X-Men: Apocalypse — Now (and Then): Facing Doomsday in the Age of Reagan
“Welcome to the Eighties,” Ororo Munroe tells En Sabah Nur in the stormy-tense environment of Cairo.
X-Men: Apocalypse does more than prophesize the End Times. The movie challenges the concept of bipolar superpowers during the last decade of the Cold War. The film takes place in 1983, ten years after Days of Future Past, the previous X-Men installment that restored the faith in the American Way in the aftermath of Vietnam and the opening days of Watergate. This sequel further reaffirms Americanism in the face of “False Gods” who seek to challenge the superpower “system” with super-powered idols.
The bad guy (and yes, Mystique — the reluctant superheroine guru — tells us, there is a supervillain in this movie) is En Sabah Nur, or “Apocalypse” for short, who lays claim as mutantkind’s Founding Father of sorts. A preserved pharaoh from the Pre-Dynastic Period, Apocalypse is a mythical deity who, as our historian-screenwriters’ suggest, unified Egypt in 3100 BC. He now seeks a reunification of another sort, refashioning the Age of Reagan to his liking. Apocalypse is the ultimate mutant user, absorbing the power of other mutants as he transfers from one body to another throughout the centuries. A one-man collective, he offers a new order, where homo superior supersedes the superpowers of the Cold War rivalry.
En Sabah Nur doesn’t mince words. In his first act, he disarms the international nuclear club and the camera intersperses shots of a nuke-less America with snapshots of frightened suburbanites, including no less a figure than X-Men co-creator Stan Lee. In the dawn of the Atomic Age, 1950s civil defense strategies supported the white flight from cities to suburbs to defray the human cost if and when the Commies bomb metropolitan hubs. Apocalypse not only undermines the foundation of Cold War defense planning, but strips the nuclear family/nation from its ability to wage massive retaliation. Instead, in his new world order, Apocalypse plans to replace nuclear brinkmanship ideology with idolatry — namely, himself. “These false gods, systems of the weak, they’ve ruined my world,” Apocalypse whines. “No more!”
Fittingly, Apocalypse positions himself as a champion against Americanism, which he describes as the weak taking over the earth thanks to Wall Street and weaponry. His four horsemen consist of America’s international competitors, economically and culturally. Psylocke is a Japanese assassin, who hails from the “Asian Tiger” that threatened to outpace American capitalism. Angel is a re-imagined Warren Worthington III, once an arrogant boy millionaire in the comics and now a West Berlin fight-club has-been, conveniently sidestepping the American Dream that rebuilt his country after World War II. Storm is a thief, but morphs into the great white-haired hope for American redemption by the end —not only does Storm agree to stay at the X-Mansion in Westchester, her household watches the Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?,” where a Greek god wannabe realizes he is no match for the greater workings of the U.S.-inspired James T. Kirk. Magneto is also the redeemed Holocaust survivor, trapped in the past. He loses his Polish family in an eerily reverse Katyn Massacre, where he executes Polish nationals who fear his past terrorism. These Four Horsemen declare war on the world….one lead by the U.S.A.
Apocalypse could not have chosen a better time to live up to his namesake. The early 1980s was marked by tensions as the United States struggled to redefine itself after the doldrums of Watergate and economic stagflation. In 1983, the U.S. started to climb out of a deep recession that had marred Reagan’s early term, including high unemployment and financial crises among banks and savings and loans. On the international scene, the Middle East, En Sabah Nur’s stomping grounds, was also racked by crises: in a montage of old news footage, Apocalypse sees the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, joined by the unnamed Iran-Iraq War and Egypt’s own mounting debt and economic hard times (Storm is, after all, a thief). The U.S. also flexes its muscles in 1983, when Reagan invaded Grenada and declared victory, dispatched military forces to Lebanon and Honduras, continued to fund the Contra War in Nicaragua, and responded to the U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut. Apocalypse absorbs this information readily, summing it up as a corrupt “system,” which he lays at the feet of the Great Communicator and capitalism. The same rapid-cutting sequence of then-recent headlines included images of Wall Street and C-notes flashing before the camera. Nowhere does this capitalism hit home more profoundly than when En Sabah Nur asks Caliban — a living GPS mutant-tracker — where he can find powerful mutants. When Caliban learns the four horsemen haven’t got a penny, he blithely tells them that he’s closed for business. No wonder Apocalypse wants to swap superpowers for super-powers.
While Apocalypse plots to give the earth to those with the greatest powers, he clearly does not mean Major — excuse me, Colonel — William Stryker. Stryker is the worst that mankind has to offer, as he plots to create human weapons in his secret lair, and even runs away, leaving his men to die terrible deaths from an old man, Logan. Stryker’s presence and secret operation are the Marvelization of the world gone wrong; Apocalypse moans alliteratively about men brandishing spears, stones, slings, swords. “No more weapons! No more systems! No more!” he rants, as he plans to strip men from their tools and machines — ironically, by depending on his own machine that transfers his consciousness to others. Still, Apocalypse has a point; in the last scenes before and after the credits, we learn Reagan is rebuilding America’s arsenal, while Stryker returns to his base, probably with a promotion to general, taking a vial of super-powered blood while his lackies swab up the bloodstains of the mere mortal men he left behind.
