This article contains spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse and Captain America: Civil War.
X-Men: Apocalypseis getting a disproportionate degree of criticism in relation to its flaws. Criticism is at least partially subjective, of course — each critic values and prioritizes different aspects of visual storytelling — but it’s still a surprise that Apocalypseis currently sitting below X-Men: The Last Standon the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer when it actually does quite a few things well.
I have a few theories why this might be…
It came out right after two other comic book films with “civil war” storylines.
Superhero fatigue is a thing, guys. Check your local hospital. Not only did X-Men: Apocalypsehave the unfortunate timing of having come out weeks after Captain America: Civil Warhit theaters, but it also had the bad luck to have the kind of “civil war” plot also embraced by both the MCU film and Batman v. Superman. In an alternate universe, X-Men: Apocalypsehad the good fortune of coming out after Batman v Superman and before Civil War.Everyone hailed it for the ways in which it did what Batman v Supermandid, but better, even if they went on to prefer Civil War. But we live in this corner of the multiverse, where X-Men: Apocalypsecame out right after both of these films explored similar themes.
The tragic thing is that in-fighting is kind of X-Men‘s thematic thing. Back when The Avengersfilms were still getting the teamwork thing down, X-Menwas exploring the ideological split between Charles and Erik that is built into its very narrative framework. The X-Men story has always been about two different (and, in many ways, justified) reactions to the marginalization of the mutant community. Of course, when you’re doing the civil war thing less than a month after an MCU film threw that very phrase into its title, it’s not going to come across quite as revolutionary — especially when you explore that theme in less nuanced ways than previous X-Menfilms have.
It has been judged as an action film when it is more of a science fiction story.
We have a tendency to lump all superhero blockbuster films into one, giant category. And, sure, even the most different superhero films have some things in common. But, as the MCU has proven with its strategy of making each standalone film a slightly different genre, there is so much variety possible under this vast umbrella known as the superhero film genre, even larger still when you extend that umbrella past simply supehero films to comic book films.
Going into X-Men: Apocalypse,a lot of viewers obviously still had Captain America: Civil Waron their minds. You may have even heard people comparing the two films as you walked out of the theater. I think there is great value in comparing blockbusters (plus, it’s a lot of fun), but, I think Apocalypsewas done a great disservice by fans directly comparing it to Civil War.Not because it is necessarily a worse film (I’m not sure if I believe that), but because, while Civil War exists mostly within the action film genre, Apocalypseborrows much more from science fiction genre conventions. Despite all of the thematic similaries, they are, ultimately, trying to do different things.
While the Captain Americatrilogy has always made great strides to downplay its science fiction elements — Steve’s cryogenic “time travel,” the super soldier serum, etc. — the X-Menfranchise has become increasingly more interested in indulging in its science fiction aspects. While the MCU borrows its efforts to ground superhero shenanigans in a realistic universe from the first X-Menmovies, the X-Menfranchise has moved on from there.
X-Men: Days of Future Pastput time travel at its very heart. And, while the superheroes of the MCU are still largely treated as superpowered exceptions to a universe where most people still don’t have superpowers (like the MCU, we’ll ignore the Inhumans storyline currently being explored on Agents of SHIELD), in the world of X-Men, mutants are increasingly becoming normalized. The X-Men franchise is more interested in speculating about an alternate universe where people have powers, while the MCU does everything it can to keep its action grounded in our reality.
It has the most confusing temporal continuity this side of Terminator.
X-Men: Apocalypse‘s timeline/continuity problems don’t have as much to do with the franchise’s decision to reboot its cast of characters to their younger selves as you might think. If this were the case, I might be able to forgive its headache-causing timeline because rebooting franchises seems like difficult work. Sure, the X-Men franchise asks you to forget the X-Men: The Last Standever happened and to understand the time travel shenanigans of X-Men: Days of Future Past,but the franchise pulled off a near impossibility in that latter example by having its older characters change their own timeline with a narrative grace not usually associated with franchise reboots.
