‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ Is a Messy Film Trying to Say Something about God
During one memorable scene in Bryan Singer’s new mutant spectacle, X-Men: Apocalypse, Erik Lehnsherr screams in rage at the sky. Looking to escape the public reputation he garnered in the final act of Days of Future Past, Erik (played by the poised Michael Fassbender) again finds himself at odds with society. When tragedy breaks his anonymity, he lashes at the divine, seeking an answer for his pain and suffering. As the camera briefly peers down from above, taking the perspective of God, the mutant best known as Magneto cries, “Is this what you want from me? Is this what I am?”Victory is not achieved through mere power, but because others are willing to sacrifice for those they care about. God didn’t answer our prayers; the X-Men did.
While previous installments of the X-Men cinematic franchise center on humanity’s troubled relationship with mutants—the series acting as a loose metaphor for racism, sexuality, and the AIDS crisis (see my previous Christ and Pop Culture article)—Apocalypse shifts its focus to the mutants themselves. What are we to make of these “deities?” And how do they play a part in the eternal destiny of civilization? With characters ruminating about God, prayer, and the problem of evil, it’s all surprisingly metaphysical and religious—even if Singer doesn’t quite know how to juggle all of these inquiries into more than overused CGI manifestations.
Correlating with the narrative’s divine thrust, Apocalypse settles on the most powerful demigod in Marvel’s X-Men universe as its villain. En Sabah Nur (AKA Apocalypse) is a baddie of our childish nightmares, calmly gliding through his scenes garbed in multilayers of ghoulish purple and blue prosthetics. Oscar Isaac is hiding under the thick array, doing his best to endue his character with allure and emotion (even if it is against the wishes of his screenwriters). Apocalypse’s abilities allow him to transfer his consciousness to other mutants, providing him with both immortality and their powers, which he accumulates with each reincarnation. When the film begins in ancient Egypt, Apocalypse is already nearly unstoppable and, save for a rebellion that traps him underneath a mountain of rubble for a few millennia, on the verge of ruling the planet.
With the obligatory villain backstory in place, Apocalypse’s opening credits shoot us through a wormhole-sketch of history from the 36th century BC to 1983, when the film is set. Sliding its way through bright colors and patterns, an image of Jesus is later followed by Nazi and Soviet Union symbols. These are all kingdoms—some spiritual, some earthly—and represent humanity’s pursuit of meaning, purpose, and protection over the centuries. As the parade of symbolism draws closer to the modern era, we’re encouraged to wonder: are mutants next?
Splashing to well-known 80s tracks and Michael Jackson jackets, Apocalypse rests ten years after the fantastic Days of Future Past. Society’s erected a quasi-truce with the mutant community after Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) saved President Nixon from Magneto. Lawrence’s layered expressions visualize Mystique’s averseness to her status as a hero, but her actions at a dark East Berlin fight club early in the film seem to suggest that she hasn’t given up being a vigilante. For Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), our soon-to-be-smooth-headed protagonist and once leader of the X-Men, harmony has provided an opportunity to again open his doors for gifted youngsters. For the time being, peace looks good on these mutants.
Apocalypse sees the series finally land a coherent excuse to its habitual continuity problems—the time travel narrative in Days of Future Past altered the timeline set out by previous X-Men films, giving the narrative unapologetic freedom to fiddle with the histories of previously-established personalities. Cyclops, Jean Gray, Storm, and Nightcrawler are the young, hesitant 80s versions of their future selves. Their performers (Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Alexandra Shipp, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively) show talent and charisma, and they provide a lively, adjusted entry into their characters’ diverse backstories. (We also get to see another X-Men favorite in the middle of the film, but I won’t spoil that here.)
All this makes for good fun, for a time; during its first few bites, Apocalypse keeps its material close, only occasionally substituting large scale action behemoths for what feel like some of the finer moments of the series. The already mentioned imprecatory lament from Magneto is striking and emotional, as is Scott Summers (Cyclops) and his blooming relationship with Jean Gray. Dashing to the sounds of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) slow-motion tear stands as the film’s best sequence, upstaging almost everything that comes before or after. This is a serious franchise that’s not afraid to mix business with pleasure.
But such glimmers of intrigue fade as the film trudges forward into its 144-minute runtime. Apocalypse’s second and third act miscues range from minor to systemic. It’s not as narratively clunky as Batman v. Superman, but not as coherent or well-directed as Captain America: Civil War; instead, it nestles squarely between both, generously swapping their weaknesses and strengths from scene to scene. When the final world-threatening climactic sequence eventually reaches our eyes, there’s not much fortitude left. We’ve seen this before; we’ve seen it this summer.
Though that’s not to say Apocalypse doesn’t find at least one patch of land where it can till new ground: God. In the years since Days of Future Past, mutant cults became all the rage. These cults see human evolution as “some kind of second coming, or sign of God.” Fear worms its way into worship within popular society and, in a somewhat mythical shift, this worship indirectly leads to the awakening of En Sabah Nur—the most powerful “god” of all.
