This is certainly a peculiar year for the superhero genre. Batman Vs. Superman seems to have been a spectacular misfire. Everyone jumped for joy over Captain America: Civil War, but it left me rather cold and ineffectual by the end (see here for my thoughts). And now X-Men Apocalypse arrives, with an oddly muted procession, as critics tear into it for being overstuffed, overfilled, overlong, everything ramped up to 11 at the expense of any coherence really. Many are also using this as a jumping off point to attack Bryan Singer, the director of X-Men, X2/X-Men 2, co wrote and co produced X-Men: First Class, and directed X-Men: Days Of Future Past. The man who helmed the foundations that were laid to our current superhero saturated film world, is being torn asunder as the wolves claim his skills are failing in what appears to be a flabby, mess of a superhero film.
Naturally, I disagree.
My time with X-Men Apocalypse was one of genuine delight. In fact I think it is easily the best superhero film I’ve seen in a very long time. Just bluntly, it lives up to its title. Unlike so many of its genre fare, since it is set up about the apocalypse, its scenes of gratuitous destruction and havoc are entirely justified, giving the setting of the story. I’m not a fan of disaster porn, and if this classifies, it’s easily the most high concept, highly intelligent disaster porn to come around in a while.
Two things occur which influence my judgement. One, I have seen all the previous X-Men films, a feat which helps to explain what the hell is going on, because unlike the self-contained stories found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the links are rarely sequential and usually tangential, this film simply doesn’t make much sense if you this is the point you jump into the water. Two, the film harkens to an incredibly ancient trope, one which is being impounded in favour of nitty-gritty realism a la Civil War.
This film is about myths. More importantly, it’s about Gods. Plural.
The final thing influencing my thoughts on the film is that in college I studied The Iliad, and it wasn’t hard to see the rich line of history present in this work, even if no one else did (seems unlikely).
In the Western world of modernity, God has become entirely synonymous with a monotheistic, Christian God. Before Christianity became the dominant force in the ring however, the practice of pantheism was everywhere, of believing in a multitude of Gods, often symbolising different aspects of the human experience, stretching from the Celtic and Wiccan traditions in the UK, to Ancient Greece and later Ancient Rome, to the Far East where both Hinduism and Japanese Shintoism are still actively practiced today (please note: I’m massively oversimplifying and generalising pantheism and paganism to make this point, to look into more detail on these subjects please look elsewhere).
The X-Men may not be worshipped like Gods (although superheroes certainly are venerated today), but they act like the Gods of mythology. They clash, brawl, love and most importantly, are NOT omnipotent. They are simply the strongest. The Greek God’s spend their time fighting the Trojan War, they do not sit above it, impassive observers, they change and manipulate and are part of the events that unfold, they do not exist outside them.
The X-Men in this film come to fight Apocalypse (played by Oscar Isaacs) in a cataclysm. And what I really liked about it, is that unlike Civil War or Avengers (take your pick of either), not every hero is treated equally. Not every hero is giving the same amount of screen time, the same chance to shine, simply because not all of them are worthy of it.
An analogy to that is in The Iliad, an epic which contains hundreds of characters, but an extremely large portion of the epic is focused on Achilleus, why? Because his story is simply the one which is being told and thus the other characters serve the story. It’s an older structure of telling stories, not of letting plot take a back burner while we’re exposed to witty banter and kooky group hijinks, but a structural style of allowing the important figures to take the stage. Fans of the X-Men franchise have complained of the overfilled film, literally brimming with characters who show up for a few seconds here, a few lines here (Olivia Munn’s Psylocke falls victim to this) and apparently this is enough to deem criticism, simply because each character is not three-dimensional, fully developed etc. Why is that not done? Because it would be an exhausting, 8 and a half hour movie at least if you tried to set every hero involved on an equal plane.
Not every hero deserves to be set on an equal plane, but every hero is needed. In fact its a very true and powerful image of warfare, that everyone contributes to the war effort, and the very highest of us can’t succeed without the help of others.
This is best exemplified in the final scene of Apocalypse’s destruction (spoilers). Apocalypse is attacked by Storm, Cyclops, Magneto and probably some other names, while Xavier fights him inside his mind, and Jean Grey finally finishes him off. Jean Grey’s powerful, killing blast is the most powerful force, but it is still dependent on the very thing which sets them apart. A team of individuals who work with the same aim. This is the same thing which motivates The Avengers, but the difference here is that the fractures which plague the X-Men are deep philosophical crucibles of thought, and allow allegiances to shift and re-form. What does the genetic difference of the mutants mean for how they’re treated? Can they establish peace with a fundamentally different being? The ideas which divide The Avengers are egos and hastily formed ridiculous ideological differences which are so farcical it just doesn’t really hold the same, relatable yet superhuman depth that the moral dilemma of being a mutant holds.
I mean, look, the reasons I enjoy this film are incredibly high concept. I’m pretty sure I could easily throw it off as popcorn fodder (as Mark Kermode does here) and just simply throw off its density as an overcluttered, messy piece. But I don’t think it submits to that fatigue other superhero films often fall to, simply because it proportionally relates the importance of the character to the story to the amount of screen time, character depth and character development each person is given on-screen.
And personally I think it works. I think it’s a richly textured piece in terms of its universe and its story, and not trapped in the gaudy “HEY LOOK ITS THE 60s/70s” vibe the first two films had going on, where they had to recontextualise historical events just so the X-Men could fit in. The Gods fighting, using our world as a staging ground for their conflicts, is an archetype as old as time, and an incredibly powerful one at that Because we can see ourselves in them, something primordial, and we can latch onto the characters/personalities that we identify with, the traits we exemplify and wish to project onto the world.
And that’s what God’s do, they give us a vent for our ideas about who we should be.
(Minor notes: I enjoy watching films where the characters have genuine moral stances, rather than just reacting in a relativistic way to the world around them, so that might explain why I liked this one. I think Oscar Isaacs was good and so was his character, Quicksilver was once again the highlight of the film and his time stopping scene genuinely made me laugh out loud in public, and Olivia Munn distracted my teenage brain every time she appeared on-screen. It’s low-brow, but you gotta embrace the high and the low.)
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