No, the X-Menprequels’ timeline problems are almost entirely of their own making, as the powers that be decided to set Days of Future Past ten years after First Class,and, and this is the clincher, Apocalypseten years after Days of Future Past. Simon Kinberg has already confirmed that the next X-Menfilm will be set in the ’90s. Will this unnecessary time jump madness never end?
These time jumps mean that, in Apocalypse, it has been 20 years since we first met Charles, Erik, Hank, Moira, Alex, and Raven. It has been 10 years since we first met Quicksilver. In that time, he has, apparently, not only not moved out of his mother’s basement, but also kept the same t-shirt collection, hairstyle, and video games. Though X-Menmight be able to get away with Raven’s lack-of-aging (after all, this is part of her mutation), the same can not be said for the rest of the bunch. Charles, Erik, and Moira should probably be in their 50s by the time Apocalypserolls around.
The lack-of-aging aside, these time jumps also mess with the internal logic and character continuity of the world. Erik, Charles, and Raven apparently go a decade at a time not seeing one another. (Moira and Charles go 20 years not seeing each other.) Furthermore, it’s unclear what the narrative logic is for these jumps other than maybe Singer and Kinberg thinking it would be cool to have films set in the ’70s and ’80s? We miss huge swaths of these characters’ lives without much effort given to addressing what has happening during those periods. Instead, the films seem to hope we won’t notice, aside from cutesy references about Moira not having aged in the last 20 years.
Captain America: Civil War, too,relies on a certain degree of knowledge about previous MCU films when it comes to character continuity. Before the film was released, the Russos admitted that they made no effort to catch viewers up at the beginning of the film. They expected viewers to do their own homework. X-Men: Apocalypse,however, asks us to do the homework of filling in these massive time jumps, but never gives us the assignments.
There is nothing for us to glean from the previous films that might better explain the evolution of these characters between film installments because this franchise acts as if there is a more traditional two or three year jump between films in all storytelling ways except for setting them in totally different decades. It makes for confusing viewing, perhaps especially for critics who try their darndest to put these films into a contextual framework for would-be viewers. Problem is: the framework just isn’t there.
It gives its best arcs to female characters.
I think one of the major reasons X-Men: Apocalypseis so unfairly maligned is because of the degree to which it lets women be the heroes. Sure, it fridges Erik’s family in one fell swoop (of an arrow), kind of makes Apocalypse Moira MacTaggert’s fault, and doesn’t even let Jubilee use her powers, but X-Men: Apocalypsewas still a blockbuster breath of fresh air when it comes to giving female characters things to do.
The best part of Apocalypse is Jean Grey’s arc (our own David Crow wrote all about it). Though the X-Men is ultimately an ensemble film and one that sees all of its heroes (and some of its villains) working together to defeat the supervillain, Jean is the hero of this film. The climax of the story involves one of the main male protagonists (Charles) begging the young, female protagonist (Jean) for her help as he crawls along, bloodied on the (psychic) floor. This almost never happens, especially in a film that isn’t specifically designated as one with a Strong Female Character.
Fans showing up and expecting to see Charles or Scott or even Erik save the day may have not been expecting this. I know I wasn’t. Unfortunately, I have much lower expectations for female-driven narratives in superhero blockbusters. Watching Jean embrace her inner, fearsome Phoenix was, for me, akin to the moment in Hunger Games: Catching Fire that saw X-Men co-star Jennifer Lawrence lifted from the arena in a Jesus pose after having burned the whole thing down, after having been given the kind of agency that is almost exclusively given to male protagonists in these kinds of movies.
Coming out of Catching Fire,I remember being filled with a sense of giddy empowerment. I had grown up watching action and science fiction films, and could probably count on one hand the number of times a woman was given the hero moment, even less so when she was supported by a male protagonist in that moment — by a character who was asking to unleash her power versus trying to control it or, worse yet, using it in his own journey or heroism.
