritual).

The real nexus between the text and the universe contained within the text is this concept of retconning, which, coincidentally and some might say fittingly, originated in the world of comic books.  Retcon is a truncated form of “retroactive continuity,” which for my purposes here I will rely on the marriage of two definitions:


“Retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is the alteration of previously established facts in the continuity of a fictional work.”

TV Tropes

“Reframing past events to serve a current plot need. The ideal retcon clarifies a question alluded to without adding excessive new questions. In its most basic form, this is any plot point that was not intended from the beginning. The most preferred use is where it contradicts nothing, even though it was changed later on…

… Some but not all retcons are Ass Pulls, and a good retcon can actually improve the current narrative. A good way to get away with a retcon is to reveal new implications or motivations for events that have already been established…

… The retcon is considered by many to occur when current events contradict the past continuity of the series and is evidence of a Writer on Board. Perhaps more often, the retcon does not actually violate canon, but rather violates fanon, the set of unstated interpretations usually made by the audience (an interpretation violated this way is said to be Jossed). Most competent writers achieve a retcon by relying on a less-obvious but still perfectly valid interpretation of what was previously seen.

As the number of twists and misdirections in a story becomes higher, it becomes more difficult to tell whether an event actually is a retcon (which implies that the writers changed their minds), or a misdirection (which implies that the writers intended the ‘retconned’ version all along, and had been deliberately misleading the audience before).”

Like most swords these days, this one is double-edged. When used effectively, a retcon will reframe past events in a narrative, offering a different but still textually valid perspective. When used ineffectively, it basically ignores everything that came before it, acting as a method of narrative cherry-picking and an indication of douchebaggery of the highest calibre.

It could be accurately argued that, among other things, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST was first and foremost a retcon to A) bring coherence back to a bafflingly convoluted movie universe and B) try to wash away the terrible aftertaste of my semen from your mother's mouth X-MEN 3 and ORIGINS that had befouled not only our palettes and those of our loved ones but our sanity as well.

Master of fucking disguise?  She can't even
look like herself.
So it was only fitting that X-MEN:DOFP dealt not just with time travel but with the express temporal mission of altering previously established historical facts for the sake of continuity, or rather establishing a new continuity.  Essentially, what the X-Men are trying to do is retcon history.  In DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, Professor X and his best frenemy, Magneto (Ian McKellen), are leading a ragtag group of mutant survivors against a cybernetic foe, the relentless sentinels.  (Does James Cameron know about this?  'Cause somebody about to get sued.)  In a final, last-ditch effort to save the lives of millions (or even billions?) of mutants and so-called "mutant sympathizers," they intend to prevent the advent of their post-apocalyptic world from occurring by going back through time to change what they see as a pivotal event in their history.  So Wolverine's (Hugh Jackman's) consciousness is sent back in time to his "younger" self by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to track down the younger versions of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent the shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing president Nixon and pass the torch of being to posterperson for the X-MEN motion picture franchise.

This effort, however, is based on several assumptions not only about the nature of time travel but also the ethics of time travel, which don’t come up nearly as often as they should, especially in cases like the becoming your own grandfather paradox regardless of how hot you may or may not find your grandmother in a purely objective way just like you (repeatedly) told your therapist.

And for philosophical quandaries of this magnitude, there is and has only ever been one man who possesses the moral and intellectual authority to properly address these issues: Patrick Stewart. It is only fitting that as part of his grand design, he sought fit to explore the moral duality of time travel through the guise the intrepid Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise and the wise Professor Charles Xavier of New York City. Both of these characters are strong leaders, wise sages, and proponents of peace and both have also boned hot, alien babes. All of these credentials make Patrick Stewart eminently qualified to serve as the keystone to further metaphysical discussions surrounding time travel.

Unified Ethics of Time Travel (Part I)

Dichotomy 1: The Prime Directive vs. Wild Speculation

The plot of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is predicated on the belief that altering events in the past to change the outcome in the future is morally justified by the potential benefits it may produce for a large number of people on a global scale. While it is true that Professor X’s motives for attempting to alter past events seems altruistic, the simple truth is he really had no fucking clue what he was talking about.
Yeah, fuck all y'all at Fox,
and thanks for nothing.

