The Third One is Always the Worst – X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s 2016 sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse

Perhaps the best way to describe X-Men: Apocalypse is as the film X-Men: The Last Stand wanted to be, which is a significant amount of damning with faint praise.

Apocalypse is a clear and visible step down from X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is, easily, the weakest X-Men movie since X-Men: Origins Wolverine. It is also the most cleanly and directly an X-Men film since The Last Stand, and to an extent the more logical sequel that we could have been given after First Class had Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner and the rest of the team had gone in a different direction. First Class introduced the idea of the X-Men as a functional unit but, in order to facilitate the darker, multi-generational, time-spanning narrative of Days of Future Past, chose to roll back on their development in order to provide an origin story for Charles Xavier as Professor X. First Class placed everyone where the needed to be for Apocalypse to happen but this film benefits from the depth of characterisation given to characters such as Xavier, Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr and Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkholme.

Where Apocalypse stumbles is how it attempts to start re-creating the conditions of the first two X-Men movies while lacking their depth of subtlety or clear dramatic through-lines. X-Men had the X/Magneto conflict fully formed at the turn of the millennium whereas, in Apocalypse, X is still building Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters into the functional X-Men team we saw in the 2000 film, and Erik has attempted to abandon the Magneto persona after the events of Days of Future Past instead of becoming the ideological, anti-human uber-villain he was in Singer’s first film. Apocalypse wants to be both a First Class-style groundwork-laying origin story *and* a functional, standard X-Men film—a counterpoint to how offbeat and format-breaking DOFP was—all in one go, and as a result it ends up a busy, silly, often unfulfilling concoction recalling the heady vacuousness of The Last Stand. The fact it also wants to be meta and subversive at the same time just adds to the cluttered mix.

Apocalypse *is* a better film than The Last Stand. It is not, however, the sequel that either First Class or especially Days of Future Past deserved.

You can see the logic behind Apocalypse from both a narrative and a fiscal perspective.

The X-Men franchise has by this point come full circle. It has returned to the director who launched the series fifteen years earlier, at a very different time for comic-book cinema and the blockbuster in general. Singer’s X-Men in 2000 struck such a chord because it gave comic-book cinema a deeper level of character and pathos than we had previously seen, not to mention social and geopolitical awareness, and much of the Marvel output subsequently took a cue from that pioneering approach. Apocalypse comes to bear in an entirely different space. With the superhero movie now the dominant form of cinematic popular culture, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its cultural apex, Singer has to try and provide a level of closure for character arcs running for at least five years while relaunching the X-Men franchise as a going concern with a younger, vibrant cast consisting of a new versions of previously established characters – Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm, all grown up, seasoned X-Men veterans by the 2000 film.

It is a balance you can ultimately feel Apocalypse struggling with across a picture which needs to service a great deal more principal characters than ever before, at least since The Last Stand. First Class managed to ground the core narrative in Xavier, Erik and Raven. Days of Future Past does the same but adds Wolverine into the mix. Apocalypse has to juggle all of the above (sans Wolverine… sort of), plus Jean, plus Scott Summers, plus Ororo Monroe to an extent, *and* somehow deliver on the promise of ancient Egyptian super villain En Sabah ‘Apocalypse’ Nur as he is unearthed to menace the world of 1983. Apocalypse, even for almost a 150 minute running time, is bursting at the seams with character arcs, underlying geopolitical subtext (though it is much less pervasive or effective than the previous two films), and a sense of place given we are in a colourful, vibrant early 80’s.

Writer Kinberg believes that the Mystique arc remains the core unifier between this second X-Men trilogy from First Class to Apocalypse:

The person in First Class who became the character in play – the character who could change the most, who could move from one pole to the other – was Mystique, or Raven. She started in First Class as essentially Charles’ sister and ended the movie walking away with Magneto. It was such a clear arc in that movie that for me she became the character in play. She was the character that could move from pole to pole from movie to movie. We would watch her maturation and evolution over the span of many movies until she eventually becomes the Mystique that we know from the comics and X-Men, X2, and X3, which is someone who is on Magneto’s side. But she starts in First Class entirely on Charles’ side, ends up following Erik, and we then find her in Days of Future Past and she’s on her own because Erik is gone. She’s on her own side in that movie but is drawn toward Charles by the end of the film and shoots Erik. Then in Apocalypse she comes back to Charles. There’s a full circle narrative over the span of this little trilogy that is about Mystique from beginning with Charles in the mansion and ending with Charles in the mansion, but not as the same timid little girl we met in First Class. She has become militarized and is training a bunch of kids to essentially become vigilantes.

