It is easy to forget what a big deal the first X-Men movie was in 2000. At a time when Joel Schumacher was still the industry’s go-to director for super hero films, X-Men announced that films based on comic books did not have to be campy, silly, stupid, or feature Alicia Silverstone. When X-Men was first released, critics and audiences were surprised to see a comic book film that was intelligent, well-acted, and actually about something.
The only people who were not shocked were those of us who grew up reading the X-Men books. We already knew that the X-Men was about more than just heroes with super powers and flashy costumes. We knew that the battles within the pages of the X-books were always meant to serve as a metaphor for racism and real-world prejudice and, since many of us felt like outcasts and mutants ourselves, we related to the characters. We already knew that Magneto was often a sympathetic villain while Prof. X was not always a likable hero. We knew that almost every battle that the X-Men fought came down to the question of whether or not different types of people could peacefully co-exist. Unlike the critics, we were not shocked by X-Men‘s subtext. Instead, we were just happy that Bryan Singer did not fuck things up.
All of the comic books films that have followed have owed a debt to critical and commercial success the first X-Men movie. Without that success, there would probably have never been a Dark Knight trilogy or even an MCU.
The success of X-Men has also led to a 16 year-old franchise of movies about mutants and their struggle to live in a world that fears them. X-Men: Apocalypse is the 9th installment in that franchise and it is based on the Fall of the Mutants storyline, which ran through several Marvel comics in 1988.
Continuing the pattern set by X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse takes place in the past, back when Charles Xavier was still James McAvoy and Magneto was still Michael Fassbender. (Unlike Days of Future Past, neither Patrick Strewart nor Ian McKellan makes an appearance.) The year is 1983. Ronald Reagan is President. The Cold War still rages. The music is better than it is today. Xavier is running his school for gifted
mutants youngsters. Magneto is living, under an assumed name, in Poland. Magneto is married and has a young daughter and as soon as I saw them, I knew they were going to die. Magneto’s family never survives.
In Egypt, an ancient and powerful mutant named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is awakened after being entombed for centuries. Readers of the comic books will immediately recognize En Sabah Nur as Apocalypse. Planning to destroy the world so that he can rebuild it in his own image, Apocalypse recruits his four horseman — Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto. Apocalypse also wants to recruit Xavier to his side but Prof. X still believes that humans and mutants must learn to co-exist.
What’s interesting is that, even though Fassbender and McAvoy share a few scenes, this is the first X-Men film to not feature any sort of debate between Xavier and Magneto. Magneto, one of the greatest comic book villains of all time, is actually a little boring here and, without those debates, Apocalypse lacks the subtext that distinguished the best of the previous X-Men films. The emphasis is less on what it means to be an outsider and more on defeating Apocalypse. Unfortunately, Apocalypse is a great character in the comic books but he does not translate well into film. Unlike Magneto, who has several good and justifiable reasons for not trusting humanity, the film version of Apocalypse is portrayed as being pure evil and little else. His plan to destroy the world never makes much sense and he is almost as bland as Dr. Doom in the latest Fantastic Four reboot. Apocalypse could be any villain from any comic book movie that has been released over the past 16 years. He could just as easily be the Living Eraser.
Apocalypse is also an origin story, showing how the modern incarnation of the X-Men first came to be. We meet young versions of Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler (played by Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) makes a brief appearance that feels like it was mostly included to set up the character’s third stand-alone film. Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Evan Peters also return in the roles of Mystique, the Beast, and Quicksilver. Peters is featured in the movie’s coolest scene, though that scene is basically just a redo of Days of Future Past‘s coolest scene.
(There’s also a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Dazzler, which I guess means that Marvel’s disco queen will eventually be appearing on movie screens.)
X-Men: Apocalypse is not as good as either First Class or Days of Future Past but it’s still better than The Last Stand. (Since Apocalypse takes place in 1983, Scott and Jean go to see Return of the Jedi and talk about how the third film of any franchise always sucks.) It’s entertaining but, without an interesting villain or any sort of examination of what it really means to be an outcast, Apocalypse is also forgettable in a way that X2 and Days of Future Past never were. As a lifelong fan of the X-Men, I could not help but be disappointed.
One thing that especially bothered me is that Days of Future Past ended with Xavier promising to explain to Wolverine why he, Scott, and Jean were all still alive despite having been killed in The Last Stand. If you were hoping Apocalypse would clear that up, don’t hold your breath. I guess that question will remain unanswered until the 10th film.
Speaking of which, First Class was set in the 1960s and Days of Future Past largely took place in the 70s. Apocalypse is an 80s movie so the next installment should be set in the early 90s. Will Scott be listening to Nirvana or will he be playing air guitar to November Rain? I guess we’ll have to wait to find out!