“I saw the end of the world,” gasps Jean Gray (Sophie Turner). “I could feel all this death!” She’s a wreck, waking from a vision she’s had late at night in her bed at Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Seated near her is Professor Charles Xavier himself (James McAvoy), earnest and soothing. “Your mind is the most powerful one I’ve ever seen,” says the man with most powerful mind the rest of us have ever seen. But no, she protests, he’s not getting it: “You don’t what it’s like,” she cries, “Being trapped in your own head.”
Though Charles comes back with the answer you expect — “I think I do” — you understand why Jean Grey remains rattled during this early scene in X-Men: Apocalypse. The student Jean Grey (as opposed to the Famke Janssen Jean Grey) is here, in 1983, entering into yet another of the franchise’s many reboots and reimaginings and restarts, another pile of plots and subplots, another effort to fold in youngsters so the X-Men might go on. You enter with her — as well as Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) — knowing what she can’t know even with her big, all-seeing mind. And so you wait, to find out how she’ll turn into the Jean Grey you’ve seen before.
Or not. Maybe she’ll be another Jean Grey> As memorable and unshakeable Janssen’s Jean Grey may have been, Turner offers her own take on this founding member of the X-Men, a take that follows many other takes, even apart from Janssen’s/ Jean Grey, you’ll recall (though she may not here, as the future that’s past in this film might no exactly line up with the other futures or the other pasts. (Other Jean Greys first appeared in a comic book in 1963, was first imagined in a movie in 2000, and was and first discovered as a child by Charles and Magneto, in 1769.)
All these Jean Greys might eventually contend with her narrative splitting, as she famously develops two personalities, light and dark, nice and scary, Jean Grey and Phoenix. You might make the case that Jean Grey’s split selves exemplify all the X-Men, their efforts to control their powers, to live with each other and with non-mutants, to fit in and stand out, to save the world and destroy it. You might also make the case that she and the X-Men represent non-mutants, like you, trying to put your divergent experiences and expectations together, trying to be a whole or at least a coherent self. And in this, of course, all the X-Men represent all the X-Men, and are like all superheroes: the metaphors are not subtle and they are continuous.
It may be, too (because all these stories might be true at once), that the X-Men are as special as they say they are. As their universe turns in on itself, their timelines coming together and apart, their stories revised and reinforced, their franchise is becoming a swirling mass of possibilities that may or may not lead where you anticipate. This endless circularity could be a brilliant corporate gambit, allowing for all manner of substitutions and changes in contracts and casts, not to mention revenues forever. And it could be the repetitive morass that’s on screen in X-Men: Apocalypse.
Here again, Jean Grey’s sorting out parallels that of Cyclops, whose visor helps with his spontaneous laser-vision, and also those of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), whose body betrays her, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). She’s once more introduced as an empathetic organizer of X-Men, despite her insistence that she’s done with X-Men-ness, and he’s once again a sulky, infuriated loner. Or, he is when his effort to “fit in” with people — bad idea! — as a factory worker in Poland fails colossally. You know, before Magneto does, that he can’t fit in, and you know, before he does, that people will be fearful and violent and hapless. Magneto’s reversion to his earlier self, so the movie can revert to the same plot you’ve seen before (namely, how will Charles convince him to rejoin the club this time?), is appropriately agonizing and also, painfully, predictable.
This is the problem with the films, in a word. As much as the renovations suggest a new past and a new now, with new performers and not-exactly improving special effects, the films do what you know they will, whether or not you’ve read the comic books or seen the previous movies. Just so, Magneto’s new but old isolation leads soon enough to his new but old recruitment to another group, this one headed by Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac horribly disguised by CGI). Apocalypse is apparently another “original” X-Men, self-invented by incantations and hocus-pocus in ancient Egypt and resurrected to make, or maybe just to be, trouble. His emergence appears to surprise the other X-Men, though anyone might have predicted it, powerful mind or not: a character in the comic books, Apocalypse showed up in the TV X-Men and video games too, not to mention a post-credits cameo in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
In this incarnation, Apocalypse means to enhance the powers of select, prone-to-be-angry X-Men, forming another club (Magneto being the angriest, always, like the boy band member who’s appealing because he’s sulky). Apocalypse’s plan reprises every other X-Men plot, and isn’t just a little similar to Captain America: Civil War. The impetus seems to be, how do you get as many of the boy-band members into one movie, one space, one time frame? It’s a great pitch, on paper: all your favorites, back again, but sort of different enough to resemble a new movie.
Apocalypse accepts this role with enthusiasm, the Simon Cowell of superheroes. His nearly-a-god powers look enhanced by his giant size and his odious-metallic-blueness, in addition to his preference for shadows, so he can lurk. He entices his disciples with promises of vengeance, while you see why they might want it in a series of brief (utterly unsurprising) set-pieces: Storm (Alexandra Shipp) is menaced by swarthy men, Angel’s (Ben Hardy) abused by UFC-style promoters, and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) is bullied. Yes, you can see that Apocalypse is a bully too, but his manipulations are less overt than smacking down his opponents. He absorbs them.
Charles does this too, you know, seducing his students into goodness at the school. It may be that the moral coding — however awkward and unconvincing — marks his difference from Apocalypse (that, and their names, obviously). As always, the younger X-Men take over when the adults can’t quite get it done, and so they learn lessons and become X-Men (“You’re not students anymore!” Mystique announces in this movie’s trailer).
Because all the X-Men movies try to be all things, this one too includes a glimpse of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and a slightly more complicated set of scenes for Quicksilver (Evan Peters) (he argues with his mom again). But you get the sense that these moments only set up for the one you expect, yet another funny, self-knowing bit of super-speeding business. But because you’ve seen it before, in the Pentagon kitchen sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past, it’s really just more. Not different. He’s got weird enough hair for a boy-band, though.
As Mystique powers through, Magneto comes back to earth, and Charles’ head hurts — while Jean Grey booms her powers in an un-dazzling display of explosive special effects (and a less compelling version of the slippery time and interlocking rooms that you saw at the end of Interstellar — you’re reminded of… well, all the X-Men movies. Watching the same origins, the same conflicts, the same struggles, you could describe it as more, but you also call it the same.
For a few seconds, you can even imagine that the inside of Jean Grey’s head resembles yours, just a little. You’ve seen the end of the world, you’ve seen it more than once. It’s loud and it’s large. And it’s not new.