X-Education With Professor K: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

With the release of the first X-Men film in 2000, audiences not only witnessed the dawn of the modern day superhero film boom, but also the beginning of a complicated franchise that would span sixteen years and nine films. With X-Men: Apocalypse on the horizon, Kayleigh Hearn and a rotating cast of merry mutants are revisiting the X-Men films from the very beginning, and examining the comic book storylines that inspired them. What would you prefer, yellow spandex?

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Directed by Bryan Singer

Kayleigh: The end…is here. X-Education concludes this week with our review of X-Men: Apocalypse, the second X-Film of the year and ninth overall in the X-Men film franchise. Apocalypse concludes the prequel trilogy that began in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, and brings the series full circle by introducing the younger versions of the heroes we met sixteen years ago in X-Men. I have to say I’m surprised by the lukewarm reception Apocalypse has gotten, as I found it to be very fun. It feels like it was ripped straight from a Chris Claremont comic.

Max: This movie is like a Claremont X-Men delivery system! This is I think the first time one of these movies felt 100% like a comic book X-Men story, from the constant power explanations to the huge cast to the fact they straight up fight A Mummy. I loved this movie, maybe in part because revisiting these previous X-films has reminded me that none of these movies has been fully good. Apocalypse isn’t a great Film but it sure is a blast.

SPOILERS BELOW

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Kayleigh: I have a lot of affection for the X-Men movies, but it is kinda damning that it took nine movies for us to say, “Oh, this really feels like the comics!” I was not expecting to like Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse; he’s has never been one of my favorite X-Men villains. Like, what even is Apocalypse’s deal beyond his “survival of the fittest” shtick and a vague “I have whatever power the story needs” power set? A-poe-calypse Dameron is not without his charm however, waking from his ancient slumber to act like mutantkind’s creepy, paternalistic stepdad. (Also, Oscar Isaac is shirtless for a few seconds. This is just an important statement to make.)

Max: I really enjoyed how they just leaned on Apocalypse as a straight up X-Men version of The Mummy, complete with crazy Egyptian backstory, accidental tomb disturbance, plot-important transference rituals and wandering around marketplaces in big hoods. Apparently Singer would direct Isaac with “Full Skeletor, half Skeletor, quarter Skeletor” and like that’s pretty much what you’d expect from this. En Sabah Nur isn’t Magneto, he’s a crazy evil living action figure who wants to blow stuff up. Speaking of Magneto, I was VERY into what they did with him in this movie.

Kayleigh: This is a really overstuffed movie that has like eight prologues, by the way. Making each prequel take place in a subsequent decade raises the problem of explaining why certain characters are only resurfacing every ten years, and in Magneto’s case, he gave up the life of a pro-mutant vigilante/would-be Nixon assassin to live a humble life in Poland with a wife and daughter. And for the rest of the movie, Magneto has a splendid time and nothing bad happens to him. Oh wait, nope.

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Max: Magneto’s arc in these movies is a man whose anger with the world is endless. So the swerve that Magneto, a few years after his tantrum-like assassination attempt on Nixon, managed to find peace and move forward with his life (AMONG HUMANS!) is really interesting to me. Magneto’s defined by loss and his inability to deal with that loss in a healthy way, and here he loses his family again because of what is basically a mistake. Magneto’s would-be oppressors aren’t Nazis this time; they’re his former friends and neighbors. Magneto’s even outed because he used his powers to save a coworker’s life. And the tragedy on top of it is that Magneto was even willing to turn himself in to spare his family!

Kayleigh: A problem with X-Men: First Class is that it completed Magneto’s character arc in a single film, so for his motivation here they dig deep into the comics to give him some fresh trauma in the form of a fridged family. It’s predictable and sad, but goddamn if Fassbender doesn’t act the hell of it. A superhero clutching his dead family and demanding an explanation from God is intensely serious stuff that almost feels out of place next to all the random explosions and teen mutant hijinks, but they pull it off.

Max: When Erik stops being Erik/Henryk and once again becomes Magneto, he’s a very different Magneto. His anger here isn’t the righteous fury from the prior films; here it’s rooted in grief that Apocalypse is able to take advantage of. Magneto and Storm, of the Four Horsemen, felt like they had the most reason to actually be there, and unsurprisingly they’re the two characters who get the best payoff.

