X-MEN: APOCALYPSE: Embracing The Franchise, For Better Or Worse

Bryan Singer and the bloat of the modern blockbuster

At the turn of the millennium, Bryan Singer’s X-Men opened with images of a Nazi concentration camp. A decade later, X-Men: First Class would revisit those images in order to reinvigorate the franchise, expanding on that element of the narrative. Now, a full sixteen years later, Singer is back in the driver’s seat and his X-Men: Apocalypse sees a broken Erik Lehnsherr, the boy who discovered his powers in 1944, lay waste to the Auschwitz encampments by ripping out their foundations. Everything comes full circle. Even pain.

X-Men: Apocalypse is the completion of Singer’s superhero ouroboros. While Blade made adapting Marvel comics a viable business model, the first X-Men movie in 2000 began the wave of modern superheroes as audiences know them today. The origins of the modern superhero movie are, in some sense, steeped in stark historical imagery and tales of persecution, though that doesn’t preclude them from being filled with nonsense. Whether or not Apocalypse is Singer’s swan song, it’s an audacious romp, and a return to the playground where so much of modern pop culture was born. That’s not to say we wouldn’t have The Avengers without a leather-clad Hugh Jackman, and Raimi’s Spider-Man would’ve broken the box office regardless, but the X-franchise (and Jackman’s Wolverine) have been a constant presence in the zeitgeist since the turn of the century.

Yet as time moves forward, the first X-Men, its sequel X2, and eventually everything in the franchise, will be eclipsed by something else. Something bigger, something better, something more considerate of its source material, likely from Marvel Studios. Everything will be overshadowed except X-Men: Apocalypse, which will prevail for a multitude of reasons, some good, some not, as it combines the absolute best parts of the series with the absolute worst. It allows Singer to re-establish his mark on superhero films in a way that budgets and tastes of 2000 simply didn’t allow. This one may as well have been called Days of Future Past, because it combines the sensibilities of his old films with the style of these new ones far more than its predecessor did, although how those pieces fit together is another matter.

The new franchise norm involves ranking where each film falls, which isn’t usually a challenge. It is however, in the case of X-Men: Apocalypse, the sixth film (or eight, or ninth depending on how you count them) in a series that has its roots in rejecting source material. This one embraces the tone of the comics, and to a degree their aesthetics, with open arms. But it’s one of those awkward hugs accompanied by a half handshake, where so much feels right emotionally, but the end result is downright silly. Make no mistake, the film being grounded in cycles of pain and persecution leads to an hour of the best filmmaking this or any other superhero franchise has to offer, but grounding it in the cycle of the franchise itself (the X-films, as well as the concept of the modern franchise) yields a second half so mismatched you’d think it a spiritual successor to Fant4stic.

Spoilers to follow.

Time is a key part of the Apocalypse narrative, drawing both on ancient history and our understanding of the X-series. It begins as Ancient Aliens by way of supervillains, with a Nile Valley pyramid having been built by and for a mutant God. En Sabah Nur, the all-powerful blue boy in Future Past’s post-credit scene, is now an aged ruler on his deathbed. Thousands upon thousands of worshippers gather to guide him into the structure, for a ritual transferring of his consciousness to a younger body. It’s how Patrick Stewart came back from the dead in the last film, hinted at in another post-credits scene in 2006 if you were paying attention, but his 2014 revival offered little explanation. In 2016, there’s even less info about the hows and whys, and the ornate celebration of this rebirth is akin to celebrating the idea itself: “Look what we can do in these movies now!” We can have The Vision phase through walls without having to justify it. We can have Deadpool talk to the camera just because. And we can have an ancient being who uses sunlight to turn his consciousness into golden goop before boring the crap out of Oscar Isaac. Gone are the days of “Would you prefer yellow spandex?” because nothing needs to make sense anymore as long as it makes sense emotionally.

Where the film ends up in that regard is another matter but it starts out in the right place, and that place is fear. A team of assassins attempt to destroy the new Apocalypse before he wakes, ending the false God’s rule of tyranny, but his four mutant henchmen put up quite a fight. Massive blocks of stone are launched into the structure’s base, as the pyramid begins to crumble. It’s no-holds barred big-and-bizarre action, with mutants either getting crushed by falling debris or turning assassins inside out. It’s such a treat! This is the kind of hate and loyalty Apocalypse inspires. People give up their lives to both destroy and protect him, and even as he’s entombed underground for thousands of years, legions of followers gather and search for him as he sleeps, with the CIA’s Moira MacTaggert not far behind.

