De-Evolution: How ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ Fails Where ‘Days of Future Past’ Succeeded

Apocalypse Poster

This analysis (unavoidably) contains a whole host of spoilers for both X-Men: Apocalypse and X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Proceed at your own risk.

As of this writing, X-Men: Apocalypse has been in theaters for about a month, but I suspect there are still quite a few fans out there who’ve yet to see it – probably because they’ve been scared away by all the unfavorable reviews.  A quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes shows the movie holding steady at around 48% – better than DC’s Batman v Superman (27%), but still a new low for our beloved mutant heroes.  Even the dismal X-Men: The Last Stand from 2006 has a higher score (58%)!

It’s not wise, I think, to place too much faith in the Tomatometer.  Far too often people notice only the percentage and ignore the numerical ratings, which sometimes paint a very different picture of the critics’ consensus.  In any case, any attempt to boil a film’s quality down to a number is, inevitably, an exercise in reductionism: when we glance at a figure instead of reading a review, we diminish our ability to think about and appreciate nuance and complexity.  I usually allow Rotten Tomatoes to color my preconceptions of a film, but I try not to let it decide for me which movies I see and which ones I skip.

In the case of X-Men: Apocalypse, I had the movie recommended to me by a friend last week, so I went to the theater fully intending to enjoy it.  I did.  But that 48% wouldn’t leave my head, and it caused me to view the movie with a specially scrutinizing gaze.  Turns out the critics may have been onto something after all.  By the time this hefty blockbuster had started lumbering toward its obligatory dramatic climax, it was clear to me what X-Men: Apocalypse was missing: it’s missing the very quality that made the previous X-Men film, 2014’s Days of Future Past, such a breathtaking success.

Whatever else went wrong with X-Men: Apocalypse, I contend that its principle flaw is that it introduced a thematic conflict without resolving it.  Certainly the narrative conflict is brought to a satisfactory conclusion; the villain is defeated and the day saved with a minimum of contrivances and plot holes.  But the story raised some intriguing questions about power, ambition, and compassion, and none of those questions actually figured into the resolution of the plot.

Let me explain: in most stories, there are two types of conflict occurring simultaneously – the narrative conflict, which is the simple clash between opposing characters or forces, and a thematic conflict that lends weight and meaning to the narrative one.  This could take the form of a battle between opposing ideals, an emotional journey of self-revelation that the protagonist must undertake, or any number of stock plots.  Whatever the case, in a well-told tale, the thematic conflict should inform and complement the literal struggle between the characters; it should make the story mean something beyond its surface trappings.  Getting both types of conflict in harmony is especially difficult in superhero films, where (and I don’t mean this as any kind of slight against the genre) conflicts tend toward moral simplicity.  Heroes must need do battle with villains, after all.  But two summers ago, X-Men: Days of Future Past showed us an outstanding example of how to imbue a comic-book plot with real thematic depth.

For those who’ve forgotten, Days of Future Past depicts a nightmarish future in which unstoppable robotic enforcers called the Sentinels have hunted mutants to the brink of extinction.  In desperation, longtime enemies Professor X and Magneto create a plan to send Wolverine back in time to 1973. His job is to stop Mystique, shapeshifting mutant and former compatriot of Magneto, from murdering the industrialist Bolivar Trask, whose death kickstarted the very movement against mutants that led to the horrible future in which the heroes find themselves.  It sounds, perhaps, like fairly standard comic book fare, but the story boasts some heavy themes beneath its science-fiction frills.  For starters, let’s take a look at Professor Xavier’s opening narration:

The future: a dark, desolate world. A world of war, suffering, loss on both sides. Mutants, and the humans who dared to help them, fighting an enemy we cannot defeat. Are we destined down this path, destined to destroy ourselves like so many species before us? Or can we evolve fast enough to change ourselves… change our fate? Is the future truly set?

Character Development in Progress
Pictured: character development in progress.

The questions raised in the introduction are central to the character development that shapes the film’s plot, particularly where Mystique is concerned.  Her character serves as a microcosm for the world around her: if she is able to let go of her own hatred for humanity, then perhaps the whole world will be able to follow her example and evolve beyond its fear and hatred of mutants – which, in turn, would avert the catastrophic future that set the plot in motion to begin with.  Thus the thematic and narrative conflicts of Days of Future Past are resolved at a single stroke when Mystique ultimately declines to shoot Bolivar Trask.  The future is saved from the Sentinels, Mystique is saved from her own self-destructive hatred, and the world at large, inspired by the heroism she displays in the process, takes its important first steps toward becoming a kinder place for mutants.

Likewise, the particular evil that X-Men: Apocalypse ostensibly grapples with is described plainly in its opening narration (delivered, for the first time, by James McAvoy instead of Patrick Stewart).  As the camera sweeps over the vast sand dunes of an ancient Egyptian desert, the Professor’s voice lays out the meaning of the story we’re about to witness:

Mutants: said by many to be the next stage, and yet we act like children. Give someone the power to travel through time, and they start to worry about the future. And make someone all-powerful, they think of ruling the world.

The “childish, all-powerful” mutant in question is, of course, Apocalypse himself – En Sabah Nur, the world’s first mutant, awoken by cultists from 5,000 years of suspended animation.  Beholding the modern world, Apocalypse is disgusted with the “systems” – laws, governments, economic structures – which elevate the “weak” (humans) and prevent the “strong” (mutants) from seizing what’s rightfully theirs.  It isn’t long before he resolves to put things right.  He gathers followers (four “horsemen,” naturally), relieves earth’s nations of their nuclear arsenals, and attempts to inspire a violent mutant uprising.  “Everything they’ve built will fall!” he exclaims (rather loudly, thanks to Oscar Isaac’s majestically hammy performance).  “And from the ashes of this world, we’ll build a better one!”

