Overview: 10 years of peace between humans and mutants is threatened when the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, re-emerges in 1983, gathering a small following of mutants who can alter the course of the world and the very idea of superpowers. 20th Century Fox; 2016; Rated PG-13; 144 minutes.
Take on Me: From X-Men: Apocalypse’s Egypt-set cold open, it’s clear that Bryan Singer is entering new territory and that he’s no longer bound to the style of the 2000’s X-Men films. Simply put, Bryan Singer is getting weirder. And this sixteen-year-old franchise couldn’t be better for it. 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past showed the first signs of Singer’s changing sense of this world and it successfully allowed him to reflect back on what he’d done while pushing the franchise in a bold new direction, one that was no longer afraid of or embarrassed by its source material. Singer’s initial disinterest in the source material, beyond its apparent Civil Rights metaphors, created a space in which the X-Men franchise became one of the most inconsistent of superhero series, saddled by an attempt to mesh fan-service with a director-specific vision that proved difficult to replicate. Yet, for all the series’ missteps, Bryan Singer has proven his ability to change and embrace the evolution of the genre. He’s proven his ability to listen and engage. While other franchises may start to show the first signs of fatigue after a decade, X-Men: Apocalypse feels excitedly fresh.
Under Pressure: First Class tackled the discovery of power, Days of Future Past looked at the fear of power, and in the closing arc of this trilogy, X-Men Apocalypse examines the loss of power. We see this figurative loss of power discovered through our three central leads, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), each found in a position where their mutations have imprisoned them. For Mystique, the result of her refusal to assassinate President Nixon has left her as the face of mutant-human relations, and so she is forced to hide her true self once again out of the fear that she is not a leader or figurehead. Magneto, finally having found peace in anonymity, is tragically forced to realize that even if he turns away from villainy, the world will find a way to ensure his return to that distinction. And Xavier, ever the dreamer, has become so tied to his role as teacher and mentor that he has sacrificed personal desire and lost sight of the fact that “the world needs the X-Men.” And so it takes a new group of students to restore power to these mutant leaders, turned icons. If we look at Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique in the context of the 1960s, the decade that not only launched the comic series but also the canon of this franchise, then they stand here as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Che Guevera respectively. As figureheads, their position within this film isn’t an exploration of their individual greatness, but of their collective legacy on a younger generation of mutants.
Don’t You (Forget About Me): If there’s been one major complaint across the entirety of the X-Men series it’s been the fact that many of the characters outside of Xavier, Magneto, and Wolverine, have little in common with their comic book counterparts. Any fear that X-Men: Apocalypse would chart a similar course is quickly deflated as we’re re-introduced to Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The thrill doesn’t simply come from seeing younger versions of these characters, but from seeing versions of them that aren’t sidelined or forced into roles that exist solely for Wolverine to react to. It’s impossible not to feel overjoyed at the fact that Cyclops has a personality and isn’t just a “dick,” and that Nightcrawler can provide comic-relief instead of moping about his appearance. But most exciting of all is Turner’s performance as Jean Grey. This is the version of the character we deserve- a smart and capable young woman with powers far beyond her control. Turner radiates empathy and proves that Jean is much more than her powerset, that she is, in fact, worthy of being the primary focus of the franchise going forward. These characters, alongside Quicksilver (Evan Peters), live in the shadows of their heroes and yet find solidarity in their status as mutants. While X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t a true passing the torch film, it does provide a look at what future generations can become when they are allowed to take the best parts of leaders whose efforts have been shrouded in controversy.
Everybody Wants to Rule the World: As far as X-Men villains go, Apocalypse is one of the most iconic, but he’s also one of the most difficult characters for comic writers to make compelling. He fits the bill of having a striking design and a power-set that enables him to do practically anything, which makes for great marketing but stretches logic when it comes to heroes battling him. Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Apocalypse is one of quiet manipulative menace, while the character’s plan of destroying all living beings so that only the strongest and most capable mutants survive is anything but quiet. In a world that has become obsessed with global superpowers and doomsday clocks, he reminds the world what true superpowers are. For all his power and speech-making, Apocalypse is not a god but a cult leader whose biggest strength resides in his influence and ability to allow other mutants to unlock their full potential. There is something Machiavellian in this portrayal of Apocalypse, one that allows him to stand back and allow others to fight in his stead instead of risking himself. This is someone that the X-Men can logically tackle and a natural extension of themes of the series thus far.