While you can definitely feel Mystique as the core lynchpin between the X/Magneto ideology in First Class, and it becomes as essential part of the core plot in Days of Future Past to great effect (even if it reduces her screen time), Mystique’s centrality to Apocalypse is much less apparent. She plays a key part in assembling certain mutants, or attempting to as a lone entity, and the film very much plays on the idea of whether she has evolved from the assassin tool of Erik through to a hero worthy of leading the X-Men (the film decides, ultimately, yes she is), the lack of Mystique’s conflict being the central component of Apocalypse’s plot highlights the main flaw in the plotting. Apocalypse routinely veers between what it wants to be about, at its heart, for the expediency of narrative and serving its characters.

If Xavier came very well out of Days of Future Past, then Magneto arguably gets a stronger outing in Apocalypse. DOFP left him in the position of becoming the grand super-villain of the piece, the greatest threat to mankind, with his declaration on the lawn of the White House that humans dare not try and subjugate mutant kind. It is therefore an interesting choice to have Erik, a decade on, attempting to learn from Mystique’s choice and Charles’ assurances that they need to believe in humanity, by giving up the crusade—giving up his Magneto persona—to become a simple, working family man in his native Poland. The fact this is then tragically ripped away from him by local men who got wind of his true identity is all the more potent a journey, and a strong way to fuel his deterministic belief that humans are the enemy. “I tried your way, Charles. I tried to be like them, live like them. But it always ends the same way. They took everything away from me. Now, we’ll take everything from them”. Though at points over-wrought, the reaffirmation of Magneto’s ideology when Apocalypse presents a clear way to wipe clean the face of the Earth—and his subsequent rejection of Apocalypse’s holocaust—does make sense and is one of the clearest character arcs presented in the film.

In reality, Apocalypse should have been the ultimate villain for the X-Men franchise. He is easily the most powerful antagonist ever faced by any of these characters in all five previous films. He presents initially as a Thanos for the X-Men franchise; a super powerful being with a pure, uncluttered ideology – he sees himself as a purifier of a world grown weak and supple through the rule of men, of governments, and of complex systems that didn’t exist in 3600 BC when he ruled early civilisation. “Elohim, Pushan, Ra – I’ve been called many names over many lifetimes. I am born of death. I was there to spark and fan the flame of man’s awakening, to spin the wheel of civilization. And when the forest would grow rank and needed clearing for new growth, I was there to set it ablaze.” In reality, however, En Sabah Nur is much more of an anarchist, more in line with The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane. Where Thanos wants universal order through restoring balance to the universe, Apocalypse wants to rip up the existing balance and from chaos create something new. As he sends every atomic weapon on the planet into space, he roars: “No more stones. No more spears. No more slings. No more swords. No more weapons! No more systems! No more! No more superpowers… So much faith in their tools, in their machines. You can fire your arrows from the Tower of Babel, but you can never strike god!”

Apocalypse in this sense works well as a 1980’s era villain, in the wake of punk and the Sex Pistols calls to arms against the “fascist regime”; he emerges at the dawn of neoliberalism, Reaganism, colourful capitalism and burgeoning perestroika, but he doesn’t sit within the anxious space Bolivar Trask or Sebastian Shaw inhabited. He considers himself cosmically above such dichotomy and geopolitical rhetoric. This decreases his effectiveness as a villain, even despite his immense power and strength. The X-Men franchise has always been intensely geopolitical in how it presents the existence of mutants in the global paradigm, and the rebooted films neatly placed the mutant story alongside key geopolitical events of the late 20th century – the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the pre-Watergate Nixon administration and end of the Vietnam War in 1973, but 1983 has no such epoch-defining political moment. You could generously point to the Soviet false alarm nuclear incident of September 1983 and tie it into Apocalypsewhere Soviet systems falsely reported American nuclear missile launches, a situation semi-predicted months earlier by the film WarGames—but this is not explicitly stated.

