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)

What Is Apocalypse’s Motive?

But I will stay focused on the Apocalypse storyline for now. CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), last seen in X-Men: First Class, investigates an Egyptian cult that worships Apocalypse. She accidentally allows sunlight into the buried ruins of Apocalypse’s pyramid, awakening him and causing a shockwave around the world. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) senses the shockwave and reunites with Moira to learn more about it. Meanwhile, Apocalypse wanders the streets of Cairo until he happens upon Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), a mutant with the power to harness weather. Through her, Apocalypse learns of the world in 1983. He doesn’t like it. He decides to do something about it, but that something is never clear.

That is because Apocalypse, as a character, is never clear. Perhaps the reason this film lacks a strong central theme is because the ostensible centre of the film is never properly developed. He is played by Oscar Isaac, a fine actor and beautiful man rendered unrecognizable under a ton of goofy makeup and vocal effects. Isaac later described the process of filming Apocalypse as “excruciating”. Throughout the film, Apocalypse demonstrates the ability to manipulate sand, transfer into new bodies and gain the powers of those bodies, learn language and history through a television, upgrade the powers of other mutants, upgrade the hairstyles of other mutants, teleport, disintegrate a gun, block telepathy, and create a force-field around himself. Moira calls him “all-powerful”, meaning he can do anything, which somehow makes him less interesting.

I previously stated that his powers in the comics are fairly undefined, but the screenwriters had the opportunity to fix that issue here. At least his mission statement in the comics is very clear, but that’s not the case in the film. Apocalypse makes grand speeches about the “weak” taking over the world with “false idols” and that he wants to “cleanse” this world to make a “better one”. Who are the weak? Why are they weak? What are the false idols? What is his better world? None of this is explained. There are also hints that he’s lying about his undefined “better world”. But it’s difficult to know whether he’s lying to his followers because he’s never specific enough. In the end, his plan seems to be killing nearly everyone on Earth, then using Xavier’s telepathy to control those who remain.

Along the way Apocalypse assembles a new group of his Four Horsemen and amplifies their powers. But if Apocalypse is all-powerful, why does he need the Horsemen? Much of this storyline is devoted to recruiting the Horsemen, and it ultimately feels like a waste of time. Most of the group consists of fan-favourite characters that say and do very little. There is Storm, the first mutant Apocalypse encountered in the present. She steals to get by, but idolizes Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) for the public stand she took for mutants at the end of Days of Future Past. That about sums up her character development. Storm is never named in the film, only in the credits, which indicates her significance.

Apocalypse and Storm visit Caliban (Tómas Lemarquis), a font of information about mutants, and end up recruiting his bodyguard, Psylocke (Olivia Munn), as the second Horseman. She doesn’t have a lot of development either. She wants power, I guess. Psylocke leads them to Angel (Ben Hardy), a winged mutant whose wings were injured in a cage fight in East Berlin. Apocalypse amplifies his powers, causing him to grow metal wings, adapting a similar event in the comics. I believe Angel has one line of dialogue after meeting Apocalypse. None of these characters have any impact besides some cool action beats in the climax. Their inclusion is indicative of the unfocused, overstuffed nature of Apocalypse.

The Fourth Horseman is Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Erik’s tragic backstory and on-off friendship with Xavier has been at the heart of many of the X-Men team films, particularly First Class and Days of Future Past. As a result, viewers are familiar with the beats of a Magneto story. Apocalypse doesn’t offer anything fresh or new to the Erik saga. In fact, his story here is offensively cheap drama. In the ten years since Days of Future Past, Erik has assumed a false name and settled down as foundry worker in his native Poland. He also has a wife and daughter, who are introduced solely to be killed off and motivate Erik’s story.

In 1999, comic book writer Gail Simone coined the term “Women in Refrigerators” or “fridging” to call attention to the far-too-numerous examples of female characters being injured, raped, killed, or depowered as a plot device intended to move a male character’s story arc forward. Simone’s critique began a conversation about how female characters are treated in male-dominated superhero comics, and urged comic creators to be more thoughtful in their writing. There are examples of fridging in comic book films, but it’s certainly not as widespread as in comics. Erik’s family in Apocalypse exist only to die and motivate Erik. That’s lazy writing.

That being said, Fassbender is a tremendous actor and he plays his scenes beautifully. Sadly, even his performance can’t mask the underlying weakness of the character arc. When Apocalypse is awakened, the shockwave disrupts the foundry at which he works, and Erik uses his magnetic powers to save a worker. This exposes him as Magneto, and the authorities try to arrest him. Erik’s daughter uses her animal communication powers to compel birds to attack the police. In the confusion, Erik’s wife and daughter are killed by an arrow. He kills the police and sets out to kill the foundry workers who turned him in. Apocalypse approaches him and upgrades his powers, allowing Erik to tap into Earth’s magnetic field. Erik feels distraught enough to follow Apocalypse’s lead.

