Thursday, June 9, 2016

'X-Men: Apocalypse' Should Have Been All About the Ladies

If the past seven X-Men franchise films have taught us anything, it’s that ultimately there are only three characters who matter: Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto. Anyone else in the series, particularly the female characters and characters of color, is relegated to the background, to a supporting arc and to a minimal if even existent character development. Woohoo.

So it should come as no surprise that, once again, the only characters who matter in the entire world of mutant affairs are Professor X and Magneto. X-Men: Apocalypse might be a fun movie with lots of bright colors and a surprisingly coherent plot, but it’s also a reinforcement of the idea that the only people in this whole world worth paying attention to are the ones we’ve spent fifteen years now following around. I, for one, am ready for a change.

This is not to say that X-Men: Apocalypse is a bad movie, however. It’s certainly no Avengers: Age of Ultron, though it is definitely overstuffed with characters and plot. And it’s not an X-Men: Last Stand either – this is a movie that makes sense at least in the broad strokes and that has just enough plot and emotional investment to let you leave the theater feelings satisfied. 

But it’s also definitely not a good movie. It’s rather aggressively mediocre. The daring and challenging plots are ones that the film shies immediately away from, including every possibility that we could get a film not solely about our heroes of manpain. And given that this film introduces a number of compelling and awesome female characters, a lot of acrobatics were required in order to keep our plot squarely centered on Professor X and his metal-bending frenemy.

Before I complain thoroughly, though, let’s give a brief overview of what the movie is actually about. SPOILERS, even if you probably don’t care enough to check for them.

Taking place in the 1980s (and therefore twenty years after the events of X-Men: First Class, meaning that Charles and Erik should be in their fifties), X-Men: Apocalypse starts a look into the history of mutant-kind. Way back in Ancient Egypt*, mutants were worshipped as gods, particularly their leader, En Sabah Nur. 

Able to become immortal by switching bodies, En Sabah Nur and his followers are ambushed by their own human guards during a ritual and killed in a collapsing pyramid. Only En Sabah Nur survives, transferred into the body of Oscar Isaac and left in a mystical slumber until the magical pyramid thing can get some sunlight and complete the ritual.

Cut to the 1980s, where Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), intrepid CIA agent, follows a mutant-worshipping cult right to En Sabah Nur's resting place. And because she forgets to close the door behind her, sunlight streams in and wakes the false god, causing a shockwave to go throughout the entire world. Thanks to this inspired piece of writing, literally everything that happens from here on out is because Moira left a door open, a pretty accurate summary of how this movie feels about women.

Meanwhile, all our heroes in their various parts of the globe feel this shockwave and react accordingly. In the case of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), this means calming down his students and helping a teenaged Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) talk through her apocalyptic vision. For Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), they feel it as they flee the illegal mutant-fighting ring where Nightcrawler was kept captive. And for Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), it forces him to reveal his powers and totally wrecks his life.

Since positioning himself as the mutant terrorist threat to the world in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the great Magneto has been hiding in rural Poland, working in a refinery and living a shockingly domestic life. He has a wife, Magda (Carolina Bartczak), and a daughter, Nina (T.J. McGibbon), and they’re all adorable and happy and sweet. So sweet that we know without having to be told that these wonderful characters are going to be fridged for Erik’s manpain before we even get to the first act break.

Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens. Upon realizing that mild “Henryk” is actually the great Magneto, their neighbors react with suspicion and anger, accidentally killing his wife and child, and Erik responds by just murdering everyone. For En Sabah Nur - now calling himself Apocalypse - who is looking for angry mutant supremacists who he can bend to his will, this is like a perfect moment.

Which is how we get to the main battlelines of the film: Apocalypse and his “four horsemen” versus the X-Men and anyone else they could dig up before the battle. The plot twists and turns a few times, including a detour to the Weapon X program and a completely unnecessary Wolverine cameo, but eventually we get what we all paid for, a battle between good and evil completely destroying the city of Cairo.

Just another story about superhumans beating up other superhumans and leveling a major metropolitan area in the process, right? Well, yes. Like I said above, it’s a very entertaining movie, but not really a good one. All of this plot, the fridging and the manpain and the shoehorned romance, only serves to remind us of why this franchise desperately needs refreshing in the first place. But the glimpses we get, the moments of sheer female awesomeness and surprising plot elements, haunt us with the specter of a much better movie and a much better franchise.

In other words, give me a Mystique movie already.

Okay, so I’m definitely not the first person to point this out, but the X-Men movies really need to up their game when it comes to Jennifer Lawrence. Love her or hate her, you have to admit that in the years since she first signed on to the franchise, Lawrence’s star has risen a lot. She’s gone from a vaguely buzzy indie actress to a genuine movie star, making her ever more reluctant to go back and spend months of her life strapped into a makeup chair getting turned blue just so she can play “concerned female number three” in a series she’s never enjoyed much.

And who can blame her? X-Men: Days of Future Past was the closest we got to a movie actually about Mystique, and that film spent all of its time exploring the motivations of Charles and Erik and Logan. Almost no scenes were shot from Mystique’s perspective, not even the scenes where she was the only character we knew.

So it’s completely understandable that Lawrence seems to be phoning it in during X-Men: Apocalypse, and also understandable from a meta perspective why her “mutant and proud” character spends almost the whole film disguised as a totally normal blonde human woman: I wouldn’t want to spend six hours a day in a makeup chair either if I could help it.

But the problem comes from how much this reluctance to actually give Lawrence something to do hurts the series. After Mystique saved the president in X-Men: Days of Future Past, we are told, she became a hero to the mutant community. Storm (Alexandra Shipp) has a poster of her in the little hovel where she lives. The students at Xavier’s School for the Gifted all look at her with shock and awe. 

Mystique is literally the best-known mutant in the entire world, and for some reason she’s walking around as a blonde and living in motel rooms. Why the hell is that not more of a story in this movie?

Even as Erik goes evil and Charles gets kidnapped and Mystique becomes the adult in charge for the bulk of the movie, the film still never really gets on board with her character development. She doesn’t have an arc, unless that arc is “I don’t want to live in Westchester” to “I guess I can live in Westchester”. 

She’s just there, being competent and awesome but also inscrutable. Her story has all the hallmarks of an epic superhero tale but none of the depth. I can’t blame Lawrence for wanting to bail on the franchise when you look at what she has to work with. She’s not even the main character in a movie where she’s the only person not brainwashed or taken hostage. That’s got to sting.

On top of this, the other female characters of the film are also competent and compelling and even less prominent in the story. Storm finally gets her canonical backstory of being a streetkid in Cairo, only for that to be quickly tossed aside when she signs up to be an acolyte of the mass-murdering Apocalypse immediately upon meeting him. Psylocke (Oliva Munn) is working as the enforcer for a mutant-smuggler when she signs on with Apocalypse, and yet her entire character can be distilled into her immediate acceptance of Apocalypse's mission and her disgust when he’s defeated.

Jubilee is in the movie so little that she might as well not be there at all, for all that Lana Condor does a fantastic job with the character in the tiny scenes we get, and while Jean Grey gets the closest thing to a plot of any of these women, it’s still a storyline that only covers about five scenes. Total.

Instead of spending the movie looking at these fantastic and diverse female characters, the movie concerns itself with bland white male characters. Charles and Erik (and Logan) get the bulk of the time, of course, but the film even brings in more bland white boys in case you were confused about who was supposed to be the heroes here.

Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) might be a huge character in the comics and in the earlier X-Men movies, but here he’s a mildly angsty teenager with a crush. Yet we spend a lot of the movie on him and his transition to the school and his learning to control his powers. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) spends a lot of the film in his normal human form – presumably for the same reasons as Lawrence – but gets more development and emotional moments than most of the female characters, even if he still doesn’t have an arc. 

But most of all there’s Peter aka Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a character so charming and fun he basically stole the show in X-Men: Days of Future Past. He’s still charming and hilarious here, but his comic relief skills are seriously hampered by the whole “Magneto is my father” storyline. The movie lingers on this plot point, but in the end it means nothing because Peter never tells Erik of his parentage. So we spend a big chunk of the story here on Peter’s conflicted feelings about Erik, only for Peter to wuss out and not tell Erik about any of it. It’s bad storytelling, but it’s also the centering of yet another white male character in a story already rife with them.