Excepting Magneto, three of Apocalypse’s four horsemen, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Archangel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) receive limited dialogue and yet they create enough impact through their action sequences and motives to draw interest for sequels. Singer still hasn’t quite found a way to balance all of the many new faces he introduces, resulting in some roles feeling like extended cameos. But at best, these characters receive the Quicksilver treatment, and generate enough excitement to make their appearances feel worthy to the film in its entirety. Even in their limited capacity, Storm, Archangel, and Psylocke provide interesting foils to the new X-Men, in that they provide the film with a means to explore forced and invited connection.
With or Without You: There are interesting parallels between Xavier and Apocalypse, not simply in terms of being figureheads, but in their navigation of the morally complex path of using individuals to further personal ideals. Apocalypse forces connection between his Horsemen through fear and hatred. Even when they share a frame, the Horsemen are isolated, rarely standing close to each other and never engaging in conversation that doesn’t have to do with Apocalypse’s mission. The X-men, on the other hand, develop a bond, a unity achieved through differences. They stand together both figuratively and literally within the frames of the film. But as Apocalypse promises “everything they’ve built will fall” because in his effort to defeat him, Xavier only furthers his goals. Despite his best intentions, Xavier unlocks something dangerous, and ultimately his dream of not using students as soldiers is shattered. There’s the uplifting factor of seeing the X-Men assembled and outfitted like superheroes but there’s always an underlying tragedy to these films that every step forward is met with pushback that once again sees mutant-kind hated and feared. The world may need the X-Men, but perhaps the X-Men don’t need the world, at least not as it is. Hold that thought until the sequel.
Overall: X-Men: Apocalypse is a pop culture smorgasbord of all things X-Men, providing not only the moments fans of the film and comics want to see on screen, but the moments we never dreamed Singer would actually tackle. The stakes are high as they’ve ever been and yet the film feels just as personal and character focused as ever. More than any other superhero franchise, these are characters we can truly become invested in caring about. While so many other franchises have become players in the billion-dollar battle at the cost of risk-taking, the X-Men franchise continually leaps forward and has finally found confidence in its own unique identity.
Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go: Even as focus has shifted to other characters, Wolverine has remained the franchise’s mainstay. He’s the figure that introduced us to this world and the one constantly reacting to its changes. Half-way through the film, X-Men: Apocalypse deviates from its narrative when several of the X-Men are captured by Col. William Stryker and taken to Alkali Lake. Nightcrawler, Jean, and Cyclops embark on a rescue mission that, in comic book terms, feels a bit like a really good annual issue that provides a break in regular storyline. When the young mutants discover Weapon X, Jean frees him and he goes berserker on Stryker’s armed enforcers. While Wolverine’s appearance doesn’t factor into what’s going on with Apocalypse it does provide one of the greatest Wolverine action-sequences we’ve seen on film. More importantly it solidifies the notion that Wolverine is the franchise’s constant. While other characters have undergone dramatic shifts in personality and status, Wolverine always ends up in the same place. Despite Mystique’s rescue of him at the end of Days of Future Past, Wolverine eventually found his way back in the hands of Stryker and once again bestowed with an adamantium skeleton. Even in the face of X-Men: Apocalypse’s surface level optimism, there is a tragic undercurrent that suggests that pain is unavoidable, and that time, like the world always pushes back. Wolverine as a stand-in for mutant pain and longevity has come to represent that. In the post-credit sequence the Essex Corporation takes vials of Wolverine’s blood, not only setting up for Wolverine’s female clone, X-23, but also promising the arrival of geneticist Mr. Sinister whose arrival will only create further chaos for our mutants. Apocalypse may promise the end of days, but our exploration into the history and impact of mutants is only just beginning.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox