Do you hear it, children of the atom? Do you sense it, X fans everywhere? Do you feel the sands of time crunching beneath the despotic boot of the X-Men’s most powerful foe? If you listen, you can hear it because Apocalypse has risen in X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer’s latest installment in Fox’s X-Men film saga.
This leads to a Den of Geek conundrum. The character’s history is more complicated than doing Euclidian geometry blindfolded, under water, while having to recite the Aramaic alphabet backwards. The history of Apocalypse is as endless as the deserts of ancient Egypt and if I get all textbook on you, it’s going to be just as dry, so allow me to present these Apocalyptic highlights.
So focus your attention back…way back, as the sands of time shift and reshape and we travel back to the ancient days of – 1986?
Apocalypse Was Almost Not Apocalypse
In the bygone era of 1986, X-Men spinoffs were a very rare thing. Unlike today, where Marvel will throw an X in front of anything, back in the day, a new X title was a pretty special event. So when X-Factor #1 hit the stands, comic fans responded and it was an instant sensation. For five issues, writer Bob Layton was building a new super villain team called the Alliance of Evil. It was all leading to the introduction of the Alliance’s leader, a villain that, if Layton had his druthers, would become one of the most important antagonists in X history. o Layton built his story, and was ready to spring the identity of the villain, a villain destined to take his place in Marvel’s pantheon of evil. That villain was supposed to be…The Owl!!!
Well, that could have been anti-climactic, huh?
No disrespect to Layton, he truly is one of the most important creators of the ’70s to the ’90s, but the Owl wasn’t exactly A list material. Maybe if Layton had his way, the Owl would have become an elite evil in the MU, but the writer never got the chance. Editor-in-chief Bob Harras stepped in and told Layton to create a new arch villain, a villain that follows in the tradition of Doctor Doom and Magneto, Kang and Ultron.
Layton took his Owl and went home but writer Louise Simonson took over and was ready to release an ancient evil on X-Factor and the world. Along with Jackson “Butch” Guice, Simonson unveiled Apocalypse, an imposing and ancient mutant that was the very template of an arch villain. The original Apocalypse design was created by Walt Simonson and was adapted by Guice for the villain’s debut in X-Factor #6. It was clear from the first moment Apocalypse appeared, that this villain was special. He was regal, terrifying, and unique. Most of all, Apocalypse felt important and after his debut, he took his place at the top of the X-Men rogues’ gallery.
The Owl went on to become a rather important Daredevil and Spider-Man villain, but he worked better as a street level threat. I don’t think we would be as excited right now if we were getting ready for the release of Fox’s X-Men: Owl, do you? Didn’t think so.
The Rise of Apocalypse
Okay, so the Alliance of Evil got their collective ass kicked by X-Factor, but Apocalypse was still a big deal. Before we get into the villain’s next contemporary appearance, let’s talk origin.
In 1996’s Rise of Apocalypse mini-series by writer Terry Kavanagh and artist Adam Polina, the origin of En Sabah Nur is revealed. En Sabah Nur was born with grey skin and blue lips. No, he was not born eating a blue ice pop; he was the first mutant the Earth had seen. He was cast out by his village because humanity sucks and rescued by beings called the Sandstormers.
Here’s where things get complicated and cool because now, disparate elements of the Marvel Universe enter the picture and help forge the history of the mutant who will one day be unto a god. The Sandstormers raise Nur and teach him all sorts of Darwinian theories about survival. Nur gets all Robert E. Howard and is ready to crush his enemies, see them driven before him, and hear the lamentations of their women.
At this point Rama Tut arrives. Now, the really big and awesome nerds in the audience will know that Rama Tut is really time traveler and Avengers villain Kang (think if you crossed Doctor Who with Hitler). Tut or Kang or (ARRGGHH CONFUSING!) knows what En Sabah Nur is destined to become, a world crushing despot named Apocalypse, so Tut goes to war with the Sandstormers. Tut destroys Nur’s tribe and the grey skinned warrior swears revenge. He goes undercover into one of Tut’s cities and falls in love with the sister of one of Tut’s cronies. The girl rejects him and the spurned and enraged Nur has a bit of a tantrum. Nur’s mutant powers manifest and he is transformed into Apocalypse. All for love. How timelessly tragic.