Kayleigh: Yeah, the Four Horsemen are a bit undercooked as a concept, which is unsurprising since juggling a dozen or so mutants has always been a problem for Singer. Alexandra Shipp makes a good first impression as Storm, and as a mohawk’d street urchin she feels way more like Storm than Halle Berry ever did, but the plot never lets her reach her full potential. I loved the movie introducing Angel as a Billy Idol lookalike fucked up by an illegal mutant Fight Club, but he’s basically disposable. Psylocke was apparently a late addition to the script, and it shows. She has no motivation or goals beyond…liking power, I guess? Granted, I don’t think the comic version of Psylocke ever had any interesting personality traits beyond “hot ninja,” but Oliva Munn probably could have done more if the script had cared.

Max: So what’s interesting about X-Men: Apocalypse is that its biggest strength (really fantastic world building details) is at odds with its biggest weakness (cast is just too huge). Jubilee gets like one line but Caliban (CALIBAN) gets two legitimately intriguing scenes full of dialogue. Singer establishes stuff like an illegal mutant slave fight club in the back alleys of Germany and Magneto’s life in Poland and Caliban’s mutant underground railroad, and it’s all really intriguing, but none of it totally connects. Let’s talk about the X-Men themselves: I dug Xavier’s Miami Vice pastel t-shirt and blazer look.

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Kayleigh: Professor Xavier spends the entire movie in a pink V-neck and I loved it. A lot of attention has been paid to Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence, but I think time will prove that the prequels really belong to James McAvoy. He’s played three very different versions of Charles Xavier, from callow grad student to burnt-out junkie to hopeful young professor, and all without being an imitation of Patrick Stewart’s Xavier. There’s a moment where he lifts himself out of his wheelchair to sit next to Jean and comfort her after a nightmare, and it repairs all the damage X-Men: The Last Stand did to their relationship with that “she has a dangerous split personality that I repressed” nonsense. He’s kind of like the main character of a magical girl anime in this movie, defeating Apocalypse with the power of love and family and friendship.

Max: The dynamic between all the X-Kids here (mainly Jean, angsty teen Cyclops and doofy teen Nightcrawler) was a lot of fun to watch and felt really natural. I’m hoping the next movie brings that more to the forefront now that Magneto and Charles’s arcs feel kind of wrapped up.

Dazzler's album was sadly marked for the clearance rack, aka "deleted scenes on DVD."

Dazzler’s album was sadly marked for the clearance rack, aka “deleted scenes on DVD.”

Kayleigh: The X-Teens were my favorite part of the movie, definitely. They were all really well cast, and I would happily watch an entire movie of them playing a Claremontian game of mutant baseball. Great to finally have a movie where Jean Grey and Cyclops’ story arcs aren’t warped around Wolverine. Jean learning to control her immense power and Cyclops struggling with the responsibility thrust on his shoulders fleshed them out as characters beyond “the girl” and “the other guy” in a half-baked love triangle. I really wish the final cut of the film hadn’t excised the mall sequence—the early set photos of the X-Teens looking like the cast of a superpowered John Hughes film were what got me really interested in Apocalypse.

Max: Dude this movie is so goddamn huge that we haven’t even talked about Quicksilver! And he stole like the whole movie! Evan Peters’s Quicksilver is basically the Urkel of these new movies, a minor character who audiences loved, so now he gets way more screen time and plot importance. I love that they pretty much just write him like The Flash, so we get like a sequel sequence to last movie’s Pentagon fight where he manages to save the entire school (everyone but Havok) from an explosion set to a Eurythmics song.

Kayleigh: Whatever flaws this movie has, it knew damn well how to perfectly lay some Kayleigh Bait, and a mutant action sequence set to “Sweet Dreams” is IT. Evan Peters as this weird, goofy loser who plays Ms. Pac Man in his mom’s basement is the most I’ve ever liked Quicksilver. I was slightly miffed that the movie leaves the resolution of his relationship with Magneto for a future film, but it also makes sense that he really doesn’t know how he feels about the supposed mutant terrorist who abandoned his mom. (Which is another thread in the tapestry of tragedy that is Magneto’s life.) Oh yeah, and RIP Havok, the strikingly ageless forty-year-old Vietnam Vet. (Just….just let the timeline go, guys.)