And it’s even more frustrating when you consider how the movie actively avoids even hinting at the other big family reveal they could have here. In the comics, Mystique is actually Nightcrawler’s mother, a fact pretty unsurprising when you look at the two of them side-by-side. The timing works in this universe, with the right age difference, the right father figure (Azazel from X-Men: First Class), and the right circumstances all suggesting the link, but it never even comes up.

The problem is that actually Mystique and Nightcrawler have a better relationship and arc than Erik and Peter, but they are the ones who get pushed to the outside of the story. I mean, Mystique tracks down Nightcrawler at a German mutant-fighting ring, saves him, and escorts him personally to the school because he’s what? A stranger? Right.

The movie’s refusal to work this into the story, then, comes off as a refusal to work in any significant plot that doesn’t have to do with one of the male leads. Mystique can’t have her own moment in the sun, because that’s “not what the fans are here for”. And that, in addition to being utter crap, is yet another reason why the X-Men movies need a shift in direction. Desperately.

Let’s imagine for a second what the movie could have been. Imagine a version of this same story, without a lot of changes, that focuses on the female characters instead of the blander male ones.

We start with Moira again, but this time we have her working with Storm to get into the cult. Then, when Apocalypse rises and Moira has to flee, Storm is left behind and gets swept up in his power. Instead of spending a ton of time on Magneto, the movie focuses on Storm and Psylocke’s relationships as they try to track down Mystique (obviously the best choice for a horseman, come on). Mystique turns them down because she’s a badass, but that means that she knows what’s going on and goes to warn her brother.

At the school, we spend our time with Jean Grey, living in her shoes as the student body reveres and fears her by turns. We see what it’s like for her to fear what’s inside her and to be terrified of what she could do, but then we get a jolt of awesome when she and Jubilee meet their hero, Mystique, walking into the school one day.

Do you see how much cooler this could be? Plotlines about Mystique trying to figure out how to tell Nightcrawler he’s her son and explain why she abandoned him get even more heartbreaking when Jean accidentally overhears her and has to be sworn to secrecy. The final battle is harder to watch when we know that Moira and Storm know each other and were friends before this. Seeing Mystique embrace her powers encourages Jean to do the same. Storm is genuinely torn at the end over whether she wants to go with Psylocke or Moira…

It’s a good movie, that one, and all we have to do is shift the focus a little bit. 

This isn’t to say that there’s no value in a story about Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, for the record. They’re both fascinating characters and I personally love watching them together**. But we’ve already had plenty of movies about their relationship. I mean, five films? I think we can move on now. It’s time to care about some other characters, time to invest elsewhere and tell some other stories. Besides, it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the X-Men series if we did move on now.

For a story ostensibly based on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the X-Men movies have proved, time and again, that they are really only concerned with the stories of straight white men. In fact, the movies have even gone so far as to erase the elements of those characters stories that deviate from this, minimizing Magneto’s Jewish heritage (this film saw him literally following a false god, for crying out loud) and pushing both Magneto and Professor X into forced heterosexual relationships (I love Moira, but come on). Considering that this series is supposed to be about the outsiders, it does a pretty good job of ignoring that.

So. Should you go see X-Men: Apocalypse? I mean, you can. It’s an entertaining enough movie, rampant sexism and manpain notwithstanding. It’s fun and coherent and you’d probably come out feeling pretty good about the world, but you’re not likely to walk out praising it to the heavens either. It’s really up to you – but I think whether you see it or not, we can agree on one thing for sure: this series needs some serious help.

*Ah yes, Ancient Egypt, the time period of choice for stories that want to incorporate dubious sci-fi tropes into the world. I find it deeply frustrating how these movies gloss over any actual Egyptian history in this and lump it all together into “ancient”. Come on. The span between the building of the Great Pyramid and the time of Cleopatra is greater than the span of time between Cleopatra and us. It’s not like Egypt was a singular culture and civilization for five thousand years. Also, it really wasn’t white.

