In the 1980s, the X-Men’s popularity led to a bunch of spinoff titles. The first batch included The New Mutants, which had a team of young trainees; Excalibur, a UK-based team; and X-Factor, a team that brought the original X-Men together (which required resurrecting Jean Grey). The latter had a mysterious foe dogging them, who was eventually revealed to be an ancient mutant known as Apocalypse. Created by Louise Simonson, Apocalypse was the bad guy in a bunch of the seemingly infinite number of crossover comics series that they did in the mutant titles, including the alternate-history crossover “Age of Apocalypse.”
He was a natural choice for a villain in an X-Men movie, and sure enough, they did one in 2016.
With the success of the “prequel” X-films, they decided to keep the theme going and jump another ten years, with a film that would truly show the final forming of the X-Men that we saw the mature versions of in X-Men back in 2000. This 1983-based film would have younger versions of the characters we knew from the more recent films, as well as several characters returning from the previous two films.
Among those returning from Days of Future Past are the big three of James McAvoy as Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Hugh Jackman returns for a cameo as the Weapon X version of Wolverine. And we’ve got Nicholas Hoult as the Beast, Lucas Till as Havok, Evan Peters as Quicksilver, and Josh Helman as Stryker. Also back from First Class is Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggart.
We meet younger iterations of several of the characters previously seen as adults: Tye Sheridan plays the young Cyclops (previously played by Tim Pocock in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and as an adult by James Marsden in four other films), Sophie Turner plays the young Jean Grey (previously played by Haley Ramm in The Last Stand, and as an adult by Famke Janssen in five other films), Alexandra Shipp plays the young Storm (previously played as an adult by Halle Berry in four other films), and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays the young Nightcrawler (previously played as an adult by Alan Cumming in X2).
New to this film are Oscar Isaac as En Sabah Nur, a.k.a. Apocalypse, Ben Hardy as a winged character called Angel who does not appear to be Warren Worthington III (for one thing, his wings have talons; for another, he’s killed), Olivia Munn as Psylocke, Tómas Lemarquis as Caliban, Monique Ganderton as Death, and Željko Ivanek as a Pentagon scientist.
Bryan Singer returned to direct the film, and he helped put the story together. Simon Kinberg—who also cowrote The Last Stand and Days of Future Past—wrote the script off that story. Kinberg—who is also one of the producers of the X-films now—will both write and direct Dark Phoenix in 2019. At present, McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Hoult, Sheridan, Turner, Shipp, Smit-McPhee, Peters, and Munn are said to be returning in Dark Phoenix as well.
“It’s all of us against a god!”
Written by Simon Kinberg & Bryan Singer & Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Directed by Bryan Singer
Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Bryan Singer and Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker
Original release date: May 27, 2016
In ancient Egypt, roughly 3600 BCE, En Sabah Nur rules. He is a mutant, able to transfer his consciousness into a fresh body when he wears one out. In the midst of one transfer—the only time he’s vulnerable—a coup is engaged among his slaves. His pyramid is destroyed, and Nur is buried. However, one of his horsemen—Death—is able to use the powers Nur granted her to protect him from being crushed. However, he remains buried for 5600 years.
In 1983, CIA Agent Moira MacTaggart is investigating a cult that has built up around Nur, which is trying to resurrect him. She tracks down an underground lair where that resurrection actually happens, and MacTaggart barely escapes with her life.
Nur wanders the streets of Cairo, saving a young mutant thief named Ororo from having her hand cut off by her victims—those victims are, instead, killed brutally by Nur, who then boosts Ororo’s weather-controlling powers (which also turns her hair white). Ororo also points to a poster of Mystique, whom she considers a hero to all mutants.
For her part, Mystique doesn’t want to be a hero. She has been covertly rescuing mutants who are in trouble all over the world, and avoiding appearing in her natural form, not because she’s ashamed, but because she doesn’t want the adulation that now comes with it. In Berlin, she saves Kurt Wagner from a cage-match situation, where he’s fighting a winged mutant called Angel.
Magneto is living a peaceful life in a small town in Poland under an assumed name. He has married and has a child. He works at a smelting factory, and on the job, he is forced to use his powers to save a coworker’s life. Fearing for the life of him and his family, they pack to leave—Magneto is an international terrorist after trying to kill President Nixon ten years earlier. However, the local police find him and confront him (leaving their badges and guns home, armed only with bows and arrows). His daughter uses her own nascent powers (involving communicating with birds) to menace the cops, and one accidentally shoots an arrow that impales both Magneto’s wife and daughter. Magneto then murders all the cops.
Mystique brings Wagner to Caliban, who relocates mutants for a fee. Caliban tells her that he heard that Magneto was in Poland. Mystique recruits Wagner to teleport her there, but she’s too late.
