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)

From Pacifist to Warmonger

In the press around the release of Apocalypse, screenwriter Simon Kinberg repeatedly stated that the arc of the film was Xavier moving from a pure pacifist to accepting a more militaristic approach. I believe he repeated this idea because, once the film was finished, Xavier was the only character that exhibited any development. In reality, these Xavier scenes are sparsely dotted throughout the film, and the only credible change to the character is his hair loss.

Peter is the best example of a character having no point in the film. He appeared for a standout ten minutes in Days of Future Past. The most memorable scene in that film was a slow-motion sequence featuring him running through a kitchen at super-speed to stop a team of security guards from shooting the heroes. The sequence was dynamic, visually-interesting, funny, and memorable. And then, with his purpose fulfilled, Peter disappeared from the film.

Ten years later, he still looks the same and still lives in his mother’s basement. He’s included in Apocalypse solely to repeat and top the memorable super-speed sequence, this time saving students from the exploding mansion. As the explosion plays out in super slow-motion, Peter runs in and out of the house grabbing students, goldfish, and a dog as “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics plays on the soundtrack. The sequence is fantastic, another exciting, funny, visually-arresting showcase for Peter. But then Peter sticks around for no clear reason. A throwaway joke in Days of Future Past implies that Erik is his father. In Apocalypse, Peter confirms it. Then, in the climax, Raven urges Peter to tell this to Erik.

Erik is literally destroying the world because his daughter was killed, and Peter is secretly his son. Peter could tell Erik, pulling him back from the brink to care for his newly-discovered child. But he doesn’t. The one bit of potential character development for Peter is intentionally left unresolved for no reason. Normally, when character developments are so heavily foreshadowed, they are paid off in an interesting way. To very clearly set up this development and refuse to pay it off is not daring or interesting screenwriting — it’s fundamentally bad screenwriting.

New characters fare marginally better than previously-established characters mostly because the X-Men producers hoped they would carry the future installments of the series. Scott Summer/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey were introduced as adults in X-Men, but here they are teenagers. Scott suffers from headaches and ultimately unleashes uncontrollable energy bursts from his eyes. His brother, Alex, takes him to enroll in Xavier’s school for help. Lucas Till appeared as Alex, one of Xavier’s first students, in X-Men: First Class. He was in his early 20s in that film, putting him in his early 40s in Apocalypse. So Scott, his brother, is about 25 years younger than Alex. Once again, the time jump is unnecessary and hurts the credibility of the film.

Scott encounters Jean at the school. Jean has powerful telekinetic and telepathic abilities, and her nightmares belie a darker power. Xavier is training her to control herself. The Jean material hints at the classic “Dark Phoenix Saga” from the comics, which screenwriter Simon Kinberg already adapted poorly in X-Men: The Last Stand.

Scott and Jean are soon joined by Kurt/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a German mutant brought in by Raven. These younger characters have some fun sparks of chemistry that are missing from the older characters, and they offer a promising hint at future X-Men films. However, in an already overstuffed X-Men: Apocalypse they are barely given room to breathe. The Kids take a joyride to a nearby mall where they see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Coming out of the theater, they debate whether Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back is better, while Jean remarks that the third in a trilogy is always the worst. I don’t even know what to say about that moment. What was intended as a swipe at The Last Stand, the dreadful third film in the original X-Men trilogy, ends up equally describing Apocalypse. It’s either clever self-awareness or deep irony.

Besides Peter and the mansion explosion, the other two highlights of Apocalypse revolve around these teenage characters. The first is the massive narrative detour to justify a Hugh Jackman cameo. After Apocalypse launches the nuclear missiles into space, Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman) comes out of nowhere to capture the main characters outside the ruins of the Mansion. Stryker’s appearance is contrived, his choice of only the top-billed mutants is contrived, and taking them to his Alkali Lake facility in Canada is contrived. This all occurs so that Scott, Jean, and Kurt — stowaways on Stryker’s helicopter — can accidentally discover and release Wolverine.

Wolverine, fresh off the procedures that gave him an adamantium-covered skeleton, is feral and looks like he stepped right out of Barry Windsor-Smith’s 1991 “Weapon X” storyline from Marvel Comics Presents. He tears through the facility, brutally killing Stryker’s men and allowing the captured mutants to escape. As he leaves, Jean calms him telepathically. It’s a great sequence in isolation, with a great depiction of Wolverine, but it has absolutely no place in an already overstuffed, unfocused film.

The final highlight of Apocalypse is Jean’s defeat of Apocalypse. Xavier battles Apocalypse telepathically, which is nicely set in a shadowy, empty version of the mansion. Apocalypse gains the upper hand, his telepathic avatar grows giant, and Xavier calls out for Jean’s help. She strolls into the mind battle, and Xavier orders her let go of her power. In the real world, this manifests as her walking out onto the air, surrounded by the image of a flaming bird. Apocalypse, obsessed with power, seems overwhelmed at the sight of true omnipotence, and his last words are “all is revealed”.

