Is 2014 the Year of the Superhero Robot Apocalypse?
In two high-profile summer projects -- "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and new DC comic book "New 52: Futures End" -- a superhero travels back in time to prevent the genocide of the human race at the hands of robots.
Comic book fans following DC Entertainment's New 52: Futures End, the weekly series that launched this week, could be forgiven for having a slight sense of deja vu when it came to what appears to be the core plot of the story to date: A superhero travels back in time to prevent a future dystopia where robots have enslaved (and, to all intents and purposes, slaughtered) the human race. Perhaps it should be titled New 52: Days of Futures End, to ensure that none missed the obvious inspiration.
That Futures End launches two weeks before the release of Fox's X-Men: Days of Future Past could either be put down to canny counter programming or coincidence on the part of DC. In addition to the inspiration both took from Chris Claremont and John Byrne's 1981 storyline from the pages of Marvel's Uncanny X-Men, there's also the obvious influence of James Cameron's The Terminator -- celebrating its 30th anniversary this October -- in both. It's not entirely impossible that Futures End was intended as homage to that movie, more than the X-Men lift. (Worth pointing out as well: Last year, Marvel published a series called Age of Ultron in which Wolverine and the Invisible Woman traveled back in time to, you guessed it, prevent a robot from enslaving and slaughtering humanity. Apparently, Marvel was ahead of some kind of curve.)
Certainly, the idea of time travel as disruptive influence goes back beyond either Claremont or Cameron. Ray Bradbury's 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder popularized the idea of a time traveler destroying people's own history through traveling in history. To some degree, so did Star Trek episodes in which "the Prime Directive" was explained in terms of ensuring that futuristic Starfleet technology didn't alter natural societal evolution. But it goes further back than that. L. Sprague de Camp's 1939 Lest Darkness Fall focused on the intentional creation of an alternate reality by a time traveler. And even Mark Twain's 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court holds some parts of the trope.
What brings Futures End and X-Men: Days of Future Past so closely together is the robot apocalypse at the heart of both. Note that the Fox movie goes further than the original comic story in this respect: In Claremont and Byrne's original, the Sentinels were still focused on mutants and superhumans and had conquered only North America. (Later sequels to this story would change this to some degree, but the original suggested that "normal" humans were left untouched by the robots.) In the movie version, as in DC's Futures End, all of humankind faces eradication at the hands of the robots -- proof, perhaps, of The Terminator's long shadow and the mission of Skynet influencing the newer projects.
Days of Future Past, Futures End and Terminator all share a cautionary tale when it comes to the origins of the threatening technology, with each central threat having been designed with somewhat good -- if somewhat paranoid -- intentions. The Sentinels were created to safeguard humanity against an imagined human threat, Skynet as part of a global defense network and Futures End's Brother Eye as some kind of early warning system for superhuman trouble. The lessons to be learned are clear and unsubtle, tying in with the atomic fear at the heart of Godzilla, also making a return to mainstream pop culture this month. Beware the consequences of your actions as you seek to "defend" your way of life.
Of course, while Futures End and X-Men: Days of Future Past have common origins and themes, the stories may -- and, given the alternate purposes of the X-Men movie and DC comic universes, almost certainly will -- diverge and go in different directions. The legacy of these attempts at undoing potential genocidal robotic futures may not be in their conflict with each other this summer, but in accidentally making the planned Terminator franchise reboot seem old-fashioned and unnecessary years before it even hits screens. By the time Terminator: Genesis rolls around in summer 2015, will audiences simply be too bored with futuristic robot apocalypses to care anymore?