Havok has a young teenaged brother, Scott Summers, who is also a mutant—in the middle of a school day, red beams of force fire from his eyes, and he can’t control it. The only thing that stops them is his eyelids. Havok takes his brother to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, which is now a full-time school for training young mutants in how to use their abilities. Summers meets several other students and teachers, including McCoy (who has a fun reunion with Havok) and a redhead telepath/telekinetic named Jean Grey. Xavier takes Summers in, and McCoy fashions him a pair of glasses made of ruby quartz that hold his optic blasts in check.
Xavier has been using Cerebro to keep tabs on MacTaggart, which is actually pretty creepy. But he sees that she was in Cairo investigating Nur, and he and Havok go to Langley to consult with her. MacTaggart is thrilled to meet Xavier, because, of course, he erased her memory of him. They learn that Nur, according to legend, has been around a long time, may be the first mutant, and often has four powered beings as his “horsemen.” MacTaggart theorizes that he inspired the Bible story of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Having failed to get to Magneto in time, Mystique brings Wagner to Xavier’s to tell him what happened. Wagner meets Summers and Grey and the three of them decide to go into town to see a movie. (They see Return of the Jedi, all agreeing that The Empire Strikes Back is the best film, and commenting that the third movie always sucks, har har.)
Maximoff has learned in the last ten years that Magneto is actually his father. He decides he needs to know more, and so digs up the bedraggled business card he got from Xavier a decade previous and heads to Westchester.
Xavier uses Cerebro to track down Magneto, but Nur has found him first. Nur has already recruited a mutant named Psylocke and the Angel as two more Horsemen, and Magneto is his fourth. His already-considerable powers supercharged by Nur, Magneto destroys Auschwitz, which proves rather cathartic.
When Xavier links with Magneto via Cerebro, Nur is able to follow that link back to Xavier. He teleports to the mansion and kidnaps Xavier. Havok tries to stop him, but he instead causes an explosion, er, somehow. Luckily, he does so just when Maximoff arrives, so he’s able to use his super speed to save everyone. Unluckily, he doesn’t arrive until Havok himself is vaporized in the explosion.
By a startling coinky-dink, Stryker arrives just then and knocks everyone out with a concussive blast—the only ones he misses are Summers, Grey, and Wagner, who are just returning from their movie. Stryker takes McCoy, Mystique, Maximoff, and MacTaggart, leaving the others behind.
Wagner is able to teleport himself, Summers, and Grey onto Stryker’s helicopter, while Grey telepathically keeps them from being detected. They fly to Alkali Base, where the trio work to try to free them—including freeing “Weapon X” from his cell. Logan, now with metal claws, makes short work of the guards. Grey is able to calm him and remove his bionic implants before he runs off into the woods.
Nur uses Xavier to broadcast a message to the entire world, and then has Magneto first launch every nuclear weapon in the world into space (we see several people watch this event, including a couple who look just like Stan and Joan Lee). However, Xavier also managed to sneak a telepathic message to Grey giving her his location.
Once all the mutants are freed from Stryker’s cell, they proceed to Cairo to rescue Xavier in a plane. Mystique waxes nostalgic about the first time she, Havok, Banshee, McCoy, Xavier, and Magneto went out as “X-Men” to fight the Hellfire Club two movies ago.
Magneto starts trashing the world’s infrastructure. Nur starts the process of transferring himself to Xavier—a process that removes all of Xavier’s hair—and then Wagner is able to teleport him away before it can be finished. Psylocke and Angel attack the plane our heroes are using, but Wagner gets Xavier and MacTaggart out before it crashes—Psylocke also saves herself, but Angel is killed.
Ororo attacks Summers and McCoy, while Maximoff and Mystique go after Magneto. Ororo is devastated to realize that her personal hero, Mystique, is fighting against Nur, and she starts to reconsider her position.
Mystique convinces Magneto not to keep working for Nur, and they all turn on him. Magneto, Summers, and Ororo fight Nur physically, while Xavier and Grey attack him on the astral plane. Eventually, Nur is defeated. Xavier restores MacTaggart’s memories, apologizing for erasing them in the first place. Grey and Magneto are able to reconstruct the school, but Magneto declines Xavier’s offer to stay and help him run it.
Xavier finally comes around to Mystique’s notion that he should revive the “X-Men” in addition to the school, and so he forms a new team: Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops, Ororo, a.k.a. Storm, Maximoff, a.k.a Quicksilver, Wagner, a.k.a Nightcrawler, and their field leader Mystique.
At Alkali Base, people in suits from the Essex Corporation arrive and confiscate a vial of Logan’s blood.
“The weak have taken the Earth”
I have to say up front that I have never liked the character of Apocalypse.
Part of it is the character started out as a villain in X-Factor, a comic book I have always found offensive, despicable, and wretched, at least in its early days.