As a comic book fan, familiar with Jean Grey’s powerful evolution as a character and as the Phoenix, this is one of my favourite moments in any X-Men film. But still, the moment is unearned. Jean’s character is undeveloped, her powers unclear, for this to work in the context of X-Men: Apocalypse. I can’t imagine how confused a non-fan would be to see the main villain of the film defeated by a character he has never met using powers she has never demonstrated in a battle that was never foreshadowed or set up. It undermines the already weak Apocalypse storyline, and seems more intended to set up Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019) than conclude X-Men: Apocalypse.

The mansion explosion, Wolverine cameo and Phoenix moments are all excellent in isolation, but each one is completely unearned and unnecessary in the context of the larger film. If you include every possible character and concept in one film then, statistically, I suppose a few of them would have to succeed.

X-Men: Apocalypse fails because it has no reason for existing other than a desire to make another X-Men film. It throws together characters from the previous two X-Men films in a half-hearted attempt to conclude their character arcs, and new characters with either no purpose or room to develop. Meanwhile, the main villain’s storyline is relegated to only half of the runtime, which may actually benefit the film since the storyline is completely mishandled. A few elements work due to the strong cast or solid source material, but these elements never distract from the unfocused mess of the film. Beyond all of that, this film feels like a step backward in the series.

In terms of structure and even specific scenes or dialogue, Apocalypse tries to emulate the first X-Men film from 2000. But whereas X-Men was groundbreaking at the time, comic book films evolved in the 16 years since. This film was released mere weeks after Captain America: Civil War, another film featuring an enormous cast of super-powered characters. Civil War is mature, focused, deftly juggles its cast, and satisfyingly pays off long-term character arcs. Apocalypse is regressive, unfocused and so overstuffed that no character has a satisfying arc. Watching these films back-to-back, the contrast could not be more stark.

Apocalypse was not helped by its director, Bryan Singer, who was by all accounts a mess during production. Around the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, multiple lawsuits accused Singer of sexually assaulting minors from the late-’90s through the ’00s. The lawsuits were dismissed, and Fox hired Singer to direct Apocalypse, but more rumours continued to swirl about Singer’s alleged criminal sexual activities.

His professional behaviour became increasingly erratic. During filming, he arrived to set late and unprepared. He was described as “emotionally very frail”, and broke down crying if confronted about his behaviour. He paid for a revolving door of guests to be on set or stay in hotels nearby. Many days, director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel would be forced to direct the film on Singer’s behalf. Despite all of this, and the dreadful film that resulted, Singer was hired by Fox yet again to direct Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). He exhibited identical behaviour on the set of that film forcing Fox to finally fire him with just three weeks left of filming.

In early 2019, The Atlantic published an in-depth investigative report of the allegations against Singer and his recent on-set behaviour, which seems to have finally ended his tendency to fail upward in Hollywood (‘Nobody Is Going to Believe You‘, by Alex French and Maximillian Potter, March 2019). It’s impossible to quantify how this situation impacted X-Men: Apocalypse, but one has to imagine the film would have been better served by a director who did his job properly and was not an alleged sex criminal.

X-Men: Apocalypse was not well-received upon its release, and its reputation has only grown worse over time. It spoiled the momentum of Fox’s X-Men series, although the studio would still release the instant-classic Logan (Mangold, 2017) and the well-received Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018) in the following years. In retrospect, Apocalypse was the death knell of the X-Men team films. Three years later, most of the main cast returned for Dark Phoenix, but the shockingly paltry box office of that film demonstrated that Apocalypse has killed off nearly all interest in further X-Men films. At the box office, Apocalypse made $155 million in North America, selling 37% fewer tickets than Days of Future Past. Worldwide, it dropped 27% from its predecessor to $544 million.

Now that Fox is owned by Disney, and the X-Men will likely appear next in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, X-Men fans can only hope that a reboot will finally deliver a consistent, faithful adaptation of the property that is worthy of the comics. By destroying the series, Apocalypse cleared the way for Disney to do just that. Maybe Apocalypse was right, maybe you need to destroy this world so you can build a better one.

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan appears in front of his own house hugging his real wife, Joan B. Lee, as they watch the nuclear missiles launched by Apocalypse. That is 27 cameos in 41 films.

Credits Scene(s): After the credits, a team of men enter the Alkali Lake facility to take a test tube containing Wolverine’s blood. It’s Bryan Singer placed in an “Essex Corp” briefcase, indicating that possibly Mr. Sinister would appear in a future in future X-Men or Wolverine films. Like so many things in Apocalypse, this does not pay off.

First Appearances: Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all returned for Dark Phoenix, because no one knew the series was already dead

Next Time: The MCU gets magical, interdimensional, astral and, well, just plain Strange.