Why would God who made this world and called it “good” want to destroy it? He did it once before with the water and the big boat and the two-by-two beasts and the mostly mum woodworker named Noah. But then God was like, “Ummmmm… maybe I overreacted a little. Here’s a rainbow. I’ll never do that again.”
And yet there on the very last shelf occupying the very last slot in the library of books that is the Bible sits an apocalyptic vision about God prodding his angel to sound his lonesome whistle so he can go all blood-bath on the world again. But for what? To wash his blues away? Punish us for the jealousies we’ve nursed, the people we’ve killed, the ways we’ve disobeyed our parents? Who knows? Noah’s flood and John’s Apocalypse are the bars on a cage that imprisons everything, and that includes you and me. We’re all just waiting for that whistle to blow.
This doom and gloom destiny isn’t relegated to the Christian faith either. Every faith is interned in its own kind of creation/destruction cycle. Every society from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary cosmologists has a story to tell about where this all came from and where it’s all going. That basic story and a belief in a power greater than humanity—yes, Maths is a greater power too—are the only things we all have in common.
Oh. And this mutant named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaacs, unrecognizable), apparently, since he woke up from his millennia-long sleep and started wreaking havoc in the 1980s. We have him in common with the ancient Egyptians too. En Sabah Nur—let’s call him that instead of “Apocalypse,” since gods typically like being called by their preferred names—has this one weird method of transferring the powers of other mutants into himself, and this has enabled him to live forever, create and destroy civilizations, and garner the worship and blasphemous contempt of many a weaker people. But don’t worry, the almost-X-Men are on the case. It’s a good thing En Sabah Nur didn’t wake up sixty years earlier when the Brits and their Indiana Jonesian counterparts were doing all that ancient Egyptian tomb raiding in the 1920s. We really dodged a bullet there, kind of like Quicksilver anytime he feels like it.
Yes, there’s a lot of god-talk in X-Men: Apocalypse, but don’t ask too many questions along the way. The X-Men franchise reset itself via time travel last time around (X-Men: Days of Future Past), and time travel is a sticky narrative determinate, causing all sorts of inscrutable problems for the more scrupulous viewer. It is a fool’s errand to ask why a character does this when they could have done that, because the point isn’t how anything happens but rather that it happens and how what happens affects the characters in question. Maybe we should apply that same logic to our apocalyptic literature.
I enjoy the X-Men franchise more than the other superheroes crowding our contemporary box office marquees in large part because the X-Men and X-Women are more complex than most, their powers are more varied, and the best of the franchise analogizes the characters and their powers in compelling ways. This movie has its moments. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steals the show again in a scene that had me literally holding my breath—somebody get this guy a stand-alone film—and Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) cameo is both horrific and heartbreaking. Professor X (James McAvoy) has a few nice moments with Moira Mactaggart (Rose Byrne), too. More movies about decades-long, unrequited loves, please. But mostly, this movie made me feel tired, as if I’ve done this chore many times and better before.
Writer/director Bryan Singer told Variety that the Days of Future Past series reset opened up the X-Men franchise to “endless possibilities.” I think he means the filmmakers aren’t bound to the events of the older films anymore. From a narrative stand-point, I guess that’s true, but judging from Apocalypse, they seem so beholden to certain facts about the X-Men universe that they refuse to take real liberty with the characters. There’s a “check box” atmosphere to everything that happens in X-Men: Apocalypse, as if the filmmakers have no choice but to get these characters looking and acting like this so that the X-Men universe will behave in the way we expect it to behave. That’s not “endless possibilities.” That a determinism that would make John Calvin cry foul.
For all the god-talk in this movie, there’s little consistency to how the characters interact with God. One character screams at God in one moment and then, a scene later, our villain claims to be the god the other character was screaming at, and the character just accepts with the villain says. He can’t believe the villain, but he goes along with him anyway. Did he lose what faith he had in God in that moment? Who knows. I can accept leaps in the narrative logic, but character inconsistencies like this are hard to swallow.
Every time I watch a movie like this one that is set within a fixed universe where we already know the outcome, generally, of what’s happening, I’m reminded anew how amazing it is that God made a universe that has a set end where all things are made new while being open to true freedom among all of us denizens of time in the here and now. God is big enough and powerful enough to not have to control every aspect of reality. God is mighty enough to say, “I can handle that,” and roll with it. Our activities both affect the direction and development of the universe and don’t alter God’s ultimate plan. God doesn’t have to sit enthroned above all humanity, removed from the day-to-day lives of the people he dominates. God is with us, participating in our lives, and intimately involved in the restoration and renewal of all things. Now that’s power.
Encountering apocalyptic visions like this one and like the one I grew up with in my corner of Protestantism—pre-Tribulation rapture, “everything’s gonna burn” then God’s replace earth with heaven, all fueled by Cold War, nuclear paranoia—make me ever more grateful I learned about other, historic, well-reasoned, and redemptive Christian visions of the end of the world. I learned to read the Bible’s many apocalyptic scenarios as stories about God making all things new, recreating the world, resurrecting it, and joining earth and heaven in a marriage-like union that didn’t wipe out either but rather supported and enriched each instead. I learned that the word “apocalypse” means “the lifting of a veil” rather than “the destruction of all things,” and I was reminded of the veil that tore when Christ died on the cross, letting loose God’s Spirit to indwell all things and begin working resurrection, not the razing, of all things. Gabriel’s horn stopped sounding my doom and started kicking off a party dance instead. The rainbow arc that spreads between Noah and John became a “once upon a time” and a “happily ever after” I could get behind, or rather, that could get behind me and inspire me to participate in the recreation of all things now. Instead of a mutant like En Sabah Nur showing up trying to get us to destroy everything, imagine a super-powered person showing up on planet earth asking us to help him spread truth, work good, and make things beautiful. We’d probably all get behind him, right?
Or, we might crucify him.
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