Come the Apocalypse: Is the X-Men Series Ready for an Unambiguous Villain?

If Apocalypse is anything like his comic book iterations, X-Men: Apocalypse is going to be the first X-Men film to pitch its heroes against a classic comic-book villain. 

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The post-credits tag for X-Men: Days of Future Past barely qualifies as a spoiler—it's more just a tasty morsel for comic book fans, setting up the next movie's villain and probably leaving more casual viewers baffled. Our glimpse of Apocalypse, who had been announced as the centerpiece of the next film by director Bryan Singer before Days of Future Past was even released, doesn't make him look too scary. He's a pale kid, building the Egyptian pyramids with his brain. What's so terrible about that? We love the pyramids!

But if Apocalypse is anything like his comic book iterations, X-Men: Apocalypse is going to be the first X-Men film to pitch its heroes against a classic comic-book villain. The kind who's eeeeevil and indestructible and can only be taken down in an epic slugfest that will eat up the last act of your movie. While the seven X-Men films released so far have featured some very bad men, there's never quite been the kind of super-powered "bad guy" that's more commonplace in, say, the world of Spider-Man or Superman.

In the first X-Men, the villain is Magneto (Ian McKellen), a mutant ideologue and former ally of Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and his plan involves using a crazy machine to make all humans mutants (he doesn't know it mostly just turns humans into goo). He's accompanied by a batch of goons (Mystique, Sabretooth and Toad) but his motivations, rooted in his experience as a Holocaust survivor, are complex. Magneto is involved in every sequel and does lots of bad things, but his lasting relationship with Xavier is always there to remind us that he represents more of a philosophical extreme than anything.

X2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine include William Stryker, who experiments on mutants like Wolverine to give him metal bones, and X-Men: The Last Stand included the threat of Phoenix (Famke Janssen), an overpowered Jean Grey corrupted by darkness. X-Men: First Class saw Kevin Bacon hamming it up as Sebastian Shaw, but he was once again more of a distraction in the battle of wills between Magneto and Xavier. Days of Future Past had the best kind of sub-villain in the Sentinels — robotic, unambiguously scary mutant-hunter, that exist entirely without personality. But even Peter Dinklage's Bolivar Trask was not the cackling mustache-twirler he could have been, presenting his vendetta against mutants as one he thought could unite humankind as a planet.

Apocalypse is a different kettle of fish. Introduced in the comics in the mid-'80s, he's a ridiculously powerful, almost god-like mutant, who claims to be the first mutant in history and seeks to bring about a Darwinian nightmare world where only the strong survive — mutants, of course, being the centerpiece of his envisioned master race. While there's a certain horrifying philosophy to what Apocalypse wants to bring about, he's not the deepest character. Always accompanied by his "four horseman" (also glimpsed in the Days of Future Past post-credits stinger), he is prone to loudly telling everyone how strong he is and cackling with glee when people attack him. There's nothing untoward about this behavior in a comic book, but film adaptations have mostly shied away from such naked villainy after their heyday in the crappier Batman sequels of the '90s.

Of course, Singer and writer Simon Kinberg and whoever else they bring on board can do whatever they want with the character. What little we've gleaned about X-Men: Apocalypse suggests it will take place in the '80s and largely focus on the younger cast—James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender. Channing Tatum might show up as rascally hero Gambit; we might also meet younger, re-cast versions of heroes we known and love like Storm, Cyclops and Jean Grey. Magneto will probably play a large part, as usual both a friend as foe. But from the glimpse we got of Apocalypse in Days of Future Past, he's going to be a lot like his comic-book self. And his comic-book self is a titanic blue dude who often wears a big "A" on his belt, and can change shape and size.

Other comics-inspired projects have taken on similarly over-the-top villains in different ways. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer avoided showing the purple-clad, planet-eating Galactus as a giant human, as he appears in the comic, and instead made him a malevolent cloud. Fans booed, and everyone else cackled derisively. In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the very animal Sabretooth we remembered from the first X-Men had been toned down to Liev Schrieber wearing some thick sideburns. Sure, it looked more realistic, but it also forgot to be remotely intimidating.

If Apocalypse takes a more-faithful run at the villain and succeeds, the movie could be an utter blast; watching our team of hero mutants take down one massive, over-powered threat could be something to see. The question is whether it can toe the fine, fine line of camp that the series has more often than not managed to avoid.

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