The events of X-Men were set into motion amidst a low-key fight club in the Canadian tundra. Wolverine flew under the radar, pretending to be ‘normal,’ much like a superhero movie would’ve needed to in a post-Batman & Robin climate. X-Men: Apocalyse takes us to Berlin, where a similar fight club is underway, only the fence is electrified and the audience is massive, rowdy, and fully aware it’s paying to watch mutants. We all know what we’re in for, and there’s no pretense otherwise. Angel dispenses with The Blob before a young Nighcrawler is quite literally thrown into the mix. Singer has, as of this week, gotten to introduce this character twice, and he’s once again BAMFing against his will. He even marvels at Mystique’s powers when they first meet, and this is just the beginning of the film re-living moments from the franchise. The retreads do feel purposeful however, many of them acting as escalations of what we’ve seen, and as far as the film’s first half goes, some are pretty darn impactful.

But this time, what’s different isn’t just the timeline. It’s the impending third act of the film, hinted at not only in the trailers, but in Jean Grey’s vision when Apocalypse is awakened. The pieces are all in place once more, but rather than the Statue of Liberty, or an icy dam, or the Golden Gate Bridge, or even a beach in Cuba, what’s coming at us right from the get go is another obnoxious world-ending event, only this time the physical threat isn’t abstract, even if the personal stakes might be. When the movie finally gets there, it might fail its characters in a million different ways, but the idea of the ‘superhero movie third act’ manifests as the very fabric of human creation beginning to unravel (despite lacking in actual humans), dissipating into dust and remaking itself into a bigger, shinier version of Apocalypse’s shrine. In terms of pure scale, you won’t find too many films that go bigger. For better or worse, this is X-Men becoming a stereotype of the modern superhero movie, by simply being a bigger, louder version of itself.

This increase in scale is not however, without disconnect. In fact I’m almost thankful for it, because the film is at its very best when it’s small and personal. When Singer doesn’t have to figure out how to veer into action (there’s almost none during the first hour), he focuses on the characters’ personal threads, one at a time, before slowly constructing situations where they all come together. Mystique, now the Harriet Tubman of mutants, finds safe passage for superpowered captives. A young Storm is forced to steal on the streets of Cairo before returning to her shared delinquent den, where she has a hand-drawn poster of her blue mutant hero. That’s Mystique, mind you, the one who saved President Nixon in the public eye. But the real Mystique has reverted to her pre-“Mutant and proud” days once again.

Apocalypse’s awakening causes a massive Earthquake that brings all the disparate threads together. The American Government (along with the Weapon Plus program) have their eye on mutants once again. Jean Grey has visions of the world ending. The Professor searches for the source and finds Moira in the process, while Mystique returns home because of how the earthquake affects Erik. How so? That’s where things get interesting. The man that was once Magneto now lives in rural Poland. He has a wife and a young daughter, and works in an iron mill as Henryk. There’s a serenity surrounding his scenes, one that surely won’t last, but it’s interesting to see Magneto removed from the world by choice. The earthquake causes a mishap at the mill, and for once, Erik uses his powers to save a man’s life. This happens in plain view of the other workers, and it’s the beginning of the end. For him, most certainly, but its ripple effect spells doom for our world.

Magneto’s story has always been one of persecution. He’s seen fear and hatred take his family from him (the numbers on his wrist are as much a defining feature as his helmet), and he’s seen that same fear and hatred crop up again and again, like a vicious monster he needs to put down, although in doing so he often steps into the role of monster himself. In this universe, the helmet he wears is that of the man who killed his mother. One day it’s the Nazis, the next it’s the Sentinels, and in 1983 it’s the local police. The situation is markedly different, scaled down but made far more personal. These are people he knows and people he’s dined with, but people who turn on him the moment they discover his true nature, and they start by holding his daughter captive.

I jokingly said that Days of Future Past would’ve made a great title, but the nexus of past and future with regards to humanity is what defines Xavier and Magneto’s outlooks. The young man of privilege and comfort has the luxury of a purely peaceful M.O., but Magneto has known nothing but pain. He doesn’t want the same for his family, and since violence is all he knows, his only options are to run or fight. His daughter wears a pendant containing photos of Erik’s parents, a reminder of his promise to keep her safe, and that he’ll never be taken from her like they were from him. But history, the cruel mistress, inevitably repeats herself.