**I ship it like burning.


  1. Amen! This is why, regardless of merit, I may go see Ghostbusters many times.

  2. En Sabah Nur and his followers are ambushed by their own human guards during a ritual and killed in a collapsing pyramid.

    I have say, I'm wondering who the psychokinetic woman of old was, because she showed some serious no holds barred loyalty right to the very end, coupled with some pretty amazing fortitude. Normally, I don't count loyalty as a virtue in itself until I know what you're loyal [i]to[/i], but in her case I found it hard not to admire.

    Just another story about superhumans beating up other superhumans and leveling a major metropolitan area in the process, right? Well, yes.

    Not quite. Thinking of all the superhero films I've seen, this has probably as much destruction as all of them put together - the death toll has to be in the tens of millions.

    She’s just there, being competent and awesome but also inscrutable. Her story has all the hallmarks of an epic superhero tale but none of the depth. I can’t blame Lawrence for wanting to bail on the franchise when you look at what she has to work with.

    Yeah, at the end of Days of Future Past, she's walked away from Erik's clusterfucking, and given up trying to figure out whatever latest way she has to be good enough for Charles - though she still takes the time to help save Wolvering from the bottom of the river, which no one else did. So at the beginning of Apocalypse, she's alone, helping mutants because that's what she does, but seemingly unable to see how much many of them revere her - spiritually exhausted more than anything. A particular strength of Lawrence's, but in that vein, am I just reading Ree or Katniss into Mystique there?

    Other questions. Why does she go back to Westchester? Does Charles win her over? Does she start to like the appreciation from the younger mutants? Does helping the younger mutants reawaken a sense of responsibility above and beyond the habit she's been running on lately? Does she come back for Charles, for Hank, or for the younger ones, or what combination? Is she just tired of being nomadic? It would be nice to be able to tell, but the film doesn't pay enough attention to Mystique to explore any of it.

  3. Storm finally gets her canonical backstory of being a streetkid in Cairo, only for that to be quickly tossed aside when she signs up to be an acolyte of the mass-murdering Apocalypse immediately upon meeting him.

    There's a theory among some viewers - no idea whether it has any basis in the comics - that Apocalypse's power-boosting touch comes with a, not exactly mind control, but a join-me whammy. I prefer thinking of it as true, because it makes Storm look better here (as well as Erik, and everyone else for letting them off the hook). And it makes sense that Charles would be the one who could resist that.

    (Which reminds me: said boost, whammy, and the rush of getting to destroy the fuck out of Auschwitz seem to me to explain Erik being on board without another fridged family).

    This isn’t to say that there’s no value in a story about Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, for the record.

    But X-Men has always been at its best when it's about a team, and a community of people with species-level differences between them. And it's that that's the chance to distinguish the X-Verse from the MCU - in the MCU, the team films are the big events, in X-Men, it could be the norm. But that means switching the focus among the characters.

    Let’s imagine for a second what the movie could have been.

    And that's great. If I may add something... someone on another forum suggested including a passing iron rich asteroid, foreshadowed earlier in the film by the mutant-worshipping cult interpreting it as a sign, and instead of the destruction he wreaks around the world, Erik starts pulling that asteroid towards Earth. (The suggestion had him pushing it away again when he won back from Team Apocalypse - hence he decides not to kill millions of people, as opposed to killing millions of people then deciding not to kill millions more - which makes it more defensible to let him wander off afterwards).

    What I'd add, though is that he can't push it away - it's mass coupled with the Earth's gravity is too much for him, especially as his power boost drains away. But he *and Jean* - they can push it away just fine. While this is going on, Charles holds his own with En in his head, and distracts En enough for Mystique, Storm, and Scott to defeat him physically (Mystique is the only one agile enough to fight him while not getting blasted by the other two) (Beast can perhaps defend Scott from Psylocke, so that Scott can focus on En).

    Upshot being that the battle is fought and won on two or three fronts at once, which makes it easier to have more people be critical.

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