A bit of a fannish digression here: X-Factor was created, as stated above, to bring the original X-Men back together. There are several problems with this notion:
1) It required resurrecting Jean Grey, thus reversing one of the most powerful comic books in Marvel’s entire history, Grey’s death in Uncanny X-Men #137. (Having said that, the actual method of resurrecting her, conceived by Kurt Busiek and executed by Roger Stern and John Byrne in the pages of Avengers #263 and Fantastic Four #286, respectively, was actually quite clever.)
2) By bringing Grey back, it required Scott Summers to not just leave the X-Men, but also to leave behind his wife and child, as in the interim he’d married a woman named Madelyne Pryor and had a child with her. While Pryor was later revealed to be a clone of Grey created by Mr. Sinister, and was transformed into the Goblin Queen to fight the X-Men, that doesn’t change the fact that the creation of X-Factor turned one of Marvel’s most noble heroes into a person who would abandon his family (including an infant child who was later kidnapped and sent to a dystopian future, eventually coming back in time and becoming Cable).
3) Beast, Angel, and Iceman were part of the Defenders, and so The New Defenders—a book that, in the hands of the creative team of Peter B. Gillis, Don Perlin, and Kim DeMulder, was one of the finest comics Marvel was producing at the time—was cancelled to make way for X-Factor.
4) The concept of X-Factor initially was that they would pose as mutant hunters who would be hired to capture mutants and bring them to their facility. In truth, they were rescuing those mutants secretly, but the concept is akin to Jews pretending to be Nazis, or African-Americans pretending to be part of the Ku Klux Klan. While they might do some good for individual mutants, they’re leaning into the discrimination against mutants and making things worse.
5) Everyone at Marvel forgot that the original X-Men were not popular. The book didn’t take off until the team was overhauled. Prior to that, it was the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel Universe, cancelled after 66 issues and relegated to reprints and occasional guest appearances.
Tellingly, X-Factor never kept a concept for more than a couple of years, as it was constantly being revamped, and it wasn’t long before the whole original-X-Men thing was (thankfully) abandoned.
But one big part of the early, awful days of X-Factor was Apocalypse, who was a spectacularly uninteresting villain. He was extremely powerful but with no real personality beyond megalomania. The best villains have some kind of personality trait that allows you ingress to them as characters—Magneto’s tragic backstory, Dr. Doom’s arrogance, Loki’s cunning, and so on. Apocalypse doesn’t have any of that, he’s just a really powerful blue dude.
This movie doubles down on the boring, as En Sabah Nur as played by Oscar Isaac is quite possibly the most uninteresting antagonist in this entire rewatch. We have no idea what his motivation is, no idea why he does what he does, no idea how he does what he does, he just, y’know, does it ’cause he’s evil and stuff.
On top of that, his actual threats are remarkably bloodless. We see Nur fire missiles into space, we see Magneto destroying property and bridges and things, but we get absolutely no sense of the danger to people. Every battle we see is in an inexplicably abandoned location. We see bridges and buildings destroyed, but get absolutely no indication of consequences. The closest we come is Havok’s death and the destruction of the X-mansion, but the latter is effortlessly rebuilt by Magneto and Grey at the film’s end as if nothing has happened.
This may be the most lifeless movie of Bryan Singer’s directorial career. There’s no excitement, no verve, no joy in it, and very little emotion. Most of the latter comes from Michael Fassbender, who absolutely sells Magneto’s anguish when he loses his family in Poland. It’s also visually repetitive, as the rescue of mutants from Stryker’s clutches is a less exciting rehash of the similar rescue in X2.
No effort is made to make Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, or Lucas Till look twenty years older than they were in First Class. No effort is made to make Summers’s transition from whiny teenager to future leader of the team in any way convincing. No effort is made by Sophie Turner to actually make Grey a compelling character. She’s supposed to be a struggling, tormented young woman, but she comes across instead as someone acting in a high school play who just wants opening night to be, like, over so she can go hang out with her friends. (Her performance, which is totally lacking in all luster, does not bode well for her upcoming focus in Dark Phoenix.)
Singer’s first X-film was one of the best superhero films ever done at the time it was made, the vanguard of a revolution in the subgenre that we’re still enjoying the fruits of eighteen years later. His last X-film (Simon Kinberg is scheduled to direct as well as write the next one) is one of the most bland and dull, two words I wouldn’t use to describe any of Singer’s other films (except maybe his first, Public Access). Even the wrongheaded Superman Returns was better than this dud.
After two promising films that indicated a return to glory for the X-films, the third film spit the bit. History does, indeed, repeat itself sometimes…
Next week we’ve got a special thing for the end of the calendar year. While this rewatch is firmly ensconced in the 21st century, there are a couple of 20th-century comic book hero movies your humble rewatcher overlooked. As we bid adieu to 2018, we’ll also be looking at a few older films. On Wednesday the 26th, we’ll examine 1985’s Red Sonja, followed by Dick Tracy from 1990 on Thursday the 27th, and finally on Friday the 28th we’ll take a gander at the Men in Black trilogy (1997-2012).
Keith R.A. DeCandido wishes everybody the happiest of holidays.