Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) | © 2015 courtesy of 20th Century Fox

‘X-Men: Apocalypse’: The Apocalypse of Comic Book Films

The filmmakers’ attempt to mask X-Men: Apocalypse’s lack of purpose and thematic unity with a stunning density of characters, plot lines, and fan service. But we see behind the mask.

X-Men: Apocalypse
Bryan Singer
20th Century Fox
9 May 2016 (UK) | 27 May 2016 (US)

In May 2016, the X-Men film series seemed stronger than ever. It launched with X-Men (Singer, 2000) and X2: X-Men United (Singer, 2003), which set the tone for the comic book film boom that is still sweeping through Hollywood today. Unfortunately, X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006) ended the first trilogy on a down note, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009) was a dismal attempt to spin-off a popular character. As a result, the series began to lose relevance.

But X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011), with its new cast, sleek 1960s setting, and exciting spy film flavour, had righted the ship. It was followed by The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013), a huge step up in quality for solo Wolverine films. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014) once again established X-Men films as blockbuster events. Its time travel plot embraced the comic book roots of the series, united the older and newer X-Men casts, and erased the complex, contradictory timeline of the X-Men films. Finally, Deadpool (Miller, 2016) was the funniest, most original superhero film in years, and went on to become the highest-grossing X-Men-related film of all time. The producers behind the X-Men were looking to turn their four-film winning streak into five with the next X-Men team film.

In early December 2013, nearly six months before the release of Days of Future Past, Fox announced that X-Men: Apocalypse would be released in 2016. This early announcement demonstrated the confidence Fox felt regarding the X-Men series, as did the choice of villain. Despite a large, impressive rogues gallery in the comics, there was a distinct lack of variety of villains in the series up to that point. The films too frequently defaulted to Magneto or William Stryker as villains and needed something fresher.

Basing the new film around the villain Apocalypse was not only a great choice, but one that was unabashedly “comic-booky”, something the X-Men films had avoided with a more grounded approach until recently. Perhaps the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) had convinced Fox studio executives that it was financially viable to build films around the geekiest comic book concepts.

Announcements beyond the villain also sounded promising. Apocalypse was intended to conclude the trilogy running through First Class and Days of Future Past, and also begin the next chapter of X-Men films focused on new teenage mutants. Those teenage mutants included Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Storm, characters that appeared as adults in the original trilogy but were never as prominent as their comic book counterparts. As exciting as that sounded, this announcement merely stated that the pre-existing cast would be showcased while the film would also introduce new versions of previously established characters. So, basically, more of the same.

First Class, however, had a clear, fresh hook: a retro, ’60s spy thriller focused on young Xavier and Magneto. Days of Future Past excited audiences with a geeky time-travel romp that doubled as a curtain call for the original X-Men cast. The only clear, fresh, exciting element announced for X-Men: Apocalypse was the villain. If the series was going to continue its winning streak, everything depended on Apocalypse.

In the comics, Apocalypse is introduced as the main antagonist of X-Factor, a series that was designed to reunite the original five X-Men (Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel and Jean Grey) on the same team for the first time in over 15 years. The villain, created by Louise Simonson and Jackson Guice, was teased at the end of X-Factor #5 (June 1986) and first fully appeared in X-Factor #6 (July 1986). Although Apocalypse’s powers are always a little ambiguous, something that fatally plagues the film version, his point of view is absolutely clear.

Apocalypse is considered the first human to naturally develop powers, the first mutant. He is essentially immortal, having lived thousands of years, and considers himself to be the father of all mutants. Over those many years, he has lived by the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. Thus, he does not strive for mutant supremacy, like Magneto, but rather for being the strongest, and being among the strongest — whether they be human or mutant — to survive.

This clear, brutal viewpoint defines Apocalypse throughout his appearances, and he was fairly popular in X-Factor. The character gained greater notoriety in 1995 during the “Age of Apocalypse” crossover event. In the story, a time travel mishap results in the death of Professor Xavier early in his life. This creates an alternate timeline where Xavier is not alive to form the X-Men and Apocalypse takes over the world largely uncontested. For four months, cover-dated March-June 1995, all X-Men books slightly changed their titles and took place in this dystopian timeline. The event was a massive sales success and cemented Apocalypse as a top-tier X-Men villain.

Basing an X-Men film around Apocalypse seemed like a recipe for continued success but, unfortunately, that was not the case. X-Men: Apocalypse is a formless, pointless mess. The film attempts to do a dozen different things, with no thematic or narrative unity binding them. I spent the first hour of the film, as it jumps from place to place, character to character, wondering when the main plot would coalesce before realizing the answer is… never. The main plot never gets going because there is no main plot. While servicing too many characters and narrative threads, the filmmakers fail to form a clear throughline, a definitive plot on which to hang everything.

It feels like there was clearly no compelling reason or vision to make Apocalypse beyond “make another X-Men film”, so the filmmakers included every character and idea that interested them. Older characters are either given nothing to do or half-baked character arcs that don’t relate to the rest of the film. Newer characters are given some good material, but are mostly held back to be further developed in future films. Many elements seem to be included either out of obligation (repeating a gag from a previous film or providing an origin for future concepts), or as fan service for longtime X-Men readers or viewers. The filmmakers gathered a bunch of interesting pieces, but they fail to combine into anything meaningful because there is no unifying vision. Every character or moment just sits there. It may be good or bad on its own, but it’s certainly disconnected from the rest of the film.

Some pieces should have been cut to focus the film, but which pieces? It’s impossible to determine which elements belong and which don’t because that can only be judged according to the central theme or plot, which does not exist in Apocalypse. There are moments that really work, that I adore as a fan of the comics and films, but they are not enough to redeem the overall film. In fact, these moments of greatness only make it more frustrating, as they indicate a potentially good version of the film that could have existed if there was a clear vision behind it. The great moments merely prevent Apocalypse from being the worst X-Men film and not much more. What a waste.

The central plot should revolve around Apocalypse, but that character and everything related to him make up approximately half the running time. The other half is full of the unnecessary or underserved characters. Furthermore, the character of Apocalypse is completely mishandled. His powers, motivations and plans are never defined, rendering his story meaningless. So even if the character were central to the film, it would weaken the film. In an effort to address every messy aspect, I will begin by teasing out the Apocalypse storyline. To be clear, this storyline does not work on its own, but at least by focusing on it in isolation we can try to understand the intentions of the filmmakers.

X-Men: Apocalypse opens in Egypt in 3600 BCE, which looks and feels a lot like Stargate (Emmerich, 1994). Apocalypse, the ruler, is dying, so his followers parade him into his enormous pyramid. Inside, he transfers his consciousness into an unnamed mutant (Oscar Isaac) with super healing powers, allowing him to live on in that form. But during the transfer, a group of anti-Apocalypse rebels initiate a series of mechanisms that bring down the pyramid. The four main followers of Apocalypse, his four mutant “Horsemen”, hold off the attack, but the platform holding Apocalypse falls what seems like thousands of feet underground. The transfer is completed, but Apocalypse remains dormant in the rubble for over 5,000 years. These scenes are very silly and “comic-booky”, but that makes it kind of fun.

Unfortunately, the story then jumps to 1983, and the film starts bouncing around scenes and characters much like the beginning of the first X-Men film. But Apocalypse never stops to focus on a single plot. That’s the problem.