“Those who are strong, protect those who are weak. This is my message to the world.”
-Prof. Charles Xavier, X-Men: Apocalypse
These two sentences, spoken by Xavier into the mind of every man, woman, and mutant on the planet, sum up perfectly everything which X-Men: Apocalypse gets right, and wrong, about the X-Men. Though the characters rarely meditate on the meaning or moral nuances of this particular phrasing of Xavier’s Dream, such are certainly the stakes everyone on either side knows themselves to by fighting for or against. Opposing them is the ancient adversary Apocalypse with a much different philosophy, one in which there is a teleological end to evolution; where “survival of the fittest” is not merely a description of natural selection but a moral imperative as well.
Such is the Social Darwinism of Spencer, and in a franchise which focuses so much on evolution, it is only fitting that one of the ethical frameworks developed in response to that breakthrough in biological understanding would be thoroughly explored. “Mutants” as Marvel uses the term began as a metaphor for minorities and all persecuted peoples, but even as literal genetic mutations they could still be utilized to examine interesting ethical quandaries. After all, Homo Superior genuinely are superior, blessed with powers and abilities far beyond those of humankind. Far from the baseless bigotry of our own world, in which any alleged superiority of one individual over another along racial lines lost all legitimacy with the through debunking of various pseudosciences like phrenology, mutantkind knows itself to be mankind’s better, a branch truly higher up along the evolutionary tree. The question of coexistence should hardly be obvious; it should take real contemplation, real conviction, to believe and fight for Xavier’s Dream.
And herein lies a principle problem with X-Men: Apocalypse. The titular villain is so grandiose in his designs for destruction that it is impossible for either the characters or the filmgoers to view him as anything other than an obvious villain. What could have been a character with real conviction, real pathos, every bit as much as Magneto, is reduced to a straw man. Even his horsemen are merely lost and looking for a leader; hardly true believers. And because the students of Xavier’s school aren’t forced to wrestle with whether En Sabah Nur is actually in the right, defeating him is no different than any common confrontation between superheroes and villains. Apocalypse in the film could be any big bad with murky motivations to destroy the world. Worse, the X-Men could be any generic good guys.
This brings us back to Xavier’s quote above. “Those who are strong, protect those who are weak.” Such is certainly in keeping with Xavier’s philosophy, but it’s only a fraction of his message. Had the same line been uttered by Superman or Spider-man, no one would have batted an eye, because there’s little about this film’s message that’s unique to the X-Men brand. This is particularly unfortunate as X-Men, from the very first issue, has always had a particular philosophy, one which fueled their popularity.
Though they first existed as a stand-in for race relations, with Xavier and Magneto modelled after Martin Luthor King and Malcolm X, respectively, over the years the plight of mutants has been the source of identification for any and all outsiders, not merely minorities. Being bullied as a child, I certainly saw myself as apart from my peers, not along the common lines of ethnicity or gender or orientation, but even as a straight white male I was fully capable of harboring a persecution complex which I was at the time too young to articulate. Yet the X-Men comics I read voraciously created in my mind a clear contrast between the heroes and their adversaries as to how to properly respond to those who harbored hatred for me without cause or offence on my part. Later, in my period of piety through high school and undergrad, I rediscovered my kinship with the X-Men anew, seeing similarities between the martyrdom of mutants and the persecution of Christians, and moreover the pacifism of Xavier with Christ’s command to love one’s enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and to turn the other cheek. This was despite growing up in the relatively religious country of America where Christianity composes the overwhelming majority.
Which only goes to show, every group, every individual, sees themselves as the persecuted minority in some context. The ultra-rich Randian Objectivists are sincere about feeling persecuted by proletariat poor, the 99% against their small 1%. Self-identified “Social Justice Warriors” and pro-Gamergate Men’s Rights Activists both, without a hint of irony, feel persecuted by the seemingly vast legion of one another’s opposing sides.
If the message of X-Men: Apocalypse is merely “Those who are strong, protect the weak,” the problem which arises in applying that morality to one’s own life is that all of us see our own tribe as the weak in need of protection from the predations of the powerful. But Xavier’s Dream was always more complex, more nuanced, than such chivalry, or even coexistence or pacifism. His is also a vision of educating one’s enemies, engaging them in dialog, always believing that even one’s fiercest foes is capable finding in themselves better angels of our nature. It is to that end that he teaches his students tolerance of those who fear and hate them, to extend to such an open hand instead of a closed fist. In short, civility. A virtue we need now as much as ever.
This is, to be sure, a fairly damning critique, a mistake I’m especially surprised to have seem Bryan Singer make, especially after he’d so skillfully used the metaphor of mutants to portray the plight of his own particular people in X2. But such does not ruin the film for me. True, there were other problems as well. Save for Storm, none of the new casting felt particularly inspired, and the costume design – despite embracing its four-color comic book roots more so in this movie – is nearly as bad as the X-films have always been (Apocalypse in particular). Worse yet, the recent trilogy, increasingly over its course, seems to have been hijacked by the relatively minor character of Mistique merely because of the star power of Jennifer Lawrence.
And yet, even if I didn’t love the film, I enjoyed it at least as much as any other entry in the franchise. The special effects were the best in the series so far – to be expected given the progress of technology, but worth mentioning all the same. And Bryan Singer’s eye for cinematography is as outstanding as ever; most scenes are imbued with an interesting camera angle and a vivid color palate, which is never to be discounted lightly in this medium. Perhaps most praiseworthy, the final set-piece is excellently paced, particularly the fan-pleasing climax. And right before the credits rolled around, the final shot left me riding an emotional high, fist-bumping my friend with all sincerity in agreement of the ending’s awesomeness. I’d actually left the cinema with a fairly positive perspective of the film, only seeing the full seriousness of its problematic aspects upon closer reflection.
Of the four comic book movies released thus far in 2016, X-Men: Apocalypse is certainly the weakest. It’s not even a particularly good X-Men story in comparison to the comics. But it’s certainly a decent entry in the film franchise, one which had only really seemed significant prior to the advent of the Marvel Studios movies. It’s certainly no worse on average than any of the other X-films. Go in with those expectations and you won’t leave disappointed.
Or better yet, you could just read the current volume of Old Man Logan.