In 2011’s X-Men: First Class, we witnessed the first revelation of mutants in the “New Generation” 60s. We then experienced the disillusionment of Charles Xavier amidst the 70s malaise in Days of Future Past (2014). With this latest installment, entitled X-Men: Apocalypse, Marvel’s mutant heroes found their resurgence within the Decade of Decadence. The 80s saw the beginning of globalization, a new outbreak in financial chicanery, and the first yawning of the modern inequality gap. With that as a backdrop, what better villain than the self-glorifying, world-dominating mutant known as Apocalypse? (WARNING: Spoilers below!)
This newest edition also appears to serve as a bridge for FOX’s cinematic universe. Receding from prominence is the triangle of Xavier (Professor X), Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Raven Darkholme (Mystique). Meanwhile, the relationships among new enrollees Scott Summers (Cyclops), Jean Grey, Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler) and Ororo Munroe (Storm) are coming more into focus. We’re clearly transitioning to a new era of X-movies. On balance, Apocalypse is an entertaining film, but for those who fell back in love with this Marvel line through the First Class (2011) reboot, this third feature may prove a bridge to an unwelcome place.
What Went Wrong
The conscience of the X-Men franchise, on both page and screen, is an allegorical debate about whether different social and ethnic communities can live together peacefully or whether each group will jockey for superiority. This dialogue plays out on two levels. First, Magneto and Professor X each represent their own pole of the argument within the mutant community. Xavier advocates for co-existence, while Lehnsherr prepares for genocidal war. The other level is between humanity and mutant-kind.
Both X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past kept the “integration v segregation” discussion at the forefront of their plots. In the former, renegade mutant Sebastian Shaw sought to wipe out humanity by manipulating the US and USSR into a nuclear holocaust. The premise being that mutants would survive and humans would die out. In the latter, Doctor Bolivar Trask ran a series of lethal experiments in order to construct a robotic weapon that could annihilate the mutant race. X-Men: Apocalypse, by contrast, centers on a millennia-old supermutant (the feature’s namesake) who wants to cleanse the Earth of all modern civilization. Through his Four Horsemen – Magneto (principally), Storm, Archangel and Psylocke – Apocalypse would literally uproot every post-Bronze Age society and level it to ash. This cataclysm would sweep away millions of humans and mutants at once. Therefore, this “new” third act becomes more about saving civilization than a discussion about multiculturalism. To be fair, the shared screen-time between Magneto, Xavier and Mystique often came back to the co-existence conversation. Yet, this theme served more as a footnote to events rather than a driver of them.
If the series’ head is about whether human nature can allow diverse communities to thrive, then its heart can be similarly found in the connection between Xavier and Lehnsherr. The first two films drew out their friendship and contrasting worldviews beautifully. With only a handful of supporting characters to juggle, the creative artists re-building the X-universe invested heavily in their backstories. This time, however, the picture relied on flashbacks to help deliver the emotionality within this duo. Meanwhile, the life experiences of the newest additions weren’t plowed to a comparable degree. If the drift away from the formative Charles-Raven-Erik triangle remains gradual while new mutant players are introduced, it may prove difficult to endow the latest X-characters with the necessary history for audiences to sympathize with them.
It would be beneficial to understand why Jean was so afraid of her power. Likewise, seeing more depth in the connection between Scott and his late brother Alex would have been welcome. Unfortunately, the mutant menagerie that X-Men: Apocalypse had to balance meant that no one relationship received the attention it needed. In the end, the center of gravity was difficult to pinpoint. Was it Erik and Charles? Scott and Jean? Maybe it was just Mystique – who became a mutant folk hero since her saving of President Nixon in Days of Future Past. Despite these struggles, the film still offered a lot for fans to enjoy.
What Went Right
While the mutant roster is overloaded – including a tenuously relevant cameo by Wolverine – the performances by the actors themselves are solid. Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Magneto’s pain when his family is killed by Polish police is palpable. James McAvoy is a master at conveying Xavier’s empathy. Both Quicksilver and Nightcrawler are effective comic relief when the film needs it, as is the surprising loss of composure for Charles when he meets Moira MacTaggert again after 20 years (the events of First Class have been wiped from her mind).
This entry also continued the entertaining use of era fashion and music as it moved the X-Men saga into the 1980s. Xavier’s Miami Vice wardrobe, Nightcrawler’s “Beat It” Jacket and Cyclops’ torn jeans were all giggle-worthy as clothing options. If Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” was a delightful tongue-in-cheek selection for Quicksilver’s previous soundtrack, the detached bemusement of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” was just as fitting as Maximoff flitted about the detonation of the Xavier school.
While on the subject of that sequence…of the superhero movies released so far in 2016, X-Men: Apocalypse has been the most visually impressive. Quicksilver’s rescue was not only riveting, but the humor written into the moment make it arguably the most fun of the film. Magneto’s destruction of Cairo (and every other urban center), as well as the final battle between the X-Men and the Four Horsemen are realized on a fantastic scale. It can be a cliché that Earth hangs in the balance during a superhero adventure; Apocalypse delivered on that threat credibly.
What I Took Away
If there is an overarching lesson from X-Men: Apocalypse, it stems less from the traditional emphasis on race-relations and delves more into how we deal with pain and loss. Apocalypse’s story begins with his betrayal by the people of Ancient Egypt. At a moment of vulnerability as his power and consciousness is being transferred into a younger body, his guards entrapped and buried him within a collapsing pyramid. When he awoke in 1983, he became filled with rage for the world that grew up in his absence. His society and order were stolen from him. He now sought to violently remake the world as payback. That viewpoint seduced Erik Lehnsherr after he lost his own wife and daughter in Poland. The positive model opposing this ethos of retribution is found best through Scott Summers. The sole casualty of the Xavier School explosion was his brother Alex (Havok from First Class). Rather than lash out, Scott chose to honor his brother by becoming the hero Alex no longer could be.
To the extent that Scott’s perspective and commitment are valuable to teach, they certainly work. But in the X-Men cinematic history, those ideals have also already been explored. Lehnsherr is the negative example in the first feature, as his pain from the Holocaust drives him to become a powerful assassin. Meanwhile, the inspiring counterpoint is Professor X’s own journey in Days of Future Past. He’d lost his best friend, Raven, to an alliance with Magneto. In the intervening period, he’d lost students to Vietnam and the experiments of Doctor Trask. Xavier shuttered his school and became dependent on a drug that suppressed both his physical pain and the mental anguish of his lost students. His trial was re-kindling his own hope and drive for a better future. To my mind, these crucibles were the first and best exhibitions of how we persevere through grief.
In conclusion, X-Men: Apocalypse is a film worth seeing in theaters. It has enough bright spots for it to hold its own within FOX’s superhero universe. If this installment is meant as a goodbye to the reboot class of 2011, then perhaps the use of flashbacks is a fitting capstone. The lighter investment in the incoming heroes may have been necessary in order to give the seniors their proper send-off. But as we begin the legend of these freshmen, hopefully the creative team behind this franchise will revitalize the intellectual and moral core that make this allegory so relevant to our own evolution as a cultural melting pot.