Reel Geek Girl: X-Men: Apocalypse Doesn’t Know What to Do With Women
Directed by Brian Singer
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Alex Shipp,
20th Century Fox
PG-13 147 minutes
Full Disclosure: I really didn’t like X-Men: Days of Future Past. At all. So I was not eager to see X-Men: Apocalypse. But when the editor asks, the writer does.
I came out of the theater not entirely sure what I thought of the film, and after letting it percolate in my backbrain: I remain ambivalent, drifting back and forth from the neutral toward “liked it” and “didn’t like it.”
Singer’s creation was beautiful to look at – that’s been true of every X-Men film so far. No complaints with the special effects, the cinematography or the CGI. It’s all standard fare for X-Men movies now. I saw it in 3D, and I would say it’s worth the extra cost, even if some of the shots were definitely there more to show off the 3D and the effects than to advance the story. The film was made with that in mind, and there are some truly breathtaking shots over the course of the film.
SPOILER WARNING: there will be spoilers for the film beyond this point. Proceed at your own risk.
I try, as a fan, to remind myself that the films are very expensive, very pretty fanfic. I also try to remember that not every film viewer has the extensive comic background I have. Mostly I succeed, but a number of canon deviations in this film did not sit well with me–mainly that Apocalypse’s chosen four Horsemen were characters we know as X-Men, including Storm. As such, they were barely in the film as more than set dressing.
Squandering Female Characters
The fridging of Magneto’s wife and child was wholly unnecessary. Yes, we got to see Erik Lensherr shed tears of grief, and that’s good for the “okay for a man to show emotions” counter to toxic masculinity. But the original canon story of Magneto’s wife discovering he’s a mutant and fleeing from him in terror would have been just as painful without killing a woman and girl for the pain and forwarding of the man’s story.
As if that weren’t bad enough, some of the lines women are given were just head-shakingly weak. Moira, undercover in Egypt, shows up somewhere she shouldn’t be and when challenged by a man who says she should not be in the back, asks in Arabic: “Is this rug for sale? Are you selling this rug?” One would think a CIA operative would have more than two tourist level phrases of Arabic in her vocabulary, especially since she was disguised as a local. There’s also the problematic element of her disguise being a a burqa.
Singer’s largest problem, to me, seems to be that he just does not know what to do with women in general. The film doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. I don’t think there is a single moment in which a woman addresses another woman without a man being part of the conversation. He also tends to portray his women as meek and lacking in common sense far more so than I would prefer. As a lifelong X-Men fan and a feminist, that rankles. I started reading X-Men just as the comic introduced a full complement of kickass women, and Singer’s film downplays their power and strength.
Ororo Munroe, whose name is never even mentioned, meets En Sabah Nur in the Cairo marketplace. She witnesses him casually murder the people pursuing her for stealing. I was flabbergasted to see Ororo take the murderous Nur home with her, where he proceeds to make her his first horseman — upgrading her to the Storm we recognize. I can only presume that was meant as gratitude for him saving her from having her hand cut off for stealing — an old world tradition from the Middle East that is still put forward today as a method of Othering. It makes no sense with any other context, and barely with that context.
Jean Grey, troubled by the strength of her powers, her lack of full control over them, and the nightmares her telepathy brings her, waits until Xavier is literally begging her to help him in psychic battle against Apocalypse. Storm starts out with weak weather control. Apocalypse upgrades her, giving her the power and look we recognize. She spends most of the film standing behind Apocalypse. When the final battle gets going, Storm spends most of the time crouching in the rubble and watching before realizing she’s perhaps on the wrong side. Mystique and Psylocke fare better, both boldly striding right into the thick of battle.
Getting Lost in the Plot — and Losing Track of the Cast
Singer could learn a few lessons from the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War on how best to handle a massive cast and give each player their moment in the spotlight. It felt sometimes like the filmmakers were having a hard time keeping track of who was where during the last twenty minutes of the film.
Some scenes, too, just seemed too long or gratuitous. The introduction of Apocalypse and the sacrifice to him (so we could see Oscar Isaac in his unadorned beauty) went on a good three to five minutes longer than necessary. Quicksilver’s first scene, in which he rescues the entire student body and faculty of the Xavier School was brilliant, but when they checked back in with him trying to deliver a beatdown on Apocalypse, it was nowhere near as exciting.
I can’t fault the performances, though. Fassbender did his usual stellar job as the anguished and conflicted Magneto. MacAvoy as charming yet slightly pervy but still compassionate and idealistic Charles Xavier was also well portrayed. The newcomers: Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan Kodi Smit-McPhee and Alex Shipp as Jean, Scott, Nightcrawler, and Storm, respectively, all did as much with their roles as they could … the latter two had much less to do than the former. Oscar Isaac, despite the elaborate makeup required to make him into Apocalypse, gave a nuanced performance from the moment of En Sabah Nur’s weakened, freshly awakened state to the climactic fight.
I also can’t complain much more about the story than my few concerns above. I liked how Singer’s plot relied on memory and the strength of emotions they carry with them. I enjoyed that Mystique is now seen as a hero for her actions in DOFP, though she doesn’t seem to think she’s the hero mutantkind seems to insist on calling her. Xavier’s apology to Moira and restoral of the memories he took from her at the end of First Class was a nice surprise as well. But with that said, the film could’ve done better with some stronger editing.
My favorite moment came near the end of the film, when the importance of memory comes into play again. The school is being rebuilt with help from Jean and Magneto, and it’s obvious that Jean’s knowledge of architecture is probably right out of someone’s head. But it’s also obvious that the building is being restored with loving care because she’s touched the memories of it from everyone who’s been in it. This was a tiny sequence, barely 30 seconds, but it felt very poignant to me.
So did I love the movie or hate it? When all’s said and done, I remain right in the middle. There were elements I liked, elements I disliked; parts I hated and parts I loved. So I’m calling it an enjoyable watch, worth the price of 3D admission, even though there were things I would have preferred Singer addressed differently. The post-credits bit has me looking forward to the next film, which is a dramatic improvement over how I felt walking out of DOFP.
I began this rating at a 3 for sheer entertainment factor of the film. But on reflection, I dropped half a star for the film being just another installment of the Chuck and Eric tragic bromance with Mystique in the middle. We are more than familiar with their story: Magneto’s rage, and Charles persuading him that there is good in him, with Mystique caught between them. Why was she taking up valuable screen time? She could have been replaced with literally any other characters could have an opportunity to shine. Dropping her would not have changed the story much if at all.
I dropped an entire star for bait and switching the fans with Storm, Psylocke and Jubilee, but barely having them in the film, while giving us Mystique, Beast and Nightcrawler (all blue and all portrayed by white actors). Worst of all, Oscar Isaac is painted over all in indigo for the first non-human looking X-Men villain. This literal dehumanization through costuming is an old Hollywood tradition that needs to end.
Blue is not the color anyone means when they demand to see PoC X-Men, and Singer knows it. If our money is worth courting, then court it respectfully. Hollywood needs to be called out for its continued intentional upholding of racist tropes.