There’s no question that the X-Men concept has proven to be one of the most successful ever created in comic book and superhero history. The mutant origin of their powers allows creators to come up with countless new heroes and villains, without the need to keep coming up with origin stories to explain away where they’re all coming from. The parallels between regular people’s fear of mutants and racism, and the main characters of the X-Men mythos and iconic civil rights leaders, allow every X-Men story told to be easily layered with metaphors and themes that elevate them above just being action stories where beings with super powers beat on each other and try to take over the world.
In any good X-Men story Professor Xavier takes on the role of Martin Luther King Jr., striving toward a peaceful coexistence for all men, Magneto takes on the role of Malcolm X, fighting for a place for him and people like him at the global table, and things like robotic sentinels and shady government organizations meant to control mutants take on the role of the Nazis, oppressive regimes, and hate groups of the world, who threaten to ruin everyone’s lives with their spreading of fear, hatred, and violence.
It’s a solid setup that makes it so easy to write solid stories, that X-Men comics have consistently been some of the most popular on comic book shop shelves for decades now. That popularity can be a bit of a double-edged sword though, because more sales leads to more spinoff books, and writers get to a point where there’s only so many civil rights stories about the X-Men battling Magneto or the X-Men battling some new anti-mutant hate group they can tell. When there’s eight or nine X-Men books being published at any given time, it becomes necessary for writers to expand that world out more, to come up with different kinds of stories that can be told with these characters, and that’s when things inevitably start to get a little weird, convoluted, and lame—a direction that Fox’s X-Men movies may now be heading in.
The golden period for X-Men comics is generally accepted as starting when Chris Claremont took over writing the series in the mid 70s. He had a distinct voice, told sweeping stories (like the ‘Days of Future Past’ tale that Fox is next adapting), and added a soap opera element to the tales of Marvel’s resident mutants. By the time the 80s rolled around, Claremont’s formula had worked so well that X-Men books were far outselling all other comics, and a rash of spinoff titles started getting created. Around this time X-Men stories went from looking like traditional superhero stories that anyone could get into—the sort of stories that Fox has adapted into their movies so far—to looking like a complex and convoluted mess of time travel confusions, alternate dimension weirdness, and clones. Lots of clones. The characters being introduced into the series went from simple, straightforward conceptions like a guy who controlled magnetism named Magneto and a guy with big sharp teeth named Sabretooth to weirder looking dudes with confusing powers and complicated origin stories as well.
Probably the weirdest and most confusing of these new characters was Apocalypse, an immortal and supposedly all-powerful mutant who seems to be the character Fox and producer/director Bryan Singer are going to be building the X-Men movie following Days of Future Past around. The big news comes from a Bryan Singer tweet, which simply read:
To follow up on that news, distributors started to let it slip that Fox had confirmed to them that their next X-Men venture is officially going to be called X-Men: Apocalypse, and it’s currently scheduled to be released on May 27, 2016.
While a title and a release date is all that we currently know about this next X-Men movie for sure, Bleeding Cool seems to have been snooping around the production for a while, and they’ve talked to people who claim that the film is indeed going to feature the character of Apocalypse as its villain, and it is indeed going to serve as a direct sequel that spins out of the events of Days of Future Past. While this news has generally been met with enthusiasm across the Internet, the inclusion of Apocalypse as a movie villain scares me a bit, and it scares me for a few reasons.
First of all, Apocalypse is a lame villain because he just looks dumb. What is he? He’s a big metal guy who’s generally blue or purple, who has a big A on his belt, who has tubes connecting his back to his elbows for… some reason, and who has big goofy lips that generally make him look simple, or sometimes like he has to take a poop. Why? Seeing as Singer and company have already told a handful of Magneto and anti-mutant hate group stories, it was inevitable that their movies were eventually going to have to expand out to include some more recent X-Men villains, but did they have to pick Apocalypse? One of the big problems directors who make comic book movies always face is that things that look acceptable or even cool when drawn on the page often look ridiculous when they’re brought to life on the screen. It’s the sort of problem that leads to the X-Men wearing black leather instead of yellow spandex, or the Rhino character being a guy in a mechanical suit instead of an actual rhino man in the next Amazing Spider-Man movie. If Apocalypse already looks this dumb when he’s drawn on the comic book page, how in the heck are they going to make him remotely presentable on the big screen?