Luckily for Cyclops (James Marsden), the good Professor turned out to be right, but it was at best a lark that his plan succeeded. He based his plan to save the future entirely on 1) Absolutely no empirical evidence, 2) Emotionally clouded judgment, 3) A very linear and somewhat simplistic view of causality, and 4) Desperation (a stinky cologne…). At best, Professor X took an educated guess that stopping Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the president of the United States would prevent the subsequent woes for mutantkind, but for all he knew it could also have made matters even worse.  Altering events may have accelerated the timeline, ensuring that all mutants were eradicated even sooner, with no more blue-skinned poon-tang for anyone.  Or it could have led to the complete destruction of all non-mutant muggles with Magneto instated as Supreme King of the Fucking World with Rogue, Jean Grey, and Storm as his sex slaves.  Or it could have led to an extinction-level event for all of humanity.

This is precisely why the non-interference principle at the heart of the Prime Directive was set in place in the Star Trek universe: to protect us from our own ignorance. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” Captain Picard does send some folks back in time on a dangerous mission, but he is sending them back where they originally came from. Yes, it was potentially advantageous to himself and his allies, but the fact is that he wasn’t sending somebody back to change history but to restore it. The point here is that it is at best a gamble and at worst terribly irresponsible to start changing events in the past all crazy like.

Dichotomy 2: Personal Gain vs. The Good of the Many (Biff vs. Spock)

There is generally a sense in any narrative dealing with time travel that changes made with “good” intentions can be tolerated more than changes made with “bad” intentions. According to this temporal ethical paradigm, basically a righteous cause will produce a bright future while selfishness creates a bad future. This dichotomy is illustrated perfectly in the BACK TO THE FUTURE series, where Biff’s selfishness leads to widespread destruction, rampant mom-fucking, and gratuitous breast implants, Marty’s desire not to be exiled into oblivion and help his dad get in his mom’s pants (well, when you put it that way…) leads to his family’s financial success, a nice new pick-up truck, and a weekend away with some version of his girlfriend.

They show extreme intelligence, even problem-solving
intelligence.  They've already mastered the three-way.
This is a pretty childish view of ethics and dangerous to boot. The problem is that this view presupposes a strange sort of causality based on intent. I wish the world worked based solely on intent, because I always “intended” to win Lotto 649, bang Kate Mara, and invent a time machine for the sole purpose of having my dick sucked by a domesticated velociraptor (Clever girl…). The truth is that Professor X and Magneto were--at best-- taking an educated guess.  But I mean, there were no discussions of temporal dynamics, and as the only good episode of Star Trek: Voyager with Kurtwood “Clarence Boddicker” Smith as the timeline-altering alien dude illustrated, the universe is a complicated place and there’s no telling with any degree of certainty exactly how everything is connected and what the effects of our actions might be.

My velociraptor bordello notwithstanding, generally speaking, nobody in any major motion picture franchise or syndicated television show ever purports to actually have a solid base of evidence for how their manipulation of time will actually influence subsequent events.  And typically when they do have any kind of discussions, it's generally shown that any major changes in the past are really, really bad, like Dr. McCoy Saving that chick's life in the now famous Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever" or Biff going back in time with the Almanac in BACK TO THE FUTURE.

Jean, where the hell are we?
In STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, Picard does go back in time, not to change past events, but to change them back.  (Presumably so he could restore the timeline where Famke Janssen falls completely in love with him.  Well played, Picard, well played.)  For Professor X, it seems that heroin-inspired levels of wishful thinking and arbitrarily deciding what's in the best interests not only of the human race but also the entirety of the space-time continuum and possibly all of existence is worth it just to make sure your buddies are OK.  

Dichotomy 3: Scott Bakula vs. The Entirety of Human History

The entire concept of the seminal science fiction series Quantum Leap was based on this sense of moral superiority of "making right what once went wrong."   Well, who’s to say what’s “right?” What the “correct” version of history is?  It’s pretty fucking arrogant, and fucks like Dr. Sam Beckett and Professor X shouldn’t be allotted any real estate whatsoever on the proverbial Moral High Ground.