My male movie-going companion, who has overlapping cinematic taste with me, found Catching Firerepetitive — and not just within the Hunger Gamesfranchise. He felt he had seen this narrative before. But, for me, and for what I expect was many female movie-goers, there was nothiing repetitive about being given this moment of unabashed female power and heroism. I’ll let you know when it starts getting repetitive, Hollywood. For now, moments like the one Jean Grey got in the climax of X-Men: Apocalypsewas one of my favorite movie-going moments so far this year — and made me feel more than any single, particular moment of Captain America: Civil War.
Its story structure highlights some of its weakest elements.
Brian Formo over at Collider has a great article comparing Batman v Supermanand Captain America: Civil Warto each other that argues the two films make a lot of the same mistakes — Civil Warjust makes them better. Or, more accurately, it makes them less obviously because of the Russo brothers’ skill with story flow compared to Zack Snyder’s tendency to halt the story with moments of intense directness. When that Snyder focus is on a particularly cringe-worthy moment, the audience is forced to dwell in it, versus, when something doesn’t work in Civil War,the film is on to the next joke, fight sequence, or even character beat before the viewer has too much time to think about it.
Bryan Singer is a talented filmmaker who I think is much better at distracting from his mistakes than perhaps Snyder, but there’s a choppy quality to the characterization in this film that is hard to ignore. I believe that these characters would make the choices that they did, but it feels like we are missing entire scenes that bring our understanding of these choices from one point to the next. This is often a symptom that means these in-between scenes were there, but were cut for time.
The biggest problem in Apocalypseis Apocalypse himself and, unlike Civil War,which chooses to emphasize its civil war over its lackluster villain, Apocalypsemakes the opposite choice. This is evident in their respective titles, and this simple switch in priorities de-emphasizes one of the weaker aspects of Civil Warwhile emphasizing the weakest aspect of Apocalypse.This is further emphasizes in Apocalypse‘sending, which seems to forget that the central relationship in this franchise has been the one between Charles and Erik, de-emphasizing it in the denouement immediately following Apocalypse’s defeat.
Rather than focusing on either the Charles/Erik relationship or the Charles/Raven relationship which have been developed since X-Men: First Class, they make this moment about Charles and Moira, an underdeveloped heteronormative romance that is part of a larger, unfortunate trend in superhero blockbusters desperate to impose a heteronormative structure on their franchises. When Charles wakes up from his psychic fight with Apocalypse, he tells Moira about the beach from X-Men: First Class, restoring her memories of the scene.
This is a great callback to the first prequel film and would have been the perfect thematic bookend to that beach scene — if it were about Charles, Erik, and Raven, as it was in X-Men: First Class.By choosing to make this moment about Moira and Charles, Apocalypseis calling attention to one of the film’s formula-driven weaknesses rather than grasping the opportunity to play to its strengths, as Civil War did when put in a similar position.
Could X-Men: Apocalypse become the next Return of the Jedi?
Personally, I’m pulling for a Return of the Jediarc for X-Men: Apocalypse.Sure, it’s the weakest of the X-Menprequel trilogy, but it’s better than a lot of people are giving it credit for. This is no doubt at least partially informed by the inevitable, necessary comparison to the film that came before it: X-Men: Days of Future Past,which was one of the best superhero films of the last decade.
In most reviews of X-Men: Apocalypse, reviewers can’t help but mention the scene that sees Jean, Scott, Jubilee, and Kurt seeing Return of the Jedi at the local mall. In it, Jean notes that at least they can all agree that the third movie is always the worst. Many reviews treat this as prescient meta commentary on the quality of Apocalypse, but I think it may be prescient meta commentary on the public’s reaction to the film. Sure, Apocalypseis not as good as Days of Future Past. But, hopefully, in time, as people have with Return of the Jedi,fans will start to recognize why it deserves more love.