The appeal at the heart of the X-Men franchise in all its forms has been its ability to represent the oppressed and the outcasts of society in both the macro/large scale and the micro/personal scale. It could stand to represent both African-Americans or gay/lesbian/transgender persons as groups struggling for their rights or the nerdy kid in school who was just looking to fit in as an individual. This has allowed the property to shift and move with the times and remain popular. There’s always a group fighting for their rights. There’s always outcasts in our society.
After the series was rebooted with Matthew Vaught’s First Class, I made the comment that I would “hope that the next villain is Apocalypse.” (You can read that here). And while Vaughn gave way for Bryan Singer to return to the series he had started, I expected at some point we would meet that villain soon. He is one of my favorite foes of the X-Men and one of the most popular. The creation of writer Louise Simonson and artist Jackson Guice, the mutant villain has posed a threat to the X-Men for twenty years. So does this movie do him justice?
Apocalypse starts thousands of years in the past as the eponymous villain (Oscar Isaac) is in the process of transferring his consciousness to another new body. Betrayal sees his servants, the Four Horsemen, sacrificed and him buried and trapped through the millennia. However, investigating a cult of mutant worshippers in Cairo in 1983, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) accidentally activates the mechanism that releases him from his slumber. Apocalypse proceeds to recruit mutants to his cause – Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy) and the reclusive Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Erik has been hiding in Poland since the events of Days of Future Past, trying to live a quiet and normal life with a wife and daughter. As is his story, unfortunately, tragedy will pay him a visit as his past refuses to stay buried.
In an effort to seek Magneto out, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) brings Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters where her old friends, Charles (James McAvoy) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), are trying to teach a new batch of mutants on how to control their powers and live peacefully within society. These are not X-Men. They’re just students going to a school that accepts them as they are. In their midst are Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Jubilee (Lana Condor) and the newly-arrived Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) whose brother Alex (Lucas Till) is hoping Xavier can help like he helped him a generation before. Mystique’s arrival will put Charles on a collision course with Apocalypse, who sees the world as belonging to him and to whoever survives his plan to cleanse it all away. For to Apocalypse, the world has become ruled by the weak and that is unacceptable.
I have to start by saying that, of all the movies in the X-Men series, this is the closest any of them have felt to the work of writer Chris Claremont during his epic sixteen-year run. For those who don’t know, it is Claremont’s run with John Byrne through the 1970s and 1980s which took Marvel’s mutants from a poor-selling book into a billion-dollar property full of complex characters, dozens of titles and rich stories. How did he do this? Claremont focused on his characters – heroes and villains – on their reasoning, their emotions and individual personalities. He created most of the major modern characters or retrofit the classic ones to what we would recognize them as being – everyone from Wolverine to Gambit, Shadowcat to Mister Sinister. He also crafted the biggest storylines for the X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dark Phoenix, the Mutant Massacre, Inferno, etc. This he did by dropping breadcrumbs hinting at future stories all the time. No story was self-contained. It was built slowly and methodically over a year, so that when a major revelation occurred, it was the obvious conclusion readers hadn’t reached.
In many ways, Apocalypse follows Claremont’s playbook. We have a roster of mutants that’s spread across the globe seeking one another and recruiting soldiers for their cause. We have teens trying to be teens – even if they’re blue-skinned. We have conflicts of emotion and reason causing heroes and villains to choose sides. We have long-lost children seeking unknown fathers. And at its center, we have one of those larger-than-life esoteric arguments that have centered the franchise – on the responsibilities of those who have power towards those who are weaker. Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg weave their various threads to build towards the moment when Magneto, Xavier and Apocalypse all confront one another.
By this point, Fassbender, McAvoy and Lawrence know their characters in and out. It is interesting to note where the movie finds them because, in a way, all three are living their dream. Erik is a normal man, living a simple life with a wife and a daughter. It’s the life he likely would have had were it not for the events of World War II. Charles has opened the school he dreamed of having and is guiding young mutants towards a life of control over their powers and peaceful coexistence with humanity. And Raven is out fighting for oppressed and abused mutants in her own way; free from the bickering politicking and philosophizing of Erik and Charles. They all do their usual good work here and, in a sense, this movie presents a climax for their story as begun in First Class.
Of the new class, Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan stand a head above the rest as Jean and Scott. Much of that is because the movie is immediately aimed towards them as they are two powerful young mutants who cannot control their powers. In fact, their lack of control scares even the other students of Xavier’s School. Their situation goes to the heart of the story – the idea of trying to control their powers versus unleashing them without regard. The other part of the equation is Alexandra Shipp as Storm, who is convinced by Apocalypse to unleash her powers as one of his new Horsemen. I will say that she has a much stronger presence at the start, when she’s a thief on the streets of Cairo, than she is as a Horseman.