As Erik surrenders to protect his family, his daughter experiences the same moment of heightened emotion he did, when he bent the metal gates at Auschwitz. She unknowingly summons a flock of birds, which descend upon the police like an act of God. In their panic, they shoot his wife and daughter dead. For the first time since 1944, when Sebastian Shaw killed his mother in front of him, Erik is pushed to his breaking point. The metal pendant that was a symbol of peace for his daughter is now his weapon, and moments later, his parents’ pictures are soaked in the blood of uniformed men. In X-Men: First Class, Erik referred to himself as Frankenstein’s monster looking for his maker. He was referring to Shaw, the man he would eventually kill, but here he screams to heavens and asks God himself, “Is this what I am? Is this what I’m meant for?”

Lost and in search of divine answers, Magneto succumbs to the charms of Apocalypse, a mutant who claims to be God. He provides Erik with the tools for vengeance, helping him tap in to his powers so deeply that he raises the ground beneath them. Where Auschwitz once stood, now stands only a chasm, in a rousing testament to the pain behind its walls. It’s the boldest thing any superhero film has done, tapping deep into the well of human atrocity. Magneto once accessed his powers when his friend Xavier helped him hold on to happiness. Now he has them unleashed completely, all thanks to his pain. And, in another scene marking the series’ escalation (the first film had Magneto control a swarm of guns, the first prequel had him stop short-range missiles), Apocalypse uses Cerebro to disarm the world’s superpowers, making every country launch its nuclear warheads into space, creating a ring of now defunct weapons around our atmosphere. But where Magneto used the guns to hold policement hostage, and tried to use missiles to sink navy vessels, Apocalypse effectively ends the Cold War, but puts the whole world at his mercy. There’s no one left to stop him, and he has the greatest weapon of all. He’s made Magneto his follower.

This is where the film and the series reach their apex. There is genuine power to Magneto’s story, and the individual stories of the mutants thus far, but it’s also where it begins to suddenly falter. Part of the reason Magneto’s arc works is because the series has, for the first time in a while, taken advantage of its serialized nature. We, the audience, have understood Magneto for sixteen years, and seeing him step into the shoes of monsters again makes a scary amount of sense. This is also, however, where the story’s serial nature begins to break it.

Apocalypse needs to have four horsemen. That’s a given based on the source material, and about one and a half of them have good reason to join his ranks. Magneto? Definitely. Storm? Kind of. Psylocke and Angel? I can’t really be certain, but that’s just one of the film’s initial failings that doesn’t rear its head until later. When it does, it reveals of some pretty faulty storytelling. The first half of the film, up until the camp destruction and global disarmament, is incredible. There’s weight to every scene and every line, even when there’s levity, and it feels like an intricate chess game where all the pieces are starting to line up. But in having to line them in this film, the studio also has the responsibility of lining them up in the long run, when it comes to installments future and past, which is a bit puzzling since nothing here is going to matter in the next one. That’s just how these films are made, but for some reason they like to pretend otherwise.

The inarguable high point of the film’s predecessor was the Quicksilver action scene. It was a right time, right place set piece, one met by applause. As with any franchise, there’s the desire to make lightning strike twice, but Apocalypse is the kind of film where the ‘fun’ kind of lightning is damn near impossible. That doesn’t stop them from trying (twice, in fact), but in creating a new version of “the Quicksilver scene”, they begin to tear away the fabric of what makes the film work, both as a singular entry and as a chapter in a series. The “they” I’m referring to are both Singer and the studio. There’s no way for me to know who made which decision, but the Quicksilver scene (and everything that follows) starts to seem a bit… off.