You could suggest that Apocalypse rolls back on geopolitics as a pointed reaction to how, by 1983, the Cold War was entering a cooling off period in general terms, but it means the film lacks the same kind of spine the previous two films were buoyed by. The mutant conflict between X and Magneto was nicely allegorised by the Cold War paradigm as we saw in First Class and DOFP—films which see the mutants rise as counter culture and the subsequent social and economic depression of the 70’s provide a challenge to the existing world order—and that absence gives Apocalypse more of a hollow centre. It is hard to really find anything underpinning En Sabah Nur beyond the anarchy and the quasi-Biblical connections. Singer wanted to paint him as a ‘mutant God’ entity, and Moira McTaggart functions here as much of an archaeologist than CIA agent. “Wherever this being was, he always had four principle followers, disciples, protectors he would imbue with powers.” “Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He got that one from the Bible.” “Or the Bible got it from him”. Yet this idea is never really explored in much depth, with Apocalypse’s Horsemen being the conflicted Magneto and Storm, pointless Psylocke and wasted Angel. They never present much of a powerful, existential threat – but then admittedly nor did Shaw’s cronies in First Class or Magneto’s in The Last Stand, so maybe this is a common problem in mutant henchmen.

The problem is that Apocalypse believes that En Sabah Nur, and by extension the entire film, is more subversive than both actually are. The film is consistently attempting to examine its own place within superhero cinema and the X-Men franchise at large. A particularly jarring pop culture discussion between Jean, Cyclops and Jubilee following a cinema trip to see Return of the Jedi sees them discussing how The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film because of its complexity, how it couldn’t have existed without A New Hope, only for Jean to quip “Well, at least we can agree the third one’s always the worst”. You can practically hear Kinberg and the writing team leaning over the keyboard to both point out this is a meta-commentary on the original X-Men trilogy, and even on *this* trilogy – as if even *they’re* conscious of the fact Apocalypse doesn’t match up to the two films that preceded it. This is topped later, upon Wolverine’s brief appearance, with Cyclops’ quip: “Hope that’s the last we’ve seen of that guy”, not aware of who he is like the audience are. Everything about it is groan-worthy. Even the Quicksilver scene, rescuing students from Xavier’s exploding mansion, as fun as it does turn out to be, is reflecting and playing off the most beloved moment in Days of Future Past.

Wolverine’s appearance is a particular example of how Apocalypse is not only badly structured but just how much it wants to pander both to fan service, *and* try to consciously tip the wink to the trilogy of old. There is no other reason for the entire sub-plot of Mystique and co being trapped in Alkali Lake where Colonel Stryker is running his nefarious experiments. Many audience members knew by this point that Hugh Jackman would be hanging up his claws in 2017’s Logan (set in the original, Days of Future Past-altered timeline), making this fleeting Wolverine appearance a gift to fans. Jackman has no dialogue, presenting a purely feral version of the character designed to become Stryker’s Weapon X (as the ultimately pointless post-credits scene clarifies), and his brief interaction with the younger Jean is an exchange designed purely for the audience as opposed to the characters. This is an even more self-serving sub-plot than the excised Rogue appearance in Days of Future Past and in no way should have survived the edit.

Another edit might have done Apocalypse some good. It is bloated and tries to serve far too many masters at once, building toward a noisy and busy ending which feels designed primarily to establish the conditions for the next film, Dark Phoenix, as opposed to truly delivering an adequate payoff to the threat of Apocalypse. Singer and his writers have to work to find the emotional core—whether in Mystique’s hero moment or Magneto rejecting his super-villain persona to help stop Apocalypse—because it just isn’t as clearly defined in this movie as in the previous two. It feels as anti-climactic as the ending of The Last Stand did, serving less as the ending of a trilogy but more as a film with one eye on the characters and narratives to come. By this point, given how rich the previous two X-Men experiences have been, this all just feels like a retrograde step – a colourful, throwaway blockbuster with none of the depth the franchise deserves.

The biggest surprise of the next film, therefore, is in how what may turn out to be a final coda to this X-Men era has repaired some of the damage wrought by Apocalypse

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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