(Major spoilers ahead for X-Men Apocalypse.)
Yeah. The author herself can scarcely believe she just said that. But hear me out.
I have to admit, I have never been a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (except for Jessica Jones because, Jessica Jones). Instead of trawling my way through that sprawling and overwrought behemoth, I prefer to find my superhero home in the Fox-owned X-Men franchise. It’s not necessarily any simpler — the plots are messy and half of canon can get erased by time travel (Days of Future Past, I’m side-eyeing you), but in all of it somewhere Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is the constant that’s always there for me. It might be the multitude of amazing female characters, or the way the story is an easy metaphor for being LGBTQ, or perhaps just all of the cool hair styles and super powers; but no matter the reason X-Men has and always will be my jam. I adore the X-Men. I enjoyed the absolute hell out of the latest installment, X-Men Apocalypse, which hit theatres last week. It was amazing fun.
However, there is one red-hot thorn in the side of X-Men Apocalypse, and that is arguably one of the best characters in the series: Magneto.
A man who wavers on the knife’s edge between villain and anti-hero, Magneto has always been a fascinating character in the X-Men series with a powerful, emotional backstory to carry him through his grim wrestle with good and evil. Magneto’s character arc is, for all intents and purposes, the backbone of this film. In fact, his story alongside Professor Charles Xavier has carried us through almost every entry in the series so far, not including the dedication of one Hugh Jackman, whose equally mysterious, tragic, and steely (no pun intended) Wolverine — the anti-hero of anti-heroes — has featured in every film to date. But for the first time in the series, the film does not belong to Magneto or Wolverine. It doesn’t even belong Professor Charles Xavier. No, X-Men Apocalypse belongs to one very young, but very powerful girl. It belongs to Jean Grey. This is Jean Grey’s film, and hers alone.
Or at least, it should have been.
For those of you following along at home (i.e. you who haven’t got your butts to the cinema but don’t mind spoilers), a little summary to set the scene:
X-Men Apocalypse is the third instalment in the prequel series, following on from the 1960s-set First Class and 70s-era Days of Future Past. Apocalypse is set in 1983, which seems impossible if Rose Byrne and James McAvoy’s faces are anything to go by. At this point in the canon their respective characters Moira MacTaggert and Charles Xavier should be at least 45 years old…. But we’ll let that slide.
In 1983 we find that Charles Xavier has been happily running his School for Gifted Youngsters for quite a while, with Hank McCoy, aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult) as his right-hand man. His newest students include a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), and Kurt Wagner, better known as Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Erik Lensherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), has gone into hiding in Poland and now has a wife and young daughter. And Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven — or Mystique, as she’s famously known — is traipsing the globe, recruiting/rescuing young mutants and totally not being a hero, at all.
As it would happen, the world’s first and most powerful mutant En Sabah Nur, an Ancient Egyptian worshiped as a god, wakes from a super-powered sleep that has preserved him for thousands of years. He has a massive range of powers which enable him to do all kinds of scary shit, including but not limited to turning people to dust and enhancing the power of other mutants. He goes on the search for four mutants that he can turn into his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, so that together they can become the most powerful mutants ever and take over the world and assume a new world order, etc, etc, blah blah blah. We know the story. Our estranged protagonists are forced to reunite in order to stop him.
At this point, Magneto’s storyline takes first position. After using his powers for good and saving someone’s life, Magneto loses the happy life he’s established in hiding over the past 10 years. He gets recognized and tracked down by the authorities; then his wife and daughter are accidentally killed in the process of his capture. Shattered beyond repair, Magneto allows himself to be recruited as one of the Four Horsemen by En Sabah Nur (who will forthwith be referred to as Apocalypse).
The rest of the film follows the X-Men reuniting and forming a team to try and stop Apocalypse from taking over the world, and convince Magneto to change sides and come home to his mutant family.
So if the movie’s primary emotional arc is all about Magneto, why should he not be in the film? And why is Jean Grey so important?
Well. There are two major issues with giving Magneto the emotional arc, and the first and biggest one is that despite the X-Men’s success in helping Magneto come to his senses and join the good guys, his emotional arc has no payoff. That is to say, Magneto’s change of heart has no result. Sure, he helps the rest of the X-Men defeat Apocalypse, but Magneto’s darkest moments do not lead to a highest high, a Big Damn Hero move, a Crowning Moment of Awesome.
No, the Crowning Moment of Awesome belongs to one Jean Grey. And that’s because young Jean Grey is the only mutant who possesses power strong enough to actually stop Apocalypse.
The combined forces of the other mutants’ powers only have effect on Apocalypse once Jean realizes her strength and uses her telepathy to get inside Apocalypse’s head and leave him wide open and vulnerable. And that’s not to mention her telekinetic force literally incinerates the flesh right off his bones.
Not only is Jean insanely powerful in this moment, but the entire end of the film builds around her ability to find the strength to make this super-powered move. Xavier is dying, his telepathy overpowered by Apocalypse. His close bond with Jean allows him to get inside her mind and help her summon her power to save everyone.
If Jean Grey is going to save the day in the end and be the one to defeat the Big Bad, there really is no reason to sideline her for the whole rest of the film and give us no backstory or insight into her character, no emotional trajectory to carry us with her until the final showdown.