A History of Awesome
Okay, since the Den of Geek brain trust will have to edit this feature between late night binge drinking sessions, let’s keep this next part brief. After En Sabah Nur rose as Apocalypse, he wanders the globe in order to convince mankind that he is a god. It’s all very Trump like I know, but it works as more and more followers join Nur’s Apocalypse cult.
These travels bring him in contact with the Eternals, an immortal race of godlike beings (they were created by Jack Kirby by the by, a true god on Earth). Also at this time, Apocalypse discovers the ancient race of space entities known as the Celestials (also created by Kirby). Apocalypse steals some of the Celestials’ technology. So when you see Apocalypse with high-tech sci-fi ships and guns and whatnot, now you know why. At this time, Apocalypse also encounters Thor and the Asgardians, and…
Apocalypse Creates Mister Sinister
Mister Sinister is probably the most infamous X foe that has yet to appear in a film (yeah, I like Unus the Untouchable too, but relax). In The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix (1994), writer Peter Milligan and artist John Paul Leon relate the tale of Sinister’s creation.
In this series, Apocalypse meets Nathaniel Essex, a Victorian Era scientist who has discovered secrets about the mutant X gene. Apocalypse decides that Essex can be a useful pawn and uses his Celestial technology to transform the brilliant thinker into the mad geneticist, Mister Sinister. Apocalypse forces his new creation to join the Hellfire Club and plans to use him to conquer the world. Sinister betrays his maker, forcing Apocalypse into a long slumber. This begins an ages old feud between Apocalypse and Sinister, one that I truly hope is somehow played out on film one day.
Like all great villains, Apocalypse has added to the tapestry of the Marvel Universe. Sinister is perhaps Apocalypse’s most important creation but there would be more. But first, when Apocalypse awoke from his long sleep, his strangest adventure began.
So There Was This One Time Apocalypse fought Dracula Because Comics Are Awesome
In the distant past during his reign of power, Apocalypse faced and defeated Count Vlad Tepes. Centuries later, Tepes, now known as Dracula, attacks one of Apocalypse’s cults, compelling Nur’s followers to awaken Apocalypse from the sleep Sinister forced him into. So, yeah Apocalypse versus Dracula, and neither Abbott nor Costello show up.
This clash of immortals was told in X-Men: Apocalypse vs. Dracula (2006). It was written by Frank Tieri, drawn by Clayton Henry, and was all sorts of awesome. Bauhaus has a song about it. No, they don’t, but they would be even cooler if they did.
Onto the Dead of Night, with the Four Horsemen Ride, Now Chose Your Fate and Die Oh Yeah, Yeah
Around this time, it was revealed that Apocalypse was awakened in the present by the arrival of the time traveler Cable (you’re gonna meet him in Deadpool 2). Anyway, the Alliance of Evil kind of sucked so Apocalypse wanted to recruit a new team of mutant powered minions. Let’s just say, Apocalypse’s second squad did not in any way suck and are still fondly remembered today so many years later.
Around the time of the Fall of the Mutants crossover, Apocalypse began recruiting members for his Four Horsemen. Apocalypse recruited Plague of the Morlocks as Pestilence, a wounded soldier as War, an anorexic girl as Famine, and as Death…Apocalypse found the unlikeliest candidate off all, one that shocked fandom and sent ripples through Marveldom assembled.
In the Mutant Massacre storyline, founding X-Man Warren Worthington, the beauteous and high flying Angel, was severely wounded and had to have his wings amputated. This left Worthington a sullen and bitter mess. Apocalypse found Angel on the verge of suicide and transformed the once great hero into the razor winged Death. Worthington of course regained control of his new profoundly deadly form and betrayed Apocalypse. But Apocalypse’s forbidden science had changed the character forever. Apocalypse took one of the X-Men’s brightest and most hopeful figures and profaned the angelic being into a weapon of blood and death.