According to Dr. Beckett and Professor X's theory of temporal ethics, sometimes two or more wrongs do make a right, which is best illustrated with the following mathematical equation:

(2W + 1) - (2W) = R

Where W is the total number of wrongs committed in relation to a specific person, place, event, or time and R represents the number of beneficial outcomes, always one.

For all of his talk of a belief in evolution and hope that humanity will learn to adapt, the good Professor seems willing to take a giant, steaming, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE-sized dump all over all of his precious beliefs.  Despite seemingly altruistic goals, Professor X is shown in DOFP to be a total self-serving hypocrite, and I will prove it with one word: Holocaust.  If Xavier truly gave a shit about anybody but his best mutant buds, he would have sent Logan back to stop all of the truly horrific events within his lifespan, including the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide (and, really, any kind of ethnic cleansing that has transpired in the twentieth century), and Jim Belushi from ever getting his own TV show.

At first glance, this seems like a pretty simple ethical dilemma: if you had the power to go back in time to stop some atrocity, like the Holocaust, from happening, would you do it?  The gut response is to say, "Yes, of course I fucking would!" Allow me to present the counterpoint that this may, in fact, disrupt the natural evolution of humanity. I would never endorse any of the heinous acts committed by Hitler or Jim Belushi; however, I will argue that we need to be able to grow and progress "naturally", i.e., without external interference, in order for humanity as a species to thrive, which includes the ability to choose what path we're going to take. And altering that path may have dire consequences beyond our comprehension. Take, for example, the existence and persistence of The Big Bang Theory (which has an open invite to suck my balls).  (This is to say nothing of temporal ethics like punishing people for crimes they haven't technically committed yet or potentially saving the life of someone who could turn out to be the next Emperor Palpatine.)

It's a tricky moral zone to traverse.  On the one hand, I don't think anybody would ever argue that saving the lives of millions of people would ever be a bad thing. On the other hand, would we have gotten to the place we are now without having the chance to learn from our mistakes?  If we could go back and stop one or more atrocities in the past, would it have led to other, maybe even worse situations because there were no appropriate lessons from our own past from which to learn? Hindsight is always 20/20 (Except for those studio execs who keep producing TV shows from Chuck Lorre. Seriously, what the fuck, guys?), and it's easy to look back on the mistakes of our past with the power of retrospection and say, "Fuck it, I didn't like that, make it go away." But take away any one element from our past, and it fundamentally changes not only who we are but who all the people around us are because our existence as human beings is largely social. You change things on a massive, potentially global scale and there's no telling what the consequences might be.

It's basically an adolescence-grade version of morality: I don't like that thing I said on Facebook so let's erase it forever and never talk about it again or else I'm running away forever. Professor X made assumptions based on emotion rather than reason that basically gave humanity a free pass. Instead of having to take responsibility and learn from its mistakes, Xavier lets humanity off the hook and never stops to consider that the fact that he is able to do something is different from the moral prerogative to do that thing.

The simple fact is that for all of his talk of evolution and hope, Professor X turned out to be a (temporal) ethically bankrupt lowlife who showed no regard at all to either one of those ideals.  If humanity is unable to adapt to its environment, then according to the tenets of evolutionary theory, it will be unable to survive, thereby making room for more robust specimens to carry on in its stead.  Professor X sought to artificially alter their evolutionary course, which in the process disrupted the course of every other species around them, just so he could get the chance to stage one of the best collection of cameos in recent movie memory.  And they call me a monster.


X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST pretty much succeeded in everything it sought to do in terms of both "fixing" continuity errors in the series and serving as a justifiably solid action/superhero movie in and of itself.  I also have to give props to the guardians of this particular series for not just simply saying, "Fuck it," and prematurely rebooting the series.  That takes a lot of... chutzpah, which director Bryan Singer has in spades.  With the addition of  both THE WOLVERINE and DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, the X-MEN series has regained my faith and established it as my second-favourite superhero series after Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy.  I shall bestow upon X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST a rating of 8/10 = One Adamantium-Infused Head Getting Rescued From The Darkest Depths    


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