“X-Men: Apocalypse” and the Saturation Point of Serial Comic Entertainment

“X-Men: Apocalypse” and the Saturation Point of Serial Comic Entertainment

I work in a comic book store. Like, full time, benefits, get sent to San Diego Comic Con, seriously-Mom-and-Dad-this-is-a-viable-life-choice, work in a comic book store. I hear a lot about comic book movies and we need to establish something about comic books.

Comics are much weirder and dumber and more glorious than you think. When I was in elementary school the worst part of sick days was when my Mom would watch All My Children. The show was utterly cryptic and impossible to understand. If I ever asked who a character was I got a nonsense response involving six other characters, the different actors who have played them, the comas, deaths and returns to life, falls down mine shafts and all that. Understand this: comic books are All My Children with spandex, more punching, and everyone is a white dude.

Hollywood is now churning superhero movies out at a nerve-frying pace, many of them reestablishing the same origin stories over and over again. Marvel, with Civil War, is just starting to tell more complicated stories that cross over multiple comics staring different heroes. This is going to expose a major flaw of comic books: they’re batshit crazy.

Comic book fans generally divide themselves into the Marvel or DC camps. What a casual observer might not realize is that most of the iconic characters in both universes were created before modern copyright laws so they’re pretty damn similar. And when there are major comic events, they tend to happen at the same time, and be the same thing. Last summer DC had Convergence and Marvel had Secret Wars. Both events can be summarized like this: a very well known villain goes ultra crazy for…reasons, pulls cities from planets across all dimensions of the multiverse and puts them on a single planet together. Stuff happens, the multiverses are on a collision course, they crash and spit out a — theoretically but not functionally — less complicated single universe.

The result in the Marvel Universe, for instance, followed the death of Wolverine, but this new Marvel Universe contains X-23, the All-New Wolverine who is a female clone of the now dead Wolverine, and Old Man Logan, a future version of an aged Wolverine who has a family but everything goes wrong and he becomes even more cranky and violent. Most of the people now remember when Old Man Logan killed them in the alternate future that no longer exists — and they fight crime together, so that’s awkward. Sometimes X-23 is there too. Does that mean Logan “The Wolverine” is dead or not? The answer is yes, until someone decides that he won’t be.

This is what the comic movie franchises are wandering into. People want more of these characters and the “more” they’re going to get is unintelligible to people who have been reading the source material for decades in some cases.

That’s not firm footing for a film franchise. I use the Wolverine example largely because I couldn’t come up with one involving a character in the film X-Men: Apocalypse — because the core X-Men group is so confusing that I don’t entirely understand most of it. If you saw the last film, Days of Future Past, you know that they can change their own timelines and alter each others’ memories of said events. Where do you go after getting to that point with a bunch of movies? Apocalypse.

This Apocalypse is a dude — the first mutant, played by Poe Dameron from Star Wars. The heavy makeup and autotune a la Isaac Hayes will prevent you from remembering this. He can absorb and accumulate other mutants’ powers, making him like a Build-a-Bear with every single accessory, including murder. He always has a four-mutant squad and together they destroy the world. Repeatedly. Charles Xavier and Magneto continue to have the same “I see the good in you, you very bad man!” bromance, and it goes to Auschwitz. Again. Except this time there’s no opportunity to talk much about civil rights because Apocalypse is trying to destroy the world.

I waited to write my review to see how the film sat with me, but instantly saw arguments calling the film redundant and without development — and people jumping to call it “the WORST X-Men movie” because every comic book related movie has to be THE BEST or THE WORST thing ever, and that capitalization is mandatory.

Now that we’re so saturated with these films — four massive tent-pole releases from three separate studios just this summer — the inevitable functional chapters of stories are automatically boring or THE WORST and going to end [insert whatever film company just released a movie] forever. Here’s what you’re paying money for: the X-Men, using their mutant powers, as a team that struggles to overcome its internal obstacles, try to prevent another mutant from destroying the world. That is every X-Men movie that has ever or will ever be made.

The X-Men franchise, as it exists, is the older sibling of all of these upstart Superbats and Iron Captain Widow situations. They’re gritty and realistic, but with some comedic relief, they are self-aware in a way that isn’t tongue-in-cheek or self-congratulatory, and there’s something visually new and impressive in each of them. It’s a little disappointing that the bulk of that visually new thing, screentime-wise, is disaster porn from Apocalypse. Oh — and it starts in ancient Egypt, which is extremely weird and maybe a little alarming if you walk into it not understanding the realm of the truly bonkers comic book stories we’re going to start seeing now.

For instance, the big fall release will be Doctor Strange, which is about a guy who does magic. We’re in so deep we no longer even care about science or reasons at this point. What’s Doctor Strange’s deal? He’s a Sorcerer Supreme? Oh, all right. I have it on good authority that this movie is going to make our eyeballs simultaneously explode and crap their pants, but again, because magic. “Why” is done. Don’t worry about it.

I am an adult with a wardrobe containing an embarrassingly large number of t-shirts featuring very obscure nerd references. I literally get paid to talk about this stuff all day. I care on very deep, primal levels about this ridiculousness. There are fundamental, human things and feelings at the core of these films, exaggerated with bigger than life personalities and adventure. But I can also see it all objectively (most of the time), which is what I think the X-Men franchise does. It’s been around longer than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the films come out slower on a much less overwhelming timetable and something about those facts gives the X-Men films a more grounded feeling. I have confidence that there will be more X-Men films. They’ve already established a longevity that makes me feel justified about being invested in them. I also have confidence that as soon as they get less profitable, there will be far fewer Marvel films. Regardless of how incredible and indispensable they feel right now, they’re a bubble.

Because they exist outside of the frenzy bubble, the “omg!”ness of the X-Men films fluctuates. I won’t call this a peak X-Men film. Parts feel long and it doesn’t have the rewarding relationship-building that make the Cap/Iron Man dynamic so fun. Even though I didn’t get the same nerd-adrenaline rush as I have with other films, I’m still really, really looking forward to the next X-Men movie — and I’m going to pay to see it again opening weekend. If anyone likes the X-Men, but hears that it’s THE WORST X-men movie and decides not to go, I’m going to cut a nerd.

Having all of these movies out at the same time makes direct comparisons impossible to avoid, which just creates an arms race of special effects and holiday box-office record attempts. That’s how Marvel and DC can wind up making what is essentially the same comic book event story in one summer and both of them just kind of suck. If you like having film franchises that are unique from one another and try different things, go see X-Men: Apocalypse and enjoy it for the X-Men onscreen and for a mega-strong, old-fashioned supervillain.

Serialized entertainment is something to be had in installments over a longer time. The X-Men movies demonstrate that in a way that is unique and yeah, X-Men: Last Stand was not great, but the other four, Deadpool, and one of those Wolverine movies were all pretty great. More crossover between the current X-Men franchise and Marvel Studios is inevitable, but I hope that crossover doesn’t cost X-Men the sense of accessibility that is so obvious whenever you see Xavier’s School full of mutants-in-training.

If you need to hate on a film that actually did fail in almost every way possible, Batman v Superman was only two months ago. Let’s all hate on that mess together and enjoy the successes of the rest.

Lisa Olson