A blast of Havoc’s energy aimed at Apocalypse & co. ends up causing a massive underground explosion, just in time for Peter to show up and rescue everyone from suspended animation. On its own, it’s great! It’s set to Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)", and it’s a fun character moment where Fox’s Quicksilver diffuses an intense situation with his brand of superpowered nonchalance. But the scene doesn’t exist in vacuum, and it comes at the strangest possible point in the film. Just moments prior, every nuclear device in the world had been set off, and the X-Men’s guiding hand had been kidnapped by a genocidal maniac. And while it’s clap-out-loud amazing to see Evan Peters toss mutant kids out of windows and into makeshift tarps, the sequence seems to obfuscate, or perhaps ignore, the explosion’s effect on Havoc, aka Alex Summers. Remember him? He was fun in First Class, and he showed up for maybe a minute or two in last one. His function here is to introduce his younger brother Scott, the future Cyclops. He apparently dies in the explosion, and as soon as Scott returns from his breakout/movie trip with the other kids, the film exhibits the strangest of tonal whiplashes, going from action-comedy right into mourning a main character’s brother, someone who’s been part of this universe for five whole years.

I’m not even sure we were supposed to know Alex’s fate prior to the speedy bits (he appeared to have been saved? I could be wrong) but the unexpected shift into morose territory – an X-Man killed by his own powers as his teen brother weeps for him – paints the sequence with a weird brush in retrospect. From there, the film introduces Col. William Stryker (his fourth appearance, by actor #3) to whisk the lead mutants off to his facility so the series can do some house-cleaning. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is rendered moot, as is the ending of the last film, and our characters get to meet Hugh Jackman. Even if you don’t know what was added in reshoots, it sticks out as an unnecessary detour that adds little more than a joke or two. Excise this entire subplot, and you’re left with the same story: the X-Men regroup, suit up, quip, and fly to Cairo, only without a Wolverine cameo to set up… well, nothing if we’re being honest. The next Wolverine film probably takes place thirty-five years later.

Then again, perhaps the narrative delay was a good thing as Cairo is where it goes wrong. After a genuine moment from Professor X, the glorious chaos begins as an over-powered Magneto begins ripping buildings and technology to shreds. That isn’t the bad part, in fact it’s quite a treat. The bad part comes when it all comes together, because as good as Singer is here at individual drama, giving him a dozen or so characters leads to a mess.

Rousing pay-off moments don’t land because they’re either only half set up, or not set up at all. Brief mentions of Storm’s adoration for Mystique and Jean’s extreme powers are followed by scenes that, although they feature each character, don’t have anything to do with what those dynamics mean to them. There’s no struggle between Storm’s desire for power and her admiration for someone who did the right thing in the face of it, and Jean’s fears throughout the film don’t stem from the extent of her powers (she knows for sure she didn’t cause the earthquake), they stem from being rejected by her peers. Even Beast and Mystique, whose arcs throughout the film (and the series!) have to do with the struggle between hiding and being proud, have no real destination. None of it adds up.

Another major problem with the film is his Apocalypse's Godhood, or specifically, how it ties into his four horsemen. In the comics, Apocalypse corrupts people to the point where their identities are altered. Here, he only makes people stronger. It creates a boat-load of issues the movie has neither the time nor inclination to address. There’s no way people don't die as Magneto levels buildings – not just in Egypt, but around the world! – yet the central dilemma in the third act revolves around Mystique and Peter trying to keep him in the light. They do, as the film ends with him smiling and rebuilding the X-mansion, but by that point he’s already crossed far, far into darkness! A story that ought to be about the redemption of a corrupted soul is tossed aside in favour of one that has the X-Men, the safeguardians of life in this context, being okay with their friend murdering thousands, if not more. Even if we’re to assume no one died (please warm up before you reach that far!), what’s doubly weird is that his descent into mass murder is the logical next step for his character, putting him in the shoes of everyone who’s ever wronged him. But the film doesn’t seem to notice!

Be it mass murder or mass destruction, it’s a bizarre ethical oversight, but it’s not out of line with the film’s vocal statements about the X-Men being soldiers in a perpetual war. The final shot even has them training against agents of a future genocide! The film is certainly aware of its incorporation of human atrocities into the text, but it forgets the fact that Magneto now is (and should be!) one of the perpetrators. And sure, perhaps going the comic route and having him be brainwashed would’ve taken away from his decision – his pain manifesting as the world turning to dust is beautiful imagery – but to have him go through with it of his own volition only to have the heroes forget about it afterwards seems like a strange step.

