You live and work in a small town where you’ve somehow managed to piece together a bit of a life. You’re married; you love your daughter; you have a small, comfortable home and gainful, if not fulfilling, employment.
But you’re different. And one day, because of that difference, the police show up, afraid of you. They accidentally kill your family. But they were tense, weapons drawn—so just how much of an accident was it?
You have a decision to make. Will you offer yourself to the world as it is, and work within it, or will you go berserk?
Erik Lehnsherr—Magneto, as he is better known in the X-Men franchise—chooses the latter. And who wouldn’t, really, if pushed as he was pushed? It’s a self-examination X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest instalment in the series, compels us to make.
The film, as it happens, compels much—that is, if we can get past its “local-narrative”: the nuts-and-bolts observations of character development, setting and plot.
As far as characters are concerned, we are introduced to younger versions of Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), among others, although we don’t develop attachments to them. Storm and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), in particular, are little more than decorative figures, and the presence of CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is so random as to be pointless.
As a visual spectacle, X-Men: Apocalypse is generally unimpressive, although the opening scene in ancient Egypt, where arch-villain En Sabah Nur is introduced, and the depiction of 1980s industrial Poland offers a unique contrast while presenting the film’s doers of the most harm.
The plot, while not all that captivating, does enough and moves quickly enough to be effective, even if it seems skeletal at times and the characters and settings fail to fill its vacuous sequences. But other than Lehnsherr’s personal tragedy and the budding romance between Cyclops and Jean, there are few moments in which to immerse ourselves.
That said, this is a superhero flick, and so long as the good guys beat the bad guys—preferably with a bad-to-good conversion mixed in with the carnage—it’s job done. And X-Men: Apocalypse delivers on that score.
It also delivers on something greater, which is our purpose here.
Magneto, as fans of the franchise well know, is the impulsive, reactionary foil to Professor Charles Xavier’s disposition of temperance and moderation, which is why it’s through Xavier’s lens that we tend to watch X-Men films. Indeed, it’s his senses of restraint and decency that prevail in each of them.
Xavier’s perspective is what drives X-Men storylines through the chaos of human-mutant conflict to conclusions of cooperation. This is especially magnified in X-Men: Apocalypse, as is the scale of Magneto’s reactionary destruction.
The lessons that follow when these worldviews collide are universally applicable.
Lehnsherr, following the template laid out for his character, takes on the mantle of Magneto after suffering a despicable injustice. It’s important to separate that incident—the damage caused by intolerance and fear—with the terror Magneto proceeds to inflict in revenge. He is visiting on humans the terror that was visited on him, and it is only he, himself, who unites the wrath suffered and applied.
He becomes an instrument of the same wrongdoing he suffered, but his own intolerance and fear are channelled into a far greater evil by En Sabah Nur, who has awoken after centuries to purify the earth of the “weak,” of its human population.
As a villain, En Sabah Nur is as bad as they come. Not only does he want to extinguish the forces of good that oppose him, but he also intends to create a new world where only the “strong” exist, where centuries of human enterprise are wiped away and replaced with a new order, prevailed upon by the most advanced, and terrible, of mutants.
“Together we will cleanse the earth for the strongest,” he declares. And he enlists Storm, Psylocke and Magneto to help him in his aims.
He is Social Darwinism incarnate, and his ambitions draw chilling parallels to real-world situations in the present-day United States and post-Brexit vote United Kingdom (just two examples), where voices of xenophobic anger have fed an evil fanaticism that threatens vulnerable sectors of society.
Magneto, reactively taking out his fury on humans, obeys En Sabah Nur and uses his powers to control earth’s magnetic polls, destroying everything built since the Bronze Age.
“I tried your way, Charles,” he tells Xavier. “I tried to be like them, live like them. But it always ends the same way. They took everything away from me. Now, we’ll take everything away from them.”
It’s the mindset of a destructive cycle that has become all too familiar. But Xavier has a riposte.
As Magneto continues to annihilate human civilization, the professor beseeches: “[En Sabah Nur] is tapping into your rage and anger!”
En Sabah Nur shortly attempts to use Xavier’s telepathy to hasten his conquering of the world.
“It’s over, Charles,” he says. “You’re finished. You’re mine now.”
“You’ll never win,” responds the professor.
“And why is that?”
“Because you are alone. And I am not.”
En Sabah Nur is subsequently defeated by the combined efforts of Xavier and the mutants allied with him—his X-Men—as well as a converted Magneto, who conforms to the professor’s worldview. His considerable power, it once again turns out, is equally capable of doing good and evil. His personal conundrum is how he uses it.
It’s not an unfamiliar struggle, which is why X-Men: Apocalypse, and various other films in the franchise, should, perhaps, be experienced through Magneto’s lens.
He is, after all, the character we would most identify with if we were honest with ourselves; the line he walks between cooperation and harmful reaction is one we all tread. His challenge is our challenge.
As an X-Men film, X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t necessarily impress, but it accomplishes much. That is, if we can hear what it’s telling us.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg writer and Creative Content Specialist at Providence University College and Theological Seminary.