Following his resurrection, Apocalypse studies the state of humanity via the signal of a tube television set. Sifting through current and past events, Apocalypse views human progress as a false god, an idol. For all of humanity’s advancements in technology and humanistic thought, evil still abounds. Apocalypse, seeing himself as a universal Lawgiver whom time has forgotten, resolves to cleanse the world. “Elohim, Shin, Ra,” he claims. “I have been called many things over many lifetimes.”
This is where the film’s biggest surprise comes: X-Men: Apocalypse probably references the Bible more than the average “faith-based film.” When CIA agent Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) explains how Apocalypse always enlists the help of four other subordinates or disciples, Havoc (Lucas Till) recalls the book of Revelation: “Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” he says. “He got that one from the Bible.” “Or the Bible got it from him,” Moira says with a simmer.
Apocalypse also calls his fellow mutants “children,” claiming that as their heavenly father, he’ll build them a better future, a new world. When Apocalypse recruits Erik, he promises to be the God that will make up for the one he blames for his suffering. He will be society’s theodicy. In an allusion to Jesus’ calling of Andrew in John 1:39, when Apocalypse reveals his powers to Magneto, he confidently boasts, “Come and see.”
References like these make for an intriguing, though muddled, question from an overhyped summer blockbuster about the benefit and role of a Supreme Being: “Does divinity come from the sky,” Apocalypse asks, “or are we our own best bet for peace?”
The answer is tricky, and the film rudimentarily visualizes two camps. The Catholic Nightcrawler prays to a Father he believes eclipses Apocalypse; “Listen to my prayer,” he pleads on the way to battle. “By the grace of God,” says one newscaster later. “I think our prayers were answered,” exclaims another. But the film seems insistent that the real hero here is human progress rather than celestial oversight—a rather predictable response, and none too satisfying. During the film’s climactic struggle, an “X” is made in front of Apocalypse—a symbol to the team’s unity. “You’re just another false god,” Xavier says to Apocalypse. Victory is not achieved through mere power, but because others are willing to sacrifice for those they care about. God didn’t answer our prayers; the X-Men did.
Yet even this answer is self-contradictory—or at least more complicated than the film lets on. There is a reason many of the X-Men films (this one included) revisit, both figuratively and literally, Erik’s dark past as a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz. To Erik, the Holocaust represents the worst humanity has to offer; he can’t ignore his origins and often battles with Xavier over the issue of humanity’s capacity for change. Erik may be misguided in his efforts, but we can’t help but think that he’s at least a little right. Maybe that’s why Singer states that Erik is “searching for God” throughout the film. Maybe this is why he is the only character to acknowledge the metaphysical realm. Maybe Xavier’s faith in humanity is too optimistic. Does Erik think peace is only possible with help from the outside, or at least from a mutant styled as a god?
At the end of the film, we are left with an image of various mutants preparing to become staples on the newly organized X-Men team. In Days of Future Past, the X-Men defeated the sentinel program designed to exterminate all mutants, but here they are, training to fight against those same sentinels again. The past is thought to be changed, but the team can never be sure. Evil doesn’t disappear so easily. As the screen cuts to black, we, like the X-Men, must also answer the age old question about humanity’s ability to defeat evil: can we really change the future on our own?
If the never-ending parade of earth-shattering superhero sequels offer any indication, the answer is probably “No.”
I believe that “Come and see” is a reference to the 1985 movie by the same name ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091251 ) by Elem Klimov.
“‘By the grace of God,’ says one newscaster later. ‘I think our prayers were answered,’ exclaims another. But the film seems insistent that the real hero here is human progress rather than celestial oversight—a rather predictable response, and none too satisfying”
But are the two always and only mutually exclusive? Might not human progress and achievement be seen as gifts of God?
I don’t have all the answers, but I think the film’s messiness — and, no doubt, it’s there; not only in the issues you raise, but also in its treatment of some women characters (inventing Magneto’s daughter and wife only to kill them “because plot”), and in its casting of a big (albeit blue) Egyptian/African as the baddie, and everyone being cool that Cairo had to die for the world to be saved — is also going to offer a lot to think about on further viewings. Lots of fans seem disappointed by this entry, but I found it, warts and all, engrossing and entertaining and ambitious.
Which brings me back to the question of God’s grace vs. our progress. I don’t believe we should pin all our hopes on human progress; however, might not the “X” the mutants stake in front of Apocalypse suggest that all our human “X”s of progress and accomplishment ultimately derive whatever good they do from God’s great and gracious “X” of the cross?
I never tire of strewing this quote from Karl Barth around the internet; it seems like it might be germane here, too. From his “The Theology of John Calvin” — “LAST things do not take place on earth, and yet why should not LITTLE things and even GREAT things do so? Why should we not be allowed to believe that great things may also take place in history?” (p. 94)
Why shouldn’t Nightcrawler pray the Our Father even as he is taking active action himself to deliver the world from evil?
I really did like your review! Definitely got me thinking. Thanks for it!
Thank you for the kind words, Michael. I think you’re right when you say this: “But are the two always and only mutually exclusive? Might not human progress and achievement be seen as gifts of God?”
I’m just hesitant to believe the film digs into this type of complexity. It’s seems to favor a simplistic answer instead. However, this is something I’ll want to mull over.
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