There were many more Horsemen to follow including long time X-Men ally Caliban and even Gambit, but it was when Apocalypse tainted the legacy of an angel that the world learned just how vile Apocalypse could be. The film version of Apocalypse will have his own version of the Four Horsemen (sans Tully Blanchard and the Nature WHOOOOO Boy, sadly), but it was in Fall of the Mutants that the world learned to fear the hoof beats of the Horsemen of Apocalypse.
Once and Future King
Apocalypse isn’t only a threat to the past and present; Apocalypse is destined to rule in the far future as well. In multiple issues of Cable, X-Force, X-Men, and other things with an X in the title, the future of Apocalypse was revealed piecemeal. The long of the short of it is this. Around the time of the 39th century (which is exactly when I’m going to be done writing this article), En Sabah Nur conquerors the world, creating a crushing dystopia without hope, until a champion arrives in the form of the son of Cyclops and Jean Grey clone Madeline Pryor.
If I explain all that, we’ll be here until the 49th century, but rest assured, that Nathan Summers, as the baby is so named, grows up to become Cable and take the fight to Apocalypse in the far future. So through Apocalypse, we have modern day superhero epics, gothic era monster mashes, and far flung futuristic dystopian sci-fi yarns. Now, that’s a malleable character.
Age of Apocalypse
OK, Apocalypse has been featured in like a thousand different stories from Marvel raging from the epic to the sublime to the downright odd, but nothing has shaken up comics like the Age of Apocalypse. In 1995, Marvel tried something unheard of with its X-Men titles. Now these days, it’s not unusual for a major comic publisher to cease publication of its line and replace these monthly titles with an event driven group of books. Sometimes, like with Marvel’s recent Secret Wars, it works, and other times, it ends up like DC’s Convergence (ahem), but no instance of stunt publishing ever duplicated the fabled success of Age of Apocalypse.
In this classic story, Professor Xavier’s son Legion went back in time and killed the founder of the X-Men. This caused time to shatter as the X-Men was never formed because Xavier’s dream was dead. What replaced the world protected by Xavier’s students? Why, that would be the Age of Apocalypse, a world where En Sabah Nur ruled with an iron fist.
Marvel Comics cancelled all its X-books (well, postponed really, but in this pre-internet age, no loyal X fan knew what the heck was going on), and replaced each and every book with a twisted mirror image of X-lore. Magneto was good, Cyclops was bad, Wolverine had one hand, and everything was just twisted. Marvel fans ate it up with a spoon and made Age of Apocalypse one of Marvel’s most successful publishing endeavors of the late 20th century.
But in addition to the sales success and publishing shenanigans, Age of Apocalypse was all about the horror of En Sabah Nur. After the time shift, fans realized just what exactly the X-Men were fighting when they went up against Apocalypse. If the X-Men were to lose, the world would be plunged into the chaos of AoA. The X-Men were able to defeat Apocalypse and rekindle Xavier’s dream, but the specter of a world ruled by the timeless mutant forever hung over the X- Universe as fandom got to witness just how brutal a world ruled by Apocalypse could be.
And the Legend Grows…
Since Age of Apocalypse, Apocalypse has appeared in many huge stories that have impacted the Marvel Universe. X fans have witnessed the coming of Kid Apocalypse, an innocent young mutant who has become a stalwart member of the X-Men. This young man looks like a youthful version of En Sabah Nur and forever tries to overcome the legacy of his ancient namesake. Apocalypse was a major adversary to the Uncanny Avengers as the first mutant both teamed with and fought this amalgamated team of Avengers and mutants. Let’s not forget the Messiah War where a ravaged Apocalypse begs his creation Archangel to end his ancient existence.
These stories weave a great tapestry across the many ages of Marvel history, and now, this tapestry takes a cinematic turn as Oscar Isaac steps out of Poe Dameron’s X-Wing and into the power armor of En Sabah Nur. The X-Men film franchise has plenty of story directions to choose from as the cinematic Age of Apocalypse begins.