With X-Men: Days Of Future Past in cinemas this week, let's revisit the classic comic book story that inspired the movie.
Time-travel can open up all sorts of storytelling possibilities, but it can get messy if handled haphazardly. Case in point: Marvel’s recent Age Of Ultron event. Still, one of THE best X-Men stories ever involved one of the best uses of time-travel ever – Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Days Of Future Past story arc, featured in 1981’s Uncanny X-Men #141 and #142.
The story revolved around Kitty Pryde transferring her future 2013 consciousness into her younger 1981 self in order to prevent a series of assassinations that would cause a chain reaction leading towards a dystopian future.
There are many reasons this stands out as a benchmark for past/future “what if” stories, from the iconic covers to the creative team to the myriad of possible spin-offs. Future Past was a milestone in X-Men history, with a story that truly deserves a live-action feature film. With the movie coming out May 22, we revisit the classic comic book story to see what made it so special.
SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for the movie because it is based on the comic book.
Uncanny X-Men #141 and #142
Writers: Chris Claremont and John Byrne
Artists: John Byrne and Terry Austin
Publisher: Marvel Comics
The year is 1981, a challenging time for mutantkind. Anti-mutant sentiment is escalating and the X-Men are in a state of recovering and rebuilding in the aftermath of the Dark Phoenix saga. Jean Grey’s death has resulted in Cyclops leaving the X-Men and Storm taking over leadership of the team. Meanwhile, Angel has returned and Kitty Pryde (known as Sprite at the time) has become an X-Man
While a nucleus comprising Storm, Wolverine, Colossus and Nightcrawler look formidable enough to take on Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, nothing could prepare them for the future, especially a future in which Sentinels have taken over the world.
Fast-forward three decades – to the year 2013, to be precise – and mutantkind’s last stand is taking place at the South Bronx Mutant Internment Centre, the proper name for what's actually a concentration camp. Here, on an expanding burial ground for a who’s who of mutants and superheroes, dormant mutants like Kate Pryde, Storm, Colossus, Magneto, Franklin Richards and Rachel Summers are plotting to overthrow the Sentinels.
So, how did homo-superior become homo-inferior in standing?
Apparently, the rise of the mutants hit a massive stumbling block with the assassination of Professor Xavier, Moira McTaggert, and presidential candidate Senator Robert Kelly, courtesy of a new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – I’ve always wondered why the word evil is even needed.
The event triggers a series of calamities for mutantkind and also the entire superhero fraternity, as the subsequent election of a president riding on an anti-mutant platform, and the reactivation of the Sentinel programme, eventually leads to the extermination of all superheroes and supervillains.
Things get worse when the Sentinels take over the entire North American continent. Within three decades, mutants have become virtually nonexistent, with any form of resistance restricted to occasional sightings of Wolverine.
With their severe limitations in resources and technology, the remaining X-Men concede that their only chance of a future – any future – is to change the past. The first stage of the plan involves sending Kate back in time to convince present-day 1981 X-Men to prevent the assassination, while the second feat is for future 2013 X-Men to launch an assault on the Fantastic Four's Baxter Building which has been turned into Sentinel headquarters.
Escaping from their prison, but losing Magneto and Franklin in the process, the rag-tag team targets Sentinel operations, leaving Rachel behind to fend for the unconscious Kate, whose mind is off travelling through time.
The X-Men think they have the element of surprise, but this turns out to be folly as a posse of Sentinels appears and systematically eliminates the heroes. Wolverine is reduced to adamantium-laced bones, Storm gets skewered, and Colossus holds out just a little longer than the others.
In 1981, Kate describes her terrible future to her teammates en route to a battle with a newly-established Brotherhood. After a fierce fight, Kate calls upon her decades of training and experience to act as her child self could not, and prevents the precognitive mutant Destiny from killing Senator Kelly with a crossbow, thus preventing her dystopian future from happening.
Unfortunately, though they succeed in thwarting the assassination, their victory does little to boost pro-mutant sentiments. In fact, it has the opposite effect, as anti-mutant efforts are accelerated and the construction of a new series of Sentinels is initiated.
Despite lasting only two issues, this story is so iconic that it has inspired countless tributes and follow-ups, including spin-offs (Days Of Future Present), cartoons, comic book cover tributes, video games, parodies (remember the Five Years Gone episode in Heroes?) and of course, the latest X-Men movie.
Obviously these tributes are a testament to the significance of this story arc, but what is equally important is the number of firsts it introduced, including Rachel Summers (Scott and Jean's daughter), a new Brotherhood with Mystique in charge of newbies Destiny, Avalanche and Pyro, and a host of relationship breakthroughs such as Kitty/Colossus and Franklin/Rachel.
For the creative team, this arc was the perfect sign-off for their epic three-year stint on the title. With fans still reeling from the Dark Phoenix Saga (#129–#137), the excitement generated in this two-parter rivalled even the Phoenix’s last stand. End even by today’s standards of ultra-realism in comic-book art, the Byrne-Austin output remains a tough act to beat.