But Apocalypse’s message to the world never gets out. Charles Xavier perverts his message, telling those with the greatest powers to protect those without. In this, they rely on good humans, notably Moira MacTaggert. Originally a fierce Irish egghead and defender of mutant rights, MacTaggert’s film version is revamped as an American CIA agent, complete with a portrait of President Reagan on her outer office wall. When Xavier restores her memory in the final reel, she becomes somewhat lovey-dovey towards him — and hey, she’s divorced, so American family values remain intact. Xavier himself supports the system, rebuilding his destroyed mansion. His aged ancestral home, a monument of American capitalism and aristocracy, is re-purposed as a school for the gifted, complete with himself as headmaster, to give aid and comfort to a world that fears and hates them. Good luck, professor!
A global apocalypse, of course, does not happen. En Saban Nur is defeated because his premise is wrong. For one thing, he has no followers; MacTaggert notes some “cults” see mutants as a “second coming or sign of God,” but En Sabah Nur inadvertently kills his Middle Eastern fundamentalist worshippers when he wakes up. Rather, he is the false god, not the American Way, and several “true gods” bring him down. The film makes this clear early on in the title sequence that transitions from 3100 BC to AD 1983. As the audience flashes forward in time, a figure of Christ appears carrying a cross. His burden causes the Lord to stoop over, his cross becoming a prominent X. The mingling of Christianity with mutant rights and Americanism is not incidental; Ronald Reagan rode into the Oval Office on the coattails of Christian evangelicals from the Sunbelt. Even Nightcrawler, described as the “Devil” (Der Teufel) in his introduction, prays to Christ when invading Stryker’s compound, asking for protection and guidance against an American gone wrong. It is not a coincidence that, after the climax, the head honchos at the Pentagon get a phone call from the President and express relief that their prayers were answered. God may not have done anything, but the mutants did.
Prayers and saviors of a different sort find a home among the mutants. First and foremost on the list is Mystique, the raven-haired role model who impersonated and redeemed Richard Nixon in Days of Future Past. Here, Mystique becomes everything from a wall calendar pin-up for Storm to a teacher at Xavier’s school. Storm isn’t the only one who fawns over Mystique. Jean Grey, Kurt Wagner, and Peter Maximoff profess that Mystique changed their lives. “They look up to you,” Hank McCoy tells her as his class of little true believers sees her true, blue self. Mystique resists this figurative image and prefers to present Jennifer Lawrence before the audience, but she ultimately embraces her mutant identity. Her extended family of Xavier, Erik Lensherr, and the other X-Men demonstrate she is not alone.
Cue the X-Men’s resident God, Jean Grey. Jean is the mutants’ mutant, with a gift of prophecy and telekinesis so strong, the other gifted kids in Xavier’s halfway house call her a freak. She keeps a tight lid on her own apocalyptic powers, lest she reduce the world to a burnt cinder. She is, after all, a child stumbling in the dark, searching for guidance. But when the chips are down and Apocalypse comes to finish them off, she lets go. Lensherr helps, stopping Apocalypse in his tracks, warning him off by sending two metal beams down on him in a raised X. Grey then ascends, like a phoenix, and reduces En Sabah Nur to ashes and dust.
At one light-hearted moment, Scott, Jean, Kurt, and Jubilee exit a theater, having just seen Return of the Jedi. As they rank the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Jean comments they can at least “agree the third one’s always the worst.” Jean perhaps isn’t prophetic enough to foresee the Star Wars prequels and her glib comment might be a dig at her own trilogy, a prequel series to 2000’s X-Men. But the comparison to Return of the Jedi also parallels the end to Evil Empires, whether they are false gods from ancient Egypt or godless commies in the Soviet Union. As Xavier’s resident fortune teller, Jean can see the end of the Cold War is not a blazing inferno x-over, but a triumphal narrative with the U.S. victorious. The planet Earth will not share the Death Star’s fate. In fact, the sight of Apocalypse sending American warheads floating peacefully in space might even spur President Reagan to develop his own version of Star Wars in space to prevent what he saw was nuclear Armageddon.
The film’s closing shot, with a bald, suited Xavier’s face in shadow, anticipates the arrival of Patrick Stewart to assume command of the wheelchair. Marvel’s mutant Dream Team lives on, united to take a last stand against foes domestic (Stryker), foreign (any other apocalyptic forces from the Middle East), or even their own in the form of assorted brotherhoods of evil mutants. If mutation is the key to our evolution, then the avoidance of this prophesized apocalypse spells the end of history, as the United States takes a great leap forward. Cue end music.