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Max: Bryan Singer straight up does a new ten-minute version of X2, complete with a return to Stryker’s Alkali Lake compound and WEAPON X. Was this scene necessary? Questionable. Did I *lose my mind* at Hugh Jackman showing up for 5 minutes in the Barry Windsor-Smith Weapon X get-up to murk a dozen bad guys? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Kayleigh: The Weapon X scene just made X-Men Origins: Wolverine all the more irrelevant, so I loved it. Looks like our last shot at Wolverine full frontal is Wolverine 3, though.

Max: *looks down at list* HEY, Jennifer Lawrence was in this movie! I dug how Mystique is positioned as this unwitting celebrity and idol to young Mutants (back to Singer’s strength with world details: Storm having a TIME magazine cover of Mystique taped on the wall of her home) but Lawrence pretty much sleepwalks this movie.

Kayleigh: I tend to eyeroll at people dragging Jennifer Lawrence in the X-Men movies if only because nerds like to pick out the female leads as the easiest targets—but yeah, she’s all but checking her watch to see when her contractual obligation for three movies is up. Mystique as the Mutant Mockingjay was a bit on the nose, but I liked that she was the public “face” for mutantkind rather than easier choices of Professor X and Magneto.

Max: Similarly, Nicholas Holt’s Beast is a welcome presence who basically does nothing for the entire film. I think a big part of my fondness for this movie is I just like watching these people act together.

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Kayleigh: The weird semi-flirtation between her and Beast is odd, because they’ve dragged it out across three films (and three DECADES for these characters) but it never goes anywhere. None of the romance subplots go anywhere in this movie, though Scott and Jean do have a telekinetic meet cute. But wait, what am I saying? Magneto experiencing an X-Men: First Class shipper fanvid in his head and then dropping a big metal X to keep Apocalypse away from Charles was the most romantic thing in the movie.

Max: Mystique’s mini-plot that she stays in human form because she’s trying to survive in a world that’s more hostile than ever to mutants in no way had to do with J-Law refusing to sit in a makeup chair! It really says something, though that, even with this movie’s many flaws, I really, really loved it. Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey really surprised me here. This was a great take on the character and a massive improvement over the adult Jean of prior films. This is a movie with A LOT of set up, but the way Jean’s blossoming Phoenix powers are established as a loaded gun was cool. She almost single-handedly takes down Apocalypse once she lets loose, and by “takes down” I mean straight up burns him into a skeleton.

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Kayleigh: JEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAN! Ahem, okay, got that out of my system. Sixteen years later, I finally get an X-Men movie where Jean Grey harnesses the power of the Phoenix to save her friends—and doesn’t fucking die. Sophie Turner nailed everything compassionate and strong about Jean. I remember a lot of fans suggesting her for the role of young Jean before she was actually cast, and they were dead right. AND THE PHOENIX RAPTOR! I could mash my exclamation point key all day, that’s how happy I was. So many good moments in this movie.

Max: Nightcrawler TELEPORTING EVERYONE OUT OF THE PLANE?! Punk Rock Angel turning into Archangel while Metallica plays?! Magneto finally FINALLY comes to respect, if not fully participate in, Charles’s vision of a united human and mutantkind? This movie was one “totality of my psychic power” away from being an ’80s issue of Uncanny X-Men.

Kayleigh: X-Men: Apocalypse may not be the fitting end for the X-Men movieverse that X-Men: Days of Future Past was—but how could it be, when Fox hopes to hold onto the X-Men movie rights with an adamantium-hard grip? As an end to the prequel trilogy, the film wraps up the relationships of its central trinity of Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique, while successfully introducing younger versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm, and Nightcrawler. Though at this point I have no idea what the next X-Men movie is going to be—New Mutants? X-Force? That Channing Tatum Gambit thing?

Max: Deadpool made like a billion dollars so it’ll probably be a movie where he makes irreverent jokes about bitcoin.

Kayleigh: Sixteen years after jumpstarting the superhero movie boom, the X-Men series shows no signs of stopping—or rather, rebooting. There have been highs (Nightcrawler attacking the White House, Quicksilver running to “Time in a Bottle“) and there have been lows (Jean’s ignoble death, any scene in X-Men Origins), but until the MCU adds F-bombs and Hugh Jackman ass shots, X-Men remains my favorite superhero movie franchise. Thank you all for reading, it’s been a(n optic) blast.

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Tomorrow: The final comic X-Education! It’s X-Factor versus Apocalypse and his four horsemen in “Fall of the Mutants”!

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