The second problem with the character is his powers, which are so immense and so ill-defined that they generally encompass whatever the writer needs them to in any given moment, giving everything that he does a sort-of deus ex machina lameness. If you’re going to tell stories in science fiction or fantasy worlds, it’s important to establish clear rules to your world so that your viewer knows what is and isn’t possible. That way your action can include tension and suspense. Apocalypse throws all tension out the window. He can shape change, he’s invulnerable, he’s super strong, he can shoot laser blasts, he can sometimes fly, he can sometimes teleport. He also has the constant fortune of “finding alien technology,” which generally gives him the ability to do anything else the writer might not have thought to have him do the last time he was around. Most of the time he’s portrayed as being so powerful that he can’t even be touched, until the story needs him to be beat, and then suddenly he isn’t. Here’s a picture of him slithering around like a snake and turning his arms into hammers.
That ability of Apocalypse to be whatever the writer wants him to be (you know, because he’s so poorly thought out in concept) points to the real reason adding Apocalypse as the villain of an X-Men movie is dangerous though—the silliness of his conception inevitably leads to all of his stories being inherently silly. He’s sold as the ultimate X-Men villain, the unbeatable immortal who they’ll never be able to defeat, but his appearances fail to carry any of that dramatic weight because he always loses. He’s said to be the first mutant, a guy named En Sabah Nur who’s been around since ancient Egypt, which means that he’s been trying to take over the world and institute his person doctrine of survival of the fittest for thousands of years now, and he still hasn’t been able to get the job done! Theoretically, humans armed with swords and arrows have stopped him in the past. If his origin as established is to be believed, then apparently he was taken down at some point by a musket. What good does that make all of his super powers and advanced alien technology, and why should we believe the X-Men would have any problem handling him?
The silver lining to all of this is that there was one cool Apocalypse story that used the character right, and, due to the context clues available, a lot of fans are assuming that it’s the one that’s going to be used for the X-Men: Apocalypse movie. The story was called ‘The Age of Apocalypse,’ and it was about Charles Xavier’s crazy son going back in time and accidentally killing him before he could form the X-Men. The effect this had in the story was that the X-Men never existed, so they were never able to stop Apocalypse’s rise to power, so now our present is a horrifying dystopia not unlike the alternate 1985 in which Biff Tannen is the super-rich ruler of Hill Valley.
In this story Apocalypse rules the world, which is now full of ravaged and desolate landscapes. Mutants are his army, humans are kept in concentration camps, and even some of the most heroic of the X-Men have been turned villainous because of the environment in which they were born and raised. Finally, in ’The Age of Apocalypse,’ all of that infinite power the Apocalypse character has actually means something. Finally, his threats to take over the world and remold it into his own dark vision can be taken seriously and have some weight. Up to this point it was looking like making an Apocalypse story that was actually good would be an impossibility, but by completely destroying and remaking the world in which they told their stories the X-Men writers cracked the code.
While it’s a bit scary to see that the X-Men movies are now moving into the time travel and alternate reality stories that eventually made the X-Men comics a mess, it’s heartening to see that they at least have the good sense to stick to the crazier stories that were actually good, like ‘Days of Future Past’ and, possibly, ‘The Age of Apocalypse.’ If Singer has plans to create an end of the world film that’s as dark and twisted as the ‘Age of Apocalypse’ comic books were, and he’s given the budget to make the new world expansive and immersive, then we could all be in for a real treat. But if his plans are to tell pretty much any other story featuring the Apocalypse character, then God help us all. Focusing on that big blue idiot could result in an X-Men sequel that makes the Brett Ratner one look good in comparison.