X-Men Apocalypse Isn’t About the End of the World

"All New X-MEN - Colored" | Art by JamieFayX. Used with permission.
One of my favourite parts of X-Men: Apocalypse is the scene toward the end of the movie, when various mutants pool their abilities together to rebuild Xavier’s mansion. Jean Gray hoists stones and beams with her telekinesis near a floating Magneto in plainclothes; Storm, who with Magneto had been under Apocalypse’s thrall, stands among the group as well. It’s a fitting picture of the possibility of renewal after and amid brokenness—the literal rebuilding of the mansion parallels the rebuilding of the X-Men team and the possibility that Xavier’s strained relationships with Magneto and Mystique can also be rebuilt.

It’s also a very familiar type of scene. I’m hard-pressed to think of a single superhero movie that doesn’t end with an explosive (literally), destructive climax, followed by either a subsequent rebuilding, or at least the acknowledgement that a loss has been suffered. The rebuilding generally represents some restoration—whether it’s of a team, of an individual body, or of a literal building like the mansion. X2: X-Men United, for example, also involves an invaded and destroyed mansion that must be rebuilt. The Avengers leaves us with the sense that they have finally assembled. Groot sacrifices himself for his friends but, rather than being gone, regrows as a tiny shoot with a penchant for the Jackson 5. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman’s infamous reputation is further disgraced, and viewers mourn the injustice of it, because we crave public, positive acknowledgement of his crusade.

Disaster, in X-Men: Apocalypse, isn’t only something that can be overcome—it’s something that was defeated before some of us were born.

This trope of costly destruction followed either by rebuilding, or the longing for renewal kept just out of reach, isn’t limited to superhero stories, of course, but superhero stories tend to give it a scale that’s unparalleled in other genres. In a superhero movie like X-Men: Apocalypse, the pain of destruction and the human longing for restoration can be, well, apocalyptic in scope: the entire world’s supply of atomic weaponry can be launched and then rendered useless; individuals can manipulate the magnetic fields of the planet, or guide its weather systems, or control their neighbors’ minds on a massive scale, or produce devastating, near-uncontrollable concussive force (yes, concussive force, not lasers; I still haven’t gotten over how Scott’s force blasts set that tree on fire).

Fans of superhero films would quickly run out of fingers if they had to tally all the cities (most of them New York) that come close to being leveled in the movies they’ve seen over the past twenty years or so. And, as special effects technology improves, the destruction possible in such films becomes not just grander in scale, but far more realistic as seen from the theater seat.

Two reasons for such large-scale disasters leap out at me, and in those two ways, X-Men: Apocalypse is very like your average superhero film. The first reason is, of course, the desire to make things bigger, louder, more exciting, and somehow therefore also better from one film to the next—a desire for newness that, ironically, still doesn’t seem to do much to unsettle the genre tropes we’ve gotten very used too, and that many of us still somehow love.

Second, though, is something tied less to box office numbers and more to zeitgeist: fear. We, even if we’re Westerners living with extreme privilege compared to others elsewhere in the world, are so often afraid. We hear news of terrorist attacks across the world, especially in seemingly safe havens like Paris or Brussels. We fear what we don’t know, and sometimes lash out xenophobically against refugees fleeing their own terrors. Britons, inspired in part by these same fears, vote to leave the EU; Americans, often regardless of which side of the political aisle they’re on, fear what the results of the upcoming presidential election will mean for the US and for the world. We fear the loss of freedoms; we fear judgment and prejudice; we fear attacks and bullets and bombs. We fear apocalypse. And in the frames of the superhero movies we flock to each opening weekend, we get to watch those fears writ large across a silver screen—and then we get to watch them defeated, and cheer as the characters enact and enjoy the restoration we long for.

In at least these two ways, X-Men: Apocalypse is just like any other superhero movie with a Big Bad, an intrepid team of superpowered folks, and a final battle that explodes onscreen in a shower of special effects. It’s nothing new, not in its own franchise, and not in the genre at large.

But at the same time, X-Men: Apocalypse does give us something new; something that tugs at our human longings for restoration after destruction; something that even gives us a slightly, and remarkably, different answer to our spirits of fear.

We fear the loss of freedoms; we fear judgment and prejudice; we fear attacks and bullets and bombs.

The film is not set in our own time, but in the early 1980s, in the latter years of the Cold War. The movie is full of the global tensions, political undercurrents, and terrible fashion choices that make up that era. More than that, though, it’s significant that a film about the fear of the end of the world—with apocalypse in its title!—is set in the past. The Cold War’s main engine of fear, the tension between communism and capitalism behind and in front of the Iron Curtain, isn’t something that occupies us at all now.

What this setting suggests, then, is that the film’s posture toward our fears of apocalypse, disaster, and destruction, is not just the cathartic experience we have when watching other superhero films. Instead of vicariously fearing evil, experiencing its destruction, and then watching as order is restored, for the viewer of X-Men: Apocalypse, the experience is less cathartic and more historical. Though we live with the aftereffects of Cold War-era global politics still, we are no longer possessed by its particular spirit of fear. Disaster, in X-Men: Apocalypse, isn’t only something that can be overcome—it’s something that was defeated before some of us were born.

Any fan of the X-Men movie franchise has seen Xavier’s mansion attacked and rebuilt before, and they’ve seen teams of X-Men break apart and reforge relationships before. This new film’s setting in the past takes these familiar scenes and characters and gives them a new cast. X-Men: Apocalypse is not another addition to a tired genre; neither is it really about the end of the world. Instead, it shows viewers the ways in which community and teamwork and perseverance (and God, if you’re Nightcrawler) not only help us face destruction, not only help us rebuild, but assure us that we’ve won before, and will win again. We can face our fears and know that restoration has come for us—in fact, it’s already been here.

Julie Ooms

Julie Ooms

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Julie Ooms is an Assistant Professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she teachers World and American Literature and freshmen writers. She spends her free time reading comics, keeping her cat, Book, out of trouble, and never again training for a half marathon (once was enough).
Julie Ooms

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