If the success of The Walking Dead has taught us anything, it’s that an apocalyptic future brings out the best and worst in people. In addition to making executives at AMC obscenely rich, it reveals a part of human nature that is often muted by the comforts of civilization such as fast food, cheap internet, and Candy Crush. Some people become heroic freedom fighters that get major roles in a Mad Max movie. Some people become deranged dictators fueled by fear, greed, and no fewer than three distinct personality disorders.
Being one of the most famous apocalyptic futures of the past 30 years that doesn’t involve zombies, Days of Future Past set a high bar for stories about human nature in the face of the apocalypse. This is a future that’s one part Terminator and one part The Stand. Mutants aren’t just stigmatized. They’re forced into internment camps and hunted by Sentinels that shoot first and leave due process to morticians. And in Years of Future Past, these same themes carry over. It’s a world where mutants are both interned and hunted. It’s also a world where Dr. Doom is a god so it’s sort of a double apocalypse.
But what makes Years of Future Past a compelling story isn’t the extent of the apocalyptic nature in this world. It’s how the remaining X-men confront it as a family. This is best reflected in Christina and Cameron, the children of Kitty Pryde and Piotr Rasputin. They spent much of the series following the remnants of the X-men, fighting a conspiracy that would give the post-Apocalyptic government everything they need to use mutants as target practice. And while this struggle has been entertaining, leading to moments that involve giant dragons fighting giant robots, it’s the family drama that has given weight to the conflict.
In Years of Future Past #5 that drama reaches its climactic and tragic peak. The struggle has been built around preventing a plot by President Kelly to turn humans against mutants to such an extreme that anything other than Nazi-style death camps would be akin to French kissing Kim Jong Un. It’s a plot that has led Christy, Cameron, and the X-men through some pretty intense battles, but none are as intense as the one that takes place in this issue. And remarkably, it doesn’t involve a Sentinel or a giant dragon.
In a clear indication that living in an apocalyptic future can be hazardous to someone’s mental health, Cameron breaks under the strain. After spending most of his life with Wolverine, something else that is known to be hazardous to mental health, and fighting this never-ending battle against human hatred, he comes to one inescapable conclusion. Mutants deserve extinction.
While this sounds overly nihilistic, it’s uncomfortably reasonable from the perspective of someone who has spent his life as a moving target for Sentinels. He sees the conflict that mutants like him create and this conflict has left the world in ruin. This isn’t the kind of ruin that politicians warn about when someone accepts same-sex marriage either. This is a full-blown collapse of civilization caused by mutants who couldn’t get along with humans.
It’s a tragic yet powerful turn for a character who, up until this point, had been aiding the X-men in stopping President Kelly’s plot. It’s no longer just a generic oppressed minority vs. tyrannical government type struggle. Instead, it becomes a struggle within a family in addition to a struggle against a tyrannical government. It’s basically Red Dawn meets the Goonies.
Cameron’s betrayal and his fight against Christy and the X-men create the emotional weight that makes this story work. There are still elements more befitting of a traditional apocalyptic struggle. The X-men still battle Sentinels and they still try to stop President Kelly’s plot. This battle is somewhat rushed. It’s not a spectacle on or near the level of Red Dawn, but it gets the job done. It could’ve just ripped off the last three Transformers movies and made it a fight against giant robots, but even with Megan Fox involved, it wouldn’t have gotten the message across.
That message in Years of Future Past is perfectly in line with the themes of the original Days of Future Past. This isn’t a Lord of the Rings movie. This isn’t the kind of conflict where they just take down some big, evil creature and all is right with the world. Saving President Kelly didn’t immediately make everyone hug the nearest mutant. It didn’t make the ruins of civilization any less an eye-sore. It just helped the X-men and mutant kind survive. In an era where Hugh Jackman is hanging up his claws and movie rights are a huge source of conflict, that’s the best they could hope for.
The culmination of the struggle and the drama in Years of Future Past #5 makes it feel like a complete story worthy of being tied to its predecessor. There are still elements in the narrative that are lacking. The resolution of the story, while tragic, doesn’t feel entirely complete. There are some loose ends, but not to an extent that would hinder the story. It still has the impact that a story about a dystopian future should have, especially in the absence of a time machine.
More than anything else, Years of Future Past tried to incorporate a distinct sense of heart into the narrative. While there’s only so much possible in a story featuring dystopian futures and internment camps, the heart conveyed through Colossus, Kitty Pryde, Christy, Cameron, and even Wolverine help make it endearing. Not every story about a dystopian future should have the undertone of a Linkin Park music video. It can have heart along with killer robots and giant dragons. When put together, it can be a potent combination.