This is a new direction for the film franchise, and a welcome one at that.  In the X-Men comics and films, writers have always depicted the plight of mutants as analogous to that of real-life outcasts – racial minorities in the sixties and seventies, LGBTQ persons in more modern iterations – but this new film (finally) touches on the one aspect of mutantkind that sets them apart from any real-world analogue: the superpowers that make them, in Apocalypse’s view, superior to ordinary humans.  Mutants aren’t merely “different” from the rest of us; many of them wield powers that, if used to their full potential, could grant mutants free reign over the rest of human society.  (In short, this film seems to acknowledge that Senator Kelly from the first movie might have had a point when he complained about the potential abuse of mutant powers.)

The obvious foil to Apocalypse is Professor Xavier, leader of the X-Men and one of the most optimistic and compassionate characters in comic books.  As a necessary part of his plan, Apocalypse kidnaps the wise professor and commands him to transmit a telepathic message to the world.  One of my favorite moments from the film occurs here when Xavier boldly edits the speech Apocalypse is feeding him, spelling out his own response to the villain’s violent ethos in the process:

Charles Xavier: This message is for one reason alone: to tell the strongest among you…
Apocalypse: Those with the greatest power, this earth will be yours!
Charles Xavier: Those with the greatest power… protect those without. That’s my message to the world.

Thus the Professor’s humanist compassion is pitted against Apocalypse’s childish ambition.

Professor X vs Apocalypse
Professor X (James McAvoy) and Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac)

At this point, the storytellers (mainly director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg, I assume) take it for granted that the audience will agree with Xavier.  And that’s fine; it’s not as if anyone in the audience would disagree with him.  It’s always well within the storytellers’ discretion to root their narrative’s concepts of right and wrong in values that they know their viewers (including me) already accept.  In any superhero yarn, we don’t need the writer to explain to us why it’s a bad thing that Dr. Lunatic wants to use his doomsday device to blow up the world.  But there are at least three problems with this particular instance.

The first is that, for the audience, Xavier and Apocalypse’s ideological conflict effectively boils down to a simple battle between good and evil.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it stands in stark contrast to the morally complicated, character-driven struggles of the previous film.  The difference becomes especially obvious when one tries to summarize the driving conflict of each movie in simple terms: in Days of Future Past, our conflicted anti-heroine must evolve beyond her hatred and become a better person in order to set a precedent for peaceful relations between mutants and humans; in Apocalypse, the X-Men must defeat the bad guy in a fight in order to prevent him from destroying the world.  Both are perfectly valid conflicts, but it’s obvious which one makes for a more compelling story.

The second problem is that the new movie’s plot simply doesn’t bear the heroes’ philosophy out.  Xavier’s bold declaration that those with power have an obligation to protect those without – thus implying that the “weak” are no less worthy of life than the “strong” – is rather undercut by Apocalypse’s climax, where the X-Men vanquish the titular villain by simply summoning up a stronger force to squash him flat.  After a lengthy, losing brawl, they manage to squeak out a last-minute victory thanks to the timely intervention of Jean Grey, appearing in her full glory as the Phoenix for the first time since The Last Stand ten years ago.  The day is saved, and the narrative conflict is resolved, but the heroes’ display of raw power almost proves the villain right: in the end, strength, not compassion for the weak, is the virtue that makes all the difference.

Perhaps this is a simple case of over-reading.  As I said earlier, Singer and Kinberg aren’t under an obligation to tell anything other than a rip-snortin’ tale of good versus evil, and they certainly succeed in that task to a great extent.  Moreover, Jean is only following the Professor’s mandate by using her immense power to protect those without.  But my third problem with the movie is precisely that, that it doesn’t offer any serious thematic conflict to give memorable meaning to its narrative.  There are a number of other, smaller internal struggles here and there.  Magneto’s grief over his lost family is a major point of focus.  Jean Grey’s fear of her own psychic powers also gets a hefty chunk of screen time during the first act.  But neither of these two conflicts really factor into the whole plot in the same way that questions of personal growth and change informed the entirety of Days of Future Past.  One might even argue that Jean’s character arc of embracing her own strength is precisely in line with Apocalypse’s ethos of will-to-power, which only undercuts Xavier’s position even further.

Jean Grey in Dark Phoenix mode. Scarier than Apocalypse, no?
Jean Grey in Dark Phoenix mode. Scarier than Apocalypse, no?

How could this film have better incorporated its questions of power, worthiness, and compassion into the plot?   Off the top of my head, I can think of a few possibilities.  Maybe Apocalypse’s lack of empathy for humans could have led him to commit some heinous act that offended one of his Four Horsemen, causing them to turn against him.  (In fact, Storm and Magneto do turn against Apocalypse, but their decisions have nothing to do with Apocalypse’s evil philosophy.) Alternatively, perhaps the non-mutants of earth might have revealed their collective worth by uniting to help defeat him, just like how the people of New York united against the similarly egomaniacal Green Goblin way back in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film.  These are shoddy, half-baked suggestions, obviously, but I’m inclined to think that almost anything would have been an improvement over what we got.

This lack of a proper thematic resolution results in a climax which, for all its dizzying spectacle, feels emotionally flat and uninvolving.  Heroes battling villains with the fate of the world hanging in the balance will certainly keep our eyes glued to the screen, but it’s not enough by itself to lend the story the kind of lasting power that Days of Future Past wielded so beautifully.  X-Men: Apocalypse is not a bad film, not really; the worst I’ll say about it is that it’s simply forgettable.  But it represents a significant step down, a thematic de-evolution, from the lofty heights the franchise had reached not long ago.

Ah, well.  At least it’s still nowhere near as outrageously and aggressively unpleasant as The Last Stand – no matter what the Tomatometer would have you believe.

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