This is what happens when you toss spiritual themes into a blender with a superhero film—I can’t shut my mind up when I leave the theater. So ya’ll get this. Some minor spoilers ahead.
X-Men: Apocalypse will probably not be hailed as a great comic book movie. I enjoyed it—it provides standard Marvel entertainment, with another awesome Quicksilver action scene (a la X-Men: Days of Future Past) and some welcome character development in the new X-Men timeline (also thanks to Days of Future Past). It was interesting enough—plot-wise, character-wise, action-wise—but it wasn’t really that special, especially in light of the fact that it came directly subsequent to one of Marvel’s best movies in years—Captain America: Civil War. Still, Apocalypse will stay fresh in my mind, because perhaps more than any other film in the modern superhero genre, it was startlingly spiritual.
I say “startlingly” because the spiritual elements kind of come out of nowhere. For X-Men fans like me who are not readers of the comic books (sorry!), there doesn’t seem to be much that foreshadows this. The overwhelming theme in the X-Men franchise has always been the refrain that “just because we’re different doesn’t mean we’re bad.” It is the struggle for mutants to fit in or stand out from the rest of humanity, to passively resist the crimes against them or to use their powers to fight back. While you could certainly take this theme in a spiritual direction, the movies don’t ever really try to do this. And this theme is so loud throughout all the films that there really isn’t room for much else.
So, even with a title like Apocalypse, I didn’t come into the theater expecting much more than a passing reference to spiritual themes that would catch my evangelical Christian eye.
The spiritual messages the film seems to be trying to convey were also startling to me in the very substance of what they were saying, but we’ll get to that.
The main villain in Apocalypse is En Sabah Nur, played by a truly unrecognizable Oscar Isaac. And he is actually the most interesting villain in the Marvel universe since probably Loki in the first Avengers. In the movie, we learn that En Sabah Nur, or Apocalypse, claims to be the first mutant, born thousands of years ago. He transfers his consciousness to a new mutant body whenever he is dying, collecting the powers of those whose bodies he inhabits. As time goes on, this makes him more and more powerful.
En Sabah Nur says he has been known by many names throughout history, including the names of several ancient deities and Elohim—a Hebrew name for God used frequently throughout the Old Testament. The idea is that he is who humans of all different religions throughout history have believed to be their god (or a god). He says all people (or all mutants—the movie isn’t super clear on this) are his children, though he doesn’t speak of any origin or creation for himself or his supposed offspring. Whenever his children lose their way, he says, he starts from scratch by unleashing vast destruction (hence, Apocalypse) on the earth, so that only the strong will survive to rebuild humanity.
This all makes him one of the most interesting supervillains we’ve had in years—and certainly the most offensive. The film does a lot to build in religious parallels—to make it seem that the legend is true and that this creepy blue dude really is the supreme “deity.” Yet, at one point, Charles Xavier says to En Sabah Nur, “You are just another false god.” The movie misses a huge opportunity to go deeper by not explaining what Professor X means by this. Is he saying that there is a true God and this power-hungry mutant was just impersonating him? Or is he saying that all “gods” are false gods? Or that all who try to make themselves gods are false gods? There are several big-spiritual-statement possibilities here, but the movie leaves the question dangling. Perhaps they don’t have the guts to answer their own question.
Another big question surrounds the apocalypse itself. It is an actual theological question that has bearing on the real, non-Marvel universe and will probably make Christians everywhere squirm. At first. The question is this: when it comes to the end times and the destruction they entail, is God the good guy or the bad guy? This movie would say God is the bad guy. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that most other movies that could have any say in the matter probably would, too. Saving humanity from ultimate destruction is the ultimate good, the ultimate achievement. And whoever is trying to bring that destruction is the villain.
Thus, if you believe what the Bible says about the end times, then God must be a villain. And He must be wrong, bad, even evil for cleansing the world of what is evil, bad, and wrong. The more I think about it, the more I realize that if our movies reflect our minds of our culture, then somewhere along the line, we began to believe that the flaws of humanity are what make us human—and that we must protect our species from those who would seek to make us better. (And there’s where you could have merged the spiritual with the mutant theme before this movie, X-Men writers).
You could spend some time simply running in circles in your mind about that. But, because I do believe in the God of Bible, I do want to take some space to simply break down why the god in X-Men: Apocalypse is absolutely nothing like the one true God and why the real “apocalypse” is not the ridiculous whim of an evil power-wielder. I understand that this movie is a work of fiction and I applaud the use of allegory and metaphor in fiction to say deeper things, but the questions it presents reflect real questions, so I want to do what the movie doesn’t do and answer some of them.
Basically, En Sabah Nur has three main goals: grow more powerful, continue his existence, and judge the world for not abiding by whatever strange moral code he’s babbling about (it really isn’t clear what makes him so angry about the current human race—it comes across like an elderly man fumbling about with a smartphone and complaining about how things were better back in the old days). On the other hand, the God of the Bible—Elohim—is already all-powerful. There is nothing that could increase His power because He already possesses all power. He is eternal. He does not need to ensure his continued existence, because He always has been and always will be. Plus—SPOILER ALERT—You can’t kill the real God. They already tried that, about 2,000 years ago. And it didn’t work.
Also, the Bible teaches that God is Judge, but He is also holy, good, true, worthy, gracious, and merciful. His judgment is based on real morality, and He will judge the world. But He has also given the world a way to be judged righteous—to be counted clean—no matter what someone has done. He has made a way to escape the apocalypse. And He did it by sacrificing Himself. En Sabah Nur, meanwhile, is about self-preservation, not people-preservation.
The movie might be subtly trying to draw similarities between En Sabah Nur inhabiting the bodies of mutants with God becoming human through Jesus. But Jesus was Himself—He didn’t take over anyone else. Plus—SPOILER ALERT—let me point out once again that He actually beat death by dying and coming back to life—not being saved by a bubble and being buried under a pyramid for millennia.
It is also suggested in the film that the reason things have gotten so bad in the modern age—and particularly the reason for the Holocaust, of all things—is that the “god” of the universe was asleep, buried in darkness and unable to help. Unable to stop humans from unleashing so much evil on one another. It is the easy, cop-out answer. While we don’t have an answer to the desperate question of “Why?”, we know the true God never abandoned us to our own devices. He was there in the concentration camps and on the battlefields and He is here now. Unlike En Sabah Nur, who desperately wants Charles’ ability to read minds, to be everywhere at once, God is already omnipresent. No grave and no demolished pyramid can hold Him down. Even when we can’t see Him or feel Him, He is at work. And He is working for good. Ultimate good. And when He does send His Son to return to earth, when He does obliterate the old and usher in the new, it will be good. His wrath is justified and His plan is unmatched. He has even given us a way to be part of it.
One more distinct difference between the real God and En Sabah Nur is that the false god calls the strong. This is who he hopes rises from the rubble—those who don’t need weapons or technology or civilization. It is presumed he means only (or mainly) mutants. He seeks the strong, the powerful as his followers. He wants to use their power to lift himself up. But Elohim, the true God, calls the weak. He calls those who know their own brokenness and desperation, those who will depend on Him, find their strength in Him. God will use His own power to lift them up. To lift us up. And when it is this God who decides that the time has come for things to change, we can know that the weak won’t be crushed. They will be saved and they will reign victorious. Because they believe in Him.