By: Russell W. Dalton
The blockbuster film X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) opens in ancient Egypt, with the world’s first and most powerful mutant, Apocalypse, entering a pyramid as thousands of people are gathered to worship him as a god. However, some human rebels cry, “Death to the false god!” and bury him under the rubble of the pyramid. But Apocalypse is not truly dead. He rises again in the 1980s and is furious to find a new world that does not worship him, but instead reveres what he calls the “false gods” and “idols” of military, financial, and political power. He then seeks to “cleanse” the world and recreate a new world that he will rule. It is up to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), and a group of young, inexperienced X-Men to try to stop him. The film opened to decidedly mixed reviews, but regardless of one’s opinion of the film’s cinematic merits, X-Men: Apocalypse raises several issues relevant to the work of religious educators.
Violence and Redemptive Violence
This film, like many action adventure films that are rated PG-13, contains several disturbing scenes of graphic violence and death. Religious educators can alert parents and guardians to the fact that because films like this one have toys and other product tie-ins marketed towards younger children it does not mean that the films themselves are appropriate for younger viewers.
As is the case with nearly all superhero stories, the heroes’ violent acts in this film raise theological questions as well. Walter Wink and other theologians refer to the belief that we can solve our problems or save ourselves through violence as “the myth of redemptive violence.” Religious leaders such as Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are just three examples of people who passionately sought justice in their times, but who did so in merciful and non-violent ways. Jesus fought his battles not with super strength, adamantium claws, optic blasts, super speed, magnetic powers, or super agility, but with love, understanding, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Of course, this myth of redemptive violence permeates our culture far beyond tales of superheroes. This film, however, can help religious educators prompt conversations about the myth of redemptive violence and help youth and adults learn to recognize and question this ideology at work wherever they see it.
Prejudice and the Alienation of the Marginalized
In the comic books and the films, the X-Men’s identity as the mutant minority has often been used to explore prejudice based upon race, religion, sexuality, and gender identity in the real world. In a 2007 interview, Chris Claremont, the author of the comic books that most of the X-Men films have been based upon, talked to me about how heartbreaking it was that the sort of prejudice and discrimination he was writing about in the 1970s is still present today. Many teenaged and adult viewers, for example, will be able to relate to the alienation and fear that teenager Scott Summers (Cyclops) experiences in X-Men: Apocalypse, when he is bullied in his high school bathroom because he is different. Several scenes in X-Men: Apocalypse highlight the fact that people fear those who are different from themselves. Religious educators can use the film as an opportunity to invite viewers to reflect on these scenes and explore the very real prejudice and discrimination that people deal with today.
God and False Gods
As mentioned above, Apocalypse calls our world’s veneration of monetary, military, and political power “idols” and “false gods”, an accusation that he repeats several times throughout the film. He has a point. Apocalypse believes that since he is the most powerful being in the world, that the world should worship him alone. When Apocalypse says that the powerful should rule the world, Charles Xavier counters that the powerful should protect the weak. He tells Apocalypse, “You are just another false god.”
Thankfully, there are signs of another God in the film. The character Nightcrawler, who in the comic books attends seminary for a time to study for the priesthood, and others are seen praying. Apocalypse’s claim to be a god, and his repudiation of false gods, can prompt religious educators to lead rich conversations with adults and youth about the nature of God. Is our God the true God because God is omnipotent, and like Apocalypse the most powerful being of all? Or are there other characteristics of God that lead us to believe that the God of our faith is a true God and not a false God?
Who Am I? Discovering Our True Identity and Vocation
Another primary theme in the film involves multiple characters’ need to embrace their true vocation in life. Scott Summers (Cyclops), Jean Grey, Storm, and, most tragically, Magneto, all struggle to discover who they are and to embrace their true vocations. The character of Raven takes her own vocational journey in this film. We learn that in the years since the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), when Raven revealed herself to the public and saved the life of the president, she has been seen as a hero and inspiration for many young mutants who had been living in hiding. Raven, however, insists that she is not a hero and resists her calling to be a leader. At the end of the film, Raven finally accepts her role as both a hero and a leader. As she prepares to lead the young mutants in practical training for their work, she calls them to embrace their vocations, saying, “You are not kids anymore; you’re not students. You’re X-Men.”
Our faith declares that we are children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made and called to a purpose. The members of our congregations may not be X-Men, but they all have vocations to embrace. As religious educators, we can embrace our own calling to help them find the courage and provide them with the practical training they need to embrace those vocations.
Russell W. Dalton is Professor of Religious Education at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. His books include Marvelous Myths: Marvel Superheroes and Everyday Faith (Chalice Press, 2011), Faith Journey through Fantasy Lands: A Dialogue with Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings (Augsburg, 2003), and Children’s Bibles in America: A Reception History of the Story of Noah in US Children’s Bibles (Bloomsbury, 2015).