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In popular culture, the word apocalypse refers to an end-of-the-world scenario. We're talking supervolcanoes, asteroid impacts, and alien invasions. Think of 2012, Independence Day, or Armageddon. These are the apocalypses of popular culture.
But #XMenApocalypse is a whole lot smarter, and pays homage to a much older meaning of the word apocalypse.
Apocalyptic literature is an ancient genre of writing, where a divine being or an angel reveals the future. Apocalyptic literature is complex, rich with symbolism, and shows the battle between good and evil in a way completely unlike any form of literature we have today. The most famous piece of apocalyptic literature is the Book of Revelation in the Bible, and it's probably the most confusing book for modern Christians precisely because the entire genre of writing no longer exists.
X-Men: Apocalypse is all about revelations. En Sabah Nur — traditionally referred to as Apocalypse in the comics — reveals truths that his friends and enemies are barely equipped to handle. One of his abilities is to reveal the full potential of the mutants he allies with, enhancing their powers. He doesn't need to use these abilities for Magneto, though, only give him a few pointers. He's apocalyptic in a traditional sense.
And yet, in the film Oscar Isaac's En Sabah Nur never once refers to himself as Apocalypse. For all that he has his Four Horsemen — I don't think the titular apocalypse is about him at all.
The Apocalypse Of Jean Grey
Early on in the film, Sophie Turner's Jean Grey has a vision of the end of the world. Her mind spins forward, through the launching of nuclear missiles to an explosion and the world ending in fire. When En Sabah Nur learns of her vision, he uses it to guide his actions. But as he falls in battle with Jean Grey — burned away by her psychic fires — he has a telling line.
"All is revealed."
It's the most important line in the movie. But what does it mean?
Let me take you back to the film's beginning. Awakening from her vision, Jean talks to James McAvoy's Charles Xavier about her fears. She feels as though her powers are like a separate entity within her, one that she's afraid to awaken. Xavier dismisses this with far too much ease; and, at the end of the film, he encourages Jean to tap into the fullness of her power and defeat En Sabah Nur. She does so, and manifests a fiery effect that's easily recognizable as the Phoenix halo. In triumphing against En Sabah Nur, she reveals the power within herself. In a telling sequence, her manifestation begins with a door opening and the figure of Jean stepping out of the shadows and into the light. The first trailer even deliberately interwove that scene with Jean's vision!
Now think about that vision of missiles launching (which happened), and ultimately of fire burning across the world. In that moment, En Sabah Nur realizes that all is revealed; he was never the fulfillment of the vision.
The fire that burned across the world? That was Phoenix fire.
The Comic Book Inspiration
Over in the original comics, Jean Grey was traditionally treated as a love interest — even for Charles Xavier! That was, until the 1970s, when legendary X-Men scribe Chris Claremont took over. He amped up Jean's powers in a cosmic way, with a single goal:
“Our intent was to create an X-Men analog, if you will, to Thor – someone who was essentially the first female cosmic hero. We thought at the time we could integrate her into the book as well as Thor had been integrated into the Avengers.”
Jean was christened "Phoenix," and artist Dave Cockrum designed an iconic costume.
With Phoenix as a member of the team, the X-Men's adventures took them to places they'd never gone before; they literally wound up taking on galactic warlords and saving the whole of reality!
Events took a dangerous twist for Phoenix. Claremont worked hard with John Byrne, another legendary figure in X-Men circles, to bring her story to a head. She was manipulated by the ruthless Mastermind, and fell sway to madness. Christening herself Dark Phoenix, she went on a rampage that literally saw her consume an entire star-system before ultimately committing suicide lest she fall once more to her inner darkness. It's the legendary "Dark Phoenix Saga," arguably the greatest X-Men story of all time.
The Phoenix was originally envisioned as a sort of "schizoid personality" (in Dave Cockrum's words). Over time, other writers twisted the concept to reveal that Jean had actually been replaced by the so-called Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity that craved human experience. This neat little retcon enabled Jean to be resurrected with a clean slate (editor Jim Shooter refused to have her brought back unless she were somehow absolved of her crimes), and opened up a lot of stories involving the Phoenix Force. Nowadays, most comic book readers have actually forgotten it was a retcon in the first place.
What Does This All Mean?
With the next film officially titled X-Men: Dark Phoenix, it's pretty clear that Fox is choosing to revisit the idea of the Dark Phoenix Saga. It's one of the most dearly-loved X-Men plots of all, and it's ripe for a second attempt after the unsuccessful X-Men: The Last Stand.
X-Men: Apocalypse plays a critical role in their plans. In X-Men: Apocalypse, Jean embraces the power that lies within her, and lashes out at En Sabah Nur in a display of power beyond anything we've seen in the X-Men films. She single-handedly defeats an enemy who was previously matching all the power of Magneto, Cyclops, and Storm. And she does so with tremendous style, in a scene that's sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
The film opened up with a visionary warning of where Jean's story will go. It closed by revealing the true power of Jean Grey, manifesting the Phoenix halo, and setting her upon the path to the "Dark Phoenix Saga." In other words, the film is the Apocalypse (revelation, or unveiling) of Jean Grey. Functionally, the film plays an apocalyptic role in revealing the future direction of the #XMen franchise.
Little wonder that Bryan Singer has been openly discussing taking the X-Men in a cosmic direction, or confronting them with Proteus (a reality-manipulator so powerful he almost killed Phoenix). He knows full well that he's just embraced an iconic period of X-Men comics.
Ironically, just the title of X-Men: Apocalypse was cleverer than we ever realized. It works on so many different levels:
- It gives us the comic book villain known as Apocalypse!
- It gives us an end-of-the-world scenario, as Magneto lashes out in grief and rage!
- It presents an apocalyptic vision of the Dark Phoenix's threat!
- It plays an apocalyptic function in telling us the direction the franchise is about to take!
Now that is smart filmmaking. I couldn't be more impressed, or more excited to see what comes next.