X-Men: Apocalypse: The End is the Beginning is the End, by Tyler Smith
An odd thing has happened. While everybody was concerned about Batman fighting Superman and the Marvel heroes engaging in a Civil War, Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn were quietly re-energizing the flagging X-Men series. With the decent X-Men: First Class acting as a soft reboot and the effective X-Men: Days of Future Past passing the torch from the older generation of performers to the new, the series has been revitalized. Of course, it seems strange to consider this a small development, as each film has destroyed its competition at the box office. But, somehow – likely due to the proliferation of the Marvel films – the X-Men series still manages to be a forgotten cousin, of sorts; highly anticipated and thoroughly enjoyed, then quickly pushed aside. With Singer’s new entry in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse, the reboot is finally completed and the series poised to continue indefinitely. While Apocalypse is hardly a perfect film, I find myself excited to see where the series goes from here.
The film picks up ten years after Days of Future Past, with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) living quietly with his new family in his native Poland, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) running a successful school for mutants. Meanwhile, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) continues her quest to rescue enslaved mutants and fight against oppression, albeit on a small scale. Things seem to be going well, until the world’s first mutant, a would-be Egyptian god named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), is awaked from his 10,000-year slumber. En Sabah Nur – better known as Apocalypse – surveys this new world and is disgusted. He immediately begins recruiting misfit mutants to join him in his conquest of the world. As Magneto is soon stripped of everything he loves, the destruction of the world holds a great deal of appeal, and he is once again at odds with Xavier and his students.
Stories like this have never really been the X-Men series’ strong suit, especially when it includes a Big Bad. The series is always at its best when engaging with the different philosophies of how to fight against humans’ oppression of mutants. Xavier desires peace and understanding between the two groups, attempting to use his school as a jumping off point for a more tolerant world. Magneto, on the other hand, has seen just how lethal human intolerance can be, and has always preferred offense to defense. We naturally side with Xavier, but things get uncomfortable when Magneto is proven right time after time.
This is what the X-Men series has always been about, and why I find it so much more engaging than, for example, the most recent Avengers film, which gave the appearance of exploring different philosophies, but soon fell into its standard formula. And X-Men: Apocalypse is, as always, at its most effective when it allows Magneto and Xavier to confront one another; two dear friends with a similar goal, but two wildly different beliefs on how best to achieve it. One of the faults of the series has been to let itself get distracted by the dark charisma of Wolverine, leaving the other characters behind. But, with the new films, the ensemble nature of the X-Men is largely preserved, with Xavier and Magneto rightly serving as our protagonists.
This does mean that not every character in X-Men: Apocalypse is fully developed. But, as many of them are being introduced (or, in some cases, re-introduced), the fuller development will hopefully come in later films. Specific exceptions to this are Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), whose powers and inner strength are quickly moved to the forefront of the story, and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose eagerness to please denotes an innocence that we naturally want to protect. A bit of time is also set aside to re-introduce Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), whose destructive powers make him unable to live a normal life, and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who is once again given the best sequence in the film.
Where the film falls short, unfortunately, is in the character of Apocalypse himself. For people like me, who grew up reading X-Men comics, Apocalypse is a legendarily-powerful character. Everything about him – from design to temperament to abilities – makes him a constant and almost indestructible threat. And he, too, has a philosophy, which is that only the strong should survive. This belief informs every master plan, every word spoken. He should be the X-Men’s most dangerous opponent, but the film treats him as generic and, sadly, unintimidating. Oscar Isaac does what he can to lend weight to the character, but he lacks the proper grandeur to play a character that is, for all intents and purposes, a god. And while the threat of the character comes through, he remains undefined and forgettable.
But, thankfully, the overall philosophical tension of the X-Men series is maintained, as Xavier and Magneto are moved squarely center stage. The climactic showdown is itself, at times, generic and over-reliant on the standard CG effects, but the seeds are sewn for the series to go any number of interesting places. So, as the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe trudge slowly and steadily towards a predetermined climax with the Infinity War films, the future of the X-Men series lay wide open, filled with possibilities, not all of them hopeful. Because, at the end of X-Men: Apocalypse, while it would at first appear that the film goes out on a note of triumph, there is an undeniable melancholy, as Xavier starts to take on a weariness not seen before, and his dream of a bright future begins to dim ever so slightly.