The following contains some spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse.
Last month, director Bryan Singer described Apocalypse, the latest villain in his X-Men franchise, to Collider’s Adam Chitwood:
The way I describe him the most, the best is he to me is the God of the Old Testament and all that comes with that. If there isn’t the order and the worship then I’ll open up the Earth and swallow you whole, and that was the God of the Old Testament. I started from there and when Oscar and I met we began discussing, since he isn’t really God, he’s the first mutant perhaps, but he’s not God necessarily, he’s imbued with certain unique powers. Some of them may or may not be from this Earth, we don’t know.
Singer went on to describe, at some length, his childhood interest in religion and “cults and things like that” as a kid, a fascination stoked by reading the X-Men comics. His interest in religion translates onscreen in X-Men: Apocalypse more successfully than the ponderously literalist Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which left a number of people wishing for more religion, not less. If there were beings with superpowers living among us, don’t you think cults would spring up to worship them?
Well, X-Men: Apocalypse does, to my relief. It’s overlong (147 minutes) and garnering mixed reviews, but it’s a solid enough crowdpleaser: the audience at my screening broke into applause four or five times. There’s little point in describing the plot except to say that as you may have gathered from the subtitle—or from virtually any superhero film we’ve dutifully seen in the last 15 years or so—the world is about to end because of the bad guys, and the good guys have to save the day if they can.
The villain Apocalypse—played by Oscar Isaac, slathered in CGI—can take various shapes, though in his latest iteration he’s been locked away since antiquity and into the 1980s; when he emerges, he discovers, well, the 1980s, and gets annoyed with humans for worshipping false gods like consumerism and empire-building. Burn it all down, he bellows, and start over again. He’s done this before.
But sometimes it’s best if movie directors just keep their mouths shut about theology. Singer has actually loaded his film with a fascinating theological subtext, one that has nothing to do with this “God of the Old Testament” who demands “the order and the worship.” (That caricature is popular with people who haven’t really read the Old Testament, so it’s not Singer’s fault.)
In Apocalypse, Singer’s drawn a solid portrait not of an Old Testament God but of an Old Testament Satan, or maybe some parallel character: Lucifer, Baal, Beelzebub. (Significantly, Apocalypse’s origin story is in ancient Egypt.) Apocalypse’s main draw for the mutants is the offer of power, a neat parallel to the New Testament story recounted in three gospels, He wants to destroy human systems and institutions (structures that, when healthy, help distribute power), and instead hoards it to himself, doling it out to his Four Horsemen (get it?) when it suits his purposes. Like Satan, Apocalypse’s big problem is that he’s not God: specifically, he’s not omnipresent, and that gets in the way of his plans.
Typically in stories like this, when the Satan character needs smacking down, God shows up to do it. But there’s an interesting theological twist in X-Men: Apocalypse, and though it’s a bit tangled by the end, you can follow the thread if you’re paying attention.