As for the other horsemen, the action is big (albeit generic), but a drunk and troubled Angel joins the mad man Apocalypse because of a slightly damaged wing, and Psylocke is on his side because… well, who knows. She isn’t really a character here. Storm at least has a switch pulled when she sees Mystique’s true form, even though her turn from evil caricature to hero is as sudden as a lightning bolt, but half of Apocalypse’s entourage doesn’t even get a good external justification, let alone an internal one. No pain, no pursuit of power. Magneto’s story falls in line with this perfectly, but rather than ever wrestling with his decision to embody those who’ve wronged him, he goes right for bloody murder, and all is forgiven.

During this battle, where the only arcs involve powers becoming bigger powers, Singer has Magneto envelop himself in a magnetic orb atop a structure. The first X-film had something similar on lady Liberty’s torch, where he used Rogue to amplify his reach. Here, his reach is already amplified tenfold, and to put a final stamp on the series, Singer has him bring down two giant beams in the form of an X when he changes his mind. The series’ opening theme plays again, more amped up and remixed than before, as an exhibition of powers envelops the screen, followed by Jean letting loose as the Phoenix in a moment of pure fan service. Sure, we’ve seen what she’s capable of when she looked like Famke Jansen, but does that not make this pseudo-revelation more of a concern than an applause moment? That’s not to say it shouldn’t have happened (it looks fantastic!) but like with ignoring Magneto’s whole mass murder thing – Don’t say no one died. Cars fell off a damn bridge! – Professor X doesn’t even skim the ethical surface of this decision, before, during or after. Ethics is the Professor’s whole deal! The film plays on a lot of the series’ visual cues, many of them quite well, but as a long-form story it can’t help but feel messy.

Magneto is the exception, barring the end of his journey. It’s an emotionally sound trajectory for him to traverse, but the treatment of it by the film and the other characters puts it in an uncomfortable, disconnected place. Someone like Havoc is dispensable so that the A-list (Magneto, Mystique, Xavier and Logan, now rejoined by Storm, Jean and Cyclops) can go around in circles and hit reset between installments. The long term planning only involves making sure these characters are around from film to film, with each one taking place after an entire decade, and the blanks it fills are mostly unsatisfying. Again, I can’t state just how much Erik is the exception, but he also helps reveal the un-dramatic nature of the rule. Mystique needs to hide, obviously, but it sure as hell seems like she wants to, since she isn’t blue behind closed doors. Why? What made her revert back to her character from two decades ago? Is it just about keeping her as far away from Romjin’s Mystique? Is this going to continue in the next film, which takes place thirty years after First Class?

The language of LGBTQ and Civil Rights struggles are peppered throughout the series. “Have you tried… not being a mutant?” in X2 is a fantastic example of this, and the Xavier/Magneto dynamic is inherently designed to be the never-ending debate of ideals embodied by MLK and Malcolm X, but the series now seems content with simply lifting the language of oppression without exploring what it means. People holding picket signs doesn’t provide insight into those being picketed. Forget that the films feature no LGBTQ characters and push all its people of colour to the sidelines (I won’t harp on this. Not because the ship has sailed, but because there’s only so many times we can point out the same thing for sixteen years), the film’s contentment with treating these individual chapters as opportunities to bring this stuff up yet have no conversation about it, and to repeat the process a decade later is lazy. And even if we assume the films don’t want to be this, or shouldn’t be this (Lord knows why anyone would say that about the X-Men), then why position all the action, all the drama and even a good chunk of the comedy in relation to social power structures?

I feel as confused as the series itself, because I have so much love for this film’s meticulously calculated and downright powerful first half. It sets up characters like Magneto thoughtfully, asking question about what they believe in (and whom), but none of those beliefs amount to much, as the film tumbles through Singer’s audacious panorama as he lays claim to what he would’ve liked to have churned out sixteen years ago. In the end it’s ironic, and perhaps most damning, that when the film sends characters on a detour involving Return of the Jedi, their pot-shots at X-Men: The Last Stand feel a bit too self-referential. This is, after all, a “third one” as well, and it really ought to be Singer’s last hurrah. Even though the ante has been upped in most regards, we’re still back to square one: interesting individual drama marred by disconnected interpersonal dynamics, both physical and emotional. That’s not where you want to be when you’re handling the X-Men, but it’s the only place this series has been so far… maybe, as the film suggests, history is meant to repeat itself.

After lack of interest saw the original comic cancelled in 1970, it was resurrected five years later with new creators and a diverse team of mutants, and the X-Men have been around ever since. That sounds a lot like what this series needs right now.