In that regard, however, she’s not alone. If there is one major criticism I would levy at this movie, it’s that it’s saturated with characters, both big and small, and too many get the short end of the stick. Some of them are understandable and they try to manage to give them some sort of arc – whether that’s Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler or Storm or Till’s Havok or Ethan Peters’ Quicksilver, who returns to once again have one of the best action beats in an X-Men movie. Others – Munn’s Psylocke, Hardy’s Angel, Condor’s Jubilee – get an even shorter end of the stick, however. It makes one wonder if they will be bigger in future movies. It’s a bigger problem when the movie takes a detour into the clutches of Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman)’s Weapon X Program for our requisite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) cameo. That, along with the post-credit scenes, serve only as connective tissue with past and future movies.
Isaac’s Apocalypse seems to follow in the vein of Sebastian Shaw and Bolivar Trask, the villains from the previous two movies, in that he’s the cause of the action but it’s more about the reactions from others than about him. In that, I’m somewhat disappointed as Apocalypse was always one of the heavier hitters in terms of plots and actions against the X-Men and the world at large. While I’ll commend the effects and costume teams that helped Isaac become En Sabah Nur, I do wonder if Isaac was limited by them. He doesn’t have the imposing presence that Apocalypse should have. And that’s a problem.
In terms of action set-pieces, the opening act is interesting and Apocalypse’s assault on the School leads to several major beats. The climax in Cairo, however, is where the movie really lives up to its comic book roots as the city is torn apart by the combined powers of the various mutants and Horsemen face off against X-Men. The movie puts itself on the same level as The Avengers or Batman v Superman in terms of city-wide destruction. Everyone, hero and villain alike, shows what they can do and, for long-time fans of the mutants, it’s like seeing one of those comic books come to life. Buildings collapse, vehicles get tossed, ninja warriors battle blue-furred hellions while someone flies and hurls lightning at someone else firing laser beams. For anyone who grew up with the comics or the animated TV show, it’s all you’ve dreamed of come to life.
And yet, the heft of the weightier themes that permeated the previous movies is absent here. First Class was all about whether or not Magneto would succumb to the desire to enact his vengeance on Sebastian Shaw. Could there be peace between humans and their newly-discovered cousin, the mutant? Days of Future Past gave us a similar dilemma: knowing that their choices would lead to the worst end possible, could Mystique choose a different path and forgive Bolivar Trask? Are we simply set for the course we’re on or could things be changed?
Apocalypse has little of these debates. There is one scene where Xavier confronts Apocalypse on his “survival of the strongest” mantra and it does lead to a big beat for Charles to stand up (metaphorically) against the big bad. But for the bulk of the movie, En Sabah Nur is teleporting from place to place, trying to learn about this new world and recruit followers. He only sporadically mentions what his true goals and mission is. Instead, he spins his argument towards appealing to mutants as someone who can release their powers into their full potential. In that, he’s juxtaposed against Charles – one wants them to harness their powers and live with society while the other wants them to use their power to dominate the world. But that is no different from what we saw Magneto preach in past movies. And Magneto’s position isn’t Apocalypse’s.
I’ll also make note that, though the movie throws in all these 80s notes like teens going to the mall, watching Return of the Jedi, rolled-up jacket sleeves and mullets, it doesn’t feel as integral here as setting First Class during the Cuban Missile Crisis or Days of Future Past during the Vietnam War felt. This movie could have taken place at any time. At the same time, though a decade has passed between the last movie and this one, none of the key actors looked to have aged much if at all. That’s striking considering that we’ve basically seen Xavier and Magneto go from children/tweens in 1944 to adult men and women in 1973. Yet Magneto doesn’t look like a man in his mid-50s nor Charles a man in his late 40s. A small note but an important one, you’d imagine, as they eventually morph into the characters we met in the first X-Men movie trilogy.
X-Men: Apocalypse has gotten a lot of stick since before it came out. Some of it deserved, but a great deal really over the top. I think it’s a decent movie. I think it’s loaded to the gills with stuff. That amount of material makes it drag sometimes. But the way the story expands and moves is like the best X-Men stories unfolded. It’s just they used to do so over a large number of issues that took months and not 2 and a half hours. The obvious indication is that this will be the last we will see of Mystique and Magneto and that, going forward, the series will shift focus to the students like Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler. It’s only appropriate. After a trilogy of movies where we saw Xavier and Magneto take center stage, it’s time to give the spotlight back to the students. After all, the X-Men are at their best when able to portray those outcasts as gaining power and finding strength within themselves and amongst one another. It’s why they remain popular so many years later.