And yet X-Men Apocalypse does exactly that, in favor of almost every single male character in the movie.
Magneto is the biggest offender of unnecessary screen time, but the film also gives a fairly generous amount of backstory and development to Scott Summers, Nightcrawler and Angel. Scott Summers gets the opening number with a little history about the moment he gots his powers, and later becomes the focus of a brief subplot when his older brother and mentor Alex is killed in an explosion.
As adorable and heartwarming as Nightcrawler is, his role as comic relief becomes obsolete as soon as the witty, show-stealing Quicksilver (Evan Peters) enters the film. Not only that, but Nightcrawler’s teleportation power is not as necessary to the plot as the film makes it out to be. In fact in most cases Jean or Quicksilver could take his place. One notable moment is the during the final showdown, when Xavier must be rescued from a labyrinthine pyramid. Nightcrawler teleports inside and then has to wander around looking for Xavier; it’s equally possible to see Jean using her telekinesis to seek out Xavier and find him inside the pyramid herself.
Nightcrawler and Angel also get a significant introduction together in which they are forced to verse each other in an underground mutant cage fight. After Nightcrawler defeats Angel they are separated, but meet again for a rematch in the final showdown when Nightcrawler arrives with the X-Men to find that Angel is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The amount of screen time dedicated to these two all-but redundant characters is mind blowing. It’s a wonder the film didn’t use the same device with Jean and Storm instead, the latter of whom is also one of the Four Horsemen. Jean and Storm are known to become extremely close friends in the X-Men universe, so to see them meet and face-off as rivals in a scene dedicated to this development would have been worthwhile.
Contrast Jean, who is introduced by way of Scott’s arrival at Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters. A sight-impaired Scott runs into her in the hallway, knocking her books out of her hand in a very classic first-meeting scenario — only this time the girl has super powers to stop her books from hitting the floor. Nevertheless Jean is initially presented to the audience as a potential love interest, and not a developed character in her own right. Pretty odd considering that Jean ends up saving everyone’s lives while Scott winds up trapped against a wall and has to be rescued by Beast.
Even more mind-boggling than the preference given to the male characters is the under-valued importance of the relationship between Jean and her father-figure Xavier. The film touches on it briefly in a few scenes but their connection is nothing short of fundamental to the entire framework of the plot. Focusing the emotional arc of the film on their relationship and Jean’s development under Xavier’s wing would make a lot more sense than assigning the emotional arc to Magneto. In the X-Men comics, Jean’s powers first manifest when her best friend is hit by a car and killed. Her own life is saved by Xavier when he wakes her from the coma she brought upon herself. Why was this backstory not included in the film? The parallels between Jean waking from her power-induced coma and Apocalypse waking from thousands of years of power-induced sleep seem like an opportunity not to be missed, considering the film’s resolution.
But back to Magneto. It’s not that Magneto shouldn’t be in the film at all, but that the significance of his role should have been seriously reconsidered. His storyline serves no greater purpose for the ending of the film; there’s payoff and resolution to be had, but for some odd reason the filmmakers chose not to include it. Quicksilver knows he is Magneto’s son, and with the entire story revolving around the loss of Magneto’s family, the knowledge that he had a son could have saved the day a lot sooner. But somehow Quicksilver can’t bring himself to reveal the truth. Given that this information was already hinted at in Days of Future Past, it’s any wonder it wasn’t brought to a conclusion in X-Men Apocalypse while the stakes were so high.
Finally, it must be mentioned that the other huge problem with Magneto’s story isn’t the sidelining of Jean Grey or the lack of payoff at the end of the film — it’s the unfortunate implications of combining Apocalypse’s ideology with Magneto’s backstory as a Holocaust survivor. The conflation of various Christian references (e.g The Four Horsemen) with Jewish history is ignorant enough, but writing a character whose parents were killed in Auschwitz to turn and follow a genocidal god-like figure who speaks of “cleansing” and “purifying” the world is extremely poor taste. For this reason alone I think the decision to use Magneto as a feature character alongside Apocalypse was a terrible choice. I imagine most of these decisions were made in ignorance, but considering the erasure of other X-Men characters’ Jewish backgrounds (Kitty Pryde, Americanizing Quicksilver’s real name from Pietro to Peter), it’s high time that the X-Men series did some real research and showed some proper respect and concern for Jewish history and religion. Throwing in some references to Auschwitz isn’t enough. Do better, Bryan Singer.
The X-Men series has always been innumerably flawed. As fun as this latest instalment is, it fails like its predecessors to reach the potential it is capable of. For all the superhero films we have about men, letting Jean Grey’s Phoenix rise in X-Men Apocalypse would have a pleasantly refreshing surprise. The ending is magnificent, but the disregard for Jean’s development throughout leaves the viewer wanting. Despite Jean Grey saving the world, X-Men Apocalypse teaches us nothing about her. One can only hope that the next X-Men film puts Jean Grey front and center, but at this point in the game best opportunity to develop her origin story has been sorely missed.
Here’s to a future where the super-girls not only save the world, but win it too.