Xavier reaches out to Erik telepathically, urging him not to follow Apocalypse, finally allowing this isolated storyline to intersect with the other characters in the film. Apocalypse senses Xavier’s telepathy and manipulates it to make every nuclear power in the world launch their nuclear missiles into space. As he does, he gives an impressive-sounding but ultimately shallow speech. My best guess is that Apocalypse sees nuclear weapons as the most dangerous threat to him and, by eliminating them, he feels like he cannot be challenged. But, like so much related to Apocalypse, it’s never clear. As a result what should be an impressive display of power — destroying all the nuclear warheads — feels pointless.

Apocalypse then teleports to Xavier’s mansion to capture Xavier. Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) tries to blast Apocalypse with energy, but instead hits an experimental jet engine and blows up the mansion. This event should kick the film into high gear, barreling toward the climax. Instead, the Apocalypse storyline is put on hold as most characters take an extended detour to justify a cameo by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). By the time the climax occurs, the film has failed to regain its lost momentum.

Apocalypse destroys Cairo, killing an unknown number of people, to create a giant pyramid. He orders Magneto to reach into the Earth’s magnetic field to kill most people on Earth. The film depicts global scenes of destruction, including scenes of Manhattan with the twin towers of the World Trade Center prominent in the background (the film takes place in 1983, remember).

In the years before the release of Apocalypse, blockbusters were increasingly criticized for this kind of casual destruction and implied genocide. Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016), released the same month as Apocalypse, specifically and maturely addresses the criticism. Thus, Apocalypse immediately felt outdated with its wanton scenes of senseless destruction.

Apocalypse then takes Xavier into the pyramid to transfer his consciousness into Xavier’s body and gain the power of telepathy. Outside the pyramid, the X-Men assemble to fight the Horsemen. The fight is a lot of fun, with good use of diverse mutant powers, but it cannot escape the feeling of weightlessness given that nearly every character involved is underdeveloped. Angel is killed, and Psylocke runs away. Eventually Erik and Storm turn on Apocalypse, attacking him physically as Xavier fights him telepathically. The killing blow is delivered by Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who taps into her limitless telepathic power, hinted at earlier in the film, to overwhelm Apocalypse. After, there are no consequences for any mutants, not even for Erik, who nearly ended the world.

That is the Apocalypse storyline. Apocalypse is completely undefined, with unclear powers and goals. He assembles his Four Horsemen, three of whom barely even register as characters. The fourth Horseman, Erik, is motivated through the laziest form of comic book storytelling. It’s ostensibly the central plot of the film, but it takes up only about half the running time. Besides not working on its own merits, the Apocalypse storyline is drowned out by the other half of the film. That half is devoted to numerous disconnected characters and plot threads that have no purpose and give the proceedings a stunning lack of focus. If the filmmakers had a clear vision, many of these elements would have been cut or modified to be less superfluous. As it stands, however, superfluous rules the film.

Apocalypse takes place ten years after Days of Future Past. Why? Because there was a ten-year time jump from First Class to Days of Future Past. That’s the only reason. No effort is made to take the characters from the previous films and age them up. All of the characters from First Class — Xavier, Erik, Moira, Raven and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) — look about five years older rather than 20 years older. Erik is the only previously-introduced character who seems to have progressed in the ten years since the last film, and his progression was to have a wife and daughter that were created to be murdered. Every other character, including Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) from Days of Future Past, appears to be doing exactly what they were doing in the previous film. There’s no narrative or thematic reason to jump ten years, so why do it?

Xavier has reopened his school and, now that mutants are more accepted, he has grand plans to develop it into a university for mutants and humans. Raven tries to convince Xavier that he’s being naïve about peaceful coexistence with regular humans. As the film progresses, precious time is spent discussing Xavier and Moira’s romantic relationship from First Class, before he erased her memories. The filmmakers wanted to tie up loose ends from the trilogy that I don’t believe needed to be tied up.

Raven, meanwhile, is uncomfortable with her status as a mutant role model since Days of Future Past. And Hank, well, Hank built a new jet. That’s all he gets in the film. As Apocalypse attempts to transfer his consciousness into Xavier, Xavier loses all of his hair. This finally gives his traditionally bald appearance the origin story we all needed. In the end, Raven embraces her role and becomes the leader of the X-Men while Xavier looks on, bald and proud of the militia he’s creating.