I got home from seeing the latest installment in the X-Men franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse, about an hour ago. I haven’t really written a straight review of anything before (and this doesn’t qualify as one anyway), but given the fact that I’ve turned myself into a little newbie comic blogger I felt the siren song of the Internet calling for my opinions. So here they are, my immediate thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse (presented, spoiler-free!), the X-Men film series as a whole, and a bit on comic book movies in general.
Let’s begin here – the X-Men movies are not now, nor have they ever been, my favorite comic book adaptations. I loved the comics as a kid and I respect them a great deal as an adult (as I’ve written about here) but the films have never hit me in the same way. To be fair, all comic book movie-goers owe Bryan Singer a debt. He ushered in the modern age of comic book movies with 2000’s X-Men. But before that, superheroes in the cinema were exceptions to the rule. Superman was flying around in the 70’s and 80’s and Batman showed up for awhile too…before fading away after a notorious nippled bat suit (which wasn’t the weirdest thing about Batman & Robin). But then Bryan Singer brought us all to 1407 Graymalkin Lane so we could enter Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Two years later Sam Raimi would make Spider-Man, a film startling close to the source material! I was super excited to see X-Men but I left Spider-Man in awe that the stories I loved as a kid could now live on at my local movie theatre. In 2005, Christopher Nolan returned Batman to a respectable position with Batman Begins (and made an artistic masterpiece three years later with The Dark Knight). And of course the cinematic landscape would change forever with the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 with Robert Downey Jr.’s character defining turn in Iron Man. And now it feels like we have six to ten superhero blockbusters coming out every year.
But before Bryan Singer, that wasn’t the case. Now my issues with the X-Men films came from my own expectations more than anything to do with the films themselves. And I’ve found a way around my problems. As long as you don’t expect the X-Men films to have any sort of continuity with the comics (or even the other films in the series) then you’ll be fine. The stories that run through the eight films in the series (I’m intentionally leaving Deadpool out because I don’t find any of the struggles I have with the rest of the franchise in that film) are loosely connected at best.
I mean, okay, Days Of Future Past dealt with time travel right? And when you meddle in the time stream things change. That’s only logical. But are we really supposed to believe that one action by Mystique in 1973 affects everything about the Dark Phoenix event, when the X-Men meet Nightcrawler, Wolverine’s experience of the Weapon X program, when and how Charles and Eric meet Jean Grey for the first time, etc. and so on? And this is just one continuity issue. But I don’t want to pick all this apart. Like I said, I honestly don’t think about those problems anymore. If something connects correctly, yay! If not, who cares? I don’t worry about it and as a result enjoy the films for what they are. That’s all we can expect from the X-Men movies. And looking at them in that light, they can be pretty fun comic book movies if done right!
I’m happy to say that, in my opinion at least, X-Men: Apocalypse is one of the right ones. It appears Bryan Singer has been watching all of the MCU’s Avengers movies and taking notes. This was the first X-Men movie that truly felt like a team film. Each character had a point, purpose, and a meaningful story arc which was refreshing. The comic always does a brilliant job of presenting this wild, eclectic team of misfits but, in the movies, they often feel like background set pieces for Wolverine’s latest adventure (not that I’m complaining mind you! I love me some Wolverine/Hugh Jackman! But Cyclops is the leader of the X-Men…he needs to have a substantial role in the film and at least have a relationship with Wolvie comparable to what we see between Cap and Iron Man in The Avengers).
Another strength of the film (and perhaps something else they are taking note of from the MCU) is how much fun it is. There is emotional weight. There is danger. But the characters are endearing and humorous (at the right moments) and watching their interactions made for a fun afternoon at the movies. Plus we have more Quicksilver! Who isn’t going to love a little more time with Peter doing his thing??
The greatest strength of the film though was the relationship between Charles and Erik – especially in regard to Erik’s character. The tension that should exist between these two men should be fraught with complicated layers. Magneto isn’t supposed to simply be the super villain to Professor X’s super hero. Sure, it may play out that way sometimes but that’s not the point. Rather they are presenting two very different visions of the future. Charles advocates peaceful coexistence on the planet while Erik, shaped by his experience during the Holocaust, is preparing for a war he feels is inevitable. It shouldn’t be a battle between hero and villain but rather a battle of perspectives. Who is right? Can we live in peace? Or are we wired to fight and exterminate that which we see as different? They are questions as anchored in biology and sociology as they are theology and philosophy.
The problem with this though is how Erik is (usually) presented in the films. He comes off (especially in this First Class series) as being a bit of a tool. He’s a close-minded, angry, reactionary, violent, arrogant ass. You can’t experience the real struggle between the opposing viewpoints of violence and nonviolence when all you can focus on is Magneto being an asshat. In Captain America: Civil War, much of the film’s brilliance lies in how both Cap and Iron Man are right and wrong in their perspectives. You can see both sides. As a result, it prompts a lot of serious introspection and some great debates too. But I’ve never really found an X-Men film that can give me that experience.
X-Men: Apocalypse however is a different story. We finally find Erik to be a truly sympathetic character. While we might not agree with his actions we can understand and sympathize with his motivations. This brings an emotional weight and struggle to the story that elevates it above both X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days Of Future Past…at least for me. Now, as a viewer, I can finally appreciate Raven’s struggle. I can empathize with her being pulled in two directions, between Erik and Charles. Raven can then represent the struggle we all must face in our own lives, between violence and nonviolence. What path do we choose? And how do we live it in the world?
Of course I was excited to see Apocalypse finally arrive on the big screen – especially since I knew “Apocalypse” as a villain long before I understood what the word meant. The theology behind the character and the name brings some implications I wish would have been more fully explored by the characters. Apocalypse seems to understand himself as (to invert a classic Bill Murray quote from Groundhog Day) not a god but the God. That has a huuuuuuge range of theological implications that is never really touched on. Is this character what we’ve come to know as God? Is it a delusion of grandeur? What do the X-Men, the Horsemen, and the human race make of this assertion? Where does he come from? What is he? Sadly, we don’t ever find out in any concrete way.
Missed opportunities included, X-Men: Apocalypse was still a solid use of my time on the last day of my long weekend – which says something right there. As X-Men movies go, it was fun. I think it might even hold up one as of my favorites. Did I like it as much as X2: X-Men United and The Wolverine? No. But after my first viewing I can see it settling into a more frequent place in my rewatch cycle than the other films in the series (with X-Men: First Class being a possible exception). I never go into the X-Men movies expecting MCU level quality or even basic continuity within the series, but it’s a great X-Men film all the same.