WASHINGTON, July 3, 2016 – In her recent review of “X-Men: Apocalypse,” Angelica Jade Bastién pulls no punches, asserting that this latest series installment “is a confused, bloated mess of a film” magnifying “all the worst issues of the genre, serving up a story that would have felt dated five years ago.” Rough stuff. But it’s a largely justifiable opinion if you’re the kind of X-Men fan that’s familiar with the origins of this superhero team back when it was launched some 50 years ago.
In the first issue of Marvel’s “X-Men” comics (1963) – eventually retitled “Uncanny X-Men” – Professor Charles Xavier introduces Jean Grey to the already formed X-Men team. Even by early 1960s standards, this issue seems fairly crude today. Fortunately, however, this now popular team’s introduction was rebooted to greater effect in Marvel’s more recent graphic novel, “X-Men: Season One” (2012), which focuses on one of this series’ basic conceits, a story line and narrative primarily expressed by the key “point of view” character.
Jean Grey is the first of many character-driven points of view here, also including popular characters like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee. The insight gained from the point of view character helps readers to understand that the X-Men saga is ultimately a story about young people.
For over five decades now, X-Men has primarily been about how young people – generally teenagers – deal with possessing super powers. As the narrative progresses, they learn to incorporate the world at large into theirs. In the process, they must grapple with what their special powers mean and how they affect that “outside” world.
On another level, the X-Men narrative is often viewed as an allegory on the effects of systemic oppression. But it never stops there, which would be convenient. Instead, it’s all about how those unique individuals who actually have to live within an allegory while at the same time trying to function in the real world that informs the allegory.
In the current 20th Century Fox film, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” director Bryan Singer transforms this distinctive franchise into a straight superhero action film. It’s not so much that he does away with the allegorical level noted above. But perhaps worse, he simply pays lip service to it before moving on to something else entirely. As a result, he betrays his relative disinterest in the unique, often quirky characters who have been the primary drivers of the X-Men story for the last half-century.
With regard to the ongoing X-Men film franchise, this isn’t really a new thing for Singer. “Apocalypse” is the sixth official film in the franchise and is the fourth in the series to be helmed by Singer’s already familiar creative vision. Time and again, he has positioned characters like Cyclops and Storm – arguably the two most important characters in the X-Men mythos – as narrative wallpaper in service those he apparently considers more important in the larger X-Men story.
We noted this tendency in the opening scenes of the first “X-Men” film (2000), which basically revealed what Singer feels is the core conflict. It’s obvious that for Singer, the X-Men universe is really just about the chess game between Professor Xavier and Magneto, characters now portrayed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively in this millennial-focused reboot. It’s clear from the current film that, taken as a whole, Singer’s take on the series really hasn’t progressed anywhere from the initial scenes we remember from the first installment.
Perhaps a take like that isn’t entirely fair to the circumstances, both on film and behind the camera, that brought about “X-Men: Apocalypse.” After the first three films, the franchise was essentially was first given a soft reboot with “X-Men: First Class” (2011)” and then augmented with a new narrative timeline in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014). Even so, the story line throughout has largely been preoccupied with Professor Xavier’s continuing effort to get Magneto to see the error of his ways.
This continuous narrative rehash presents problems. The first is fairly simple: After six films of Professor X and Magneto speechifying at each other without much in the way of narrative progression, every movie ends in the exact same theoretical space where it began. Professor X and Magneto are diametrically opposed but are still cordial. It’s like a spinning hamster wheel to nowhere. The narrative makes no progression, always collapsing after the hamster predictably runs out of steam.
The much larger problem though has to do with the character of Professor X. Singer isn’t just manipulating the source material. He’s abandoning it all together, resulting in aggressively diminishing returns. With the last three films, the X-Men films have insisted that the key protagonist of the larger X-Men narrative is Professor X. In “Apocalypse,” Singer has doubled down on this notion again.
While Professor X is important, emphasizing his character again and again is an inaccurate take on the X-Men mythos. It’s easy to miss this because the X-Men themselves adhere to Professor X’s philosophy of human/mutant relations because he is their teacher. Yet at the same time, Professor X is inherently a passive ideologue. Likewise, to a certain extent, Magneto functions in an equal but opposite a capacity. But to focus continually on these somewhat patriarchal characters is to ignore the exciting, constantly developing dynamic among the franchise’s wildly differing younger characters.
The real X-Men storyline is about how a small band of young people with fantastic powers interpret and apply both Professor X and Magneto’s competing ideologies towards the world. Making Professor X and to some extent Magneto the focal point of “X-Men: Apocalypse” ignores the broader and more interesting “coming of age” dynamic and makes this movie feel static.
Next: Are superhero franchises forgetting about story and character and becoming boring in the process?