When writer Louise Simonson and artist Jackson Guice created the villain Apocalypse, it didn't take long for the Four Horsemen to turn up. Fanatically devoted to En Sabah Nur, their powers enhanced beyond belief, the Four Horsemen are consistently portrayed as a deadly threat to the X-Men. Apocalypse — joining the ranks of the most powerful X-Men villains — recruits the strongest to his cause, transforms and enhances them, and then unleashes them on the X-Men! Although the name Apocalypse has more than one connotation, the Four Horsemen have always played a key role in any apocalyptic event.
X-Men: Apocalypse has its Four Horsemen: Angel, Psylocke, Magneto, and Storm. But how effectively does it use them?
In the comics, the transformation of Angel into the Archangel of Death is a big deal. Angel was one of the founding X-Men, and his betrayal — launching into battle against his old friends, who then formed the X-Factor team — is a classic plot. Since then, the majority of the character's strongest plots have involved a degree of Apocalyptic influence, culminating in Rick Remender's classic "Dark Angel Saga." The simple fact is that there was no way to bring Apocalypse to the big screen without Angel being in the picture as a Horseman.
We're introduced to Angel in the cage-fights, and he's a ferocious warrior. X-Men: Apocalypse abandons the more pleasant, charming Angel character in favor of a brooding, violent man who seems to revel in the violence he casts upon his fellow mutants. Sure, he takes the opportunity to escape when offered, but you definitely get the sense he'd be happier back in the cage.
The design of Angel is ferocious. I love the detail on his wings, with jagged edges that Angel uses for slicing and dicing (as Blob learned at a cost). But when the injured Angel is mutated by Apocalypse, things truly get interesting. That scene is fantastic, and leaves us seeing Angel as a true threat.
Unfortunately, the sad fact is that Angel never fulfills his potential. His only role in the film is to shoot a few flechettes — deflected by Sophie Turner's Jean Grey — and have another tussle with Kodi Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler. Sure, there are personal stakes, given that Nightcrawler cost him dearly in the cage fight; but the fact that the two seem almost matched from the outset hardly makes Angel seem much of a threat. What's more, with minimal dialogue, Ben Hardy's Angel gets little opportunity to shine as a character.
On the whole, I'm afraid this Horseman isn't quite as impressive as he should have been. Given the power levels on display with the rest of the Horsemen, Angel seems too weak to hold his own among their ranks. Little wonder En Sabah Nur is so dismissive when he sees the fallen Angel.
Olivia Munn has had a blast training for the role of Psylocke, and insisted on performing all her own stunts. As a result, you get a sense that she finds real joy in the brutality and sexuality of the character. This Psylocke is ferocious. The psychic effects are good, with an assortment of telekinetic weapons (until Brian Wood's run on X-Men, Psylocke had never manifested anything other than a psychic blade). I love the character's poise, fighting style, and athleticism.
Unfortunately, again Psylocke doesn't really shine as much as she should. The character is introduced as bodyguard to Tómas Lemarquis's Caliban, but her motivation for joining Apocalypse is never explored in the film. Worse still, all she does is stand around as eye-candy until a critical fight with the Beast. That tussle takes far too long, and I saw no hint of the character's telepathy; this Psylocke is purely telekinetic, and — in the same film as Sophie Turner's Jean Grey — seems third-tier in terms of that powerset, too.
We know that Psylocke was added at the last second purely to act as a guard for the pyramid. It shows. Given that Psylocke is an integral part of several X-Force teams, I'm hoping Munn gets a chance to reprise the role with an actual script written for her.
The only one of the Horsemen with a character arc, Michael Fassbender's Magneto is played as a fascinating villain. The tragic death of his family is played out effectively if predictably (although I found it hard to believe that a single arrow could penetrate two bodies in the way it did). Strangely enough, though, En Sabah Nur's intervention actually seems to limit the character's journey. Had Magneto been the one responsible for killing all those men in the factory, the story would have had far more power; still, we'd have been unlikely to believe Magneto could be redeemed.
In an interesting detail, Magneto is the only Horseman whose powers are not amplified by Apocalypse. Instead, Apocalypse simply goads Magneto to dig deeper into his powers than he ever has before, and the result is chaos on a global scale. There'll no doubt be heated debate about the appropriateness of the Auschwitz scenes, but it's hard not to see the Auschwitz experience as fundamental to Magneto's character, so I didn't mind it. I do find it odd how much the film focuses on this one villain, though; he's even the one who kidnaps Charles!
When Magneto unleashes his full power, the world is shaken — literally. Magneto is the only Horseman to truly feel like a threat in his own right; his power-levels are off-the-charts compared to the others, and calming him down becomes a mission for two experienced mutants. I do love that X-Men: Apocalypse avoids the cliché of Magneto leaping into action to defend his son, Evan Peters's Quicksilver. He never learns that Quicksilver is his son, and instead he changes sides when he realizes the threat Apocalypse poses to James McAvoy's Xavier and Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique — both clearly family to him.
Alexandra Shipp's Storm is perhaps the Horseman with the most potential, an elemental mutant who's central to the X-Men's history. Unfortunately, given the power-scale Storm operates on, she really ought to be handled a bit more effectively.
X-Men: Apocalypse opens with Storm as a young thief in Cairo, an origin familiar to any long-term readers of the X-Men comics. It's played very, very effectively, and her interactions with Oscar Isaac's En Sabah Nur are fascinating. She clearly shows a spiritual affinity with En Sabah Nur, who she comes to see as a divine figure, and as such is tremendously loyal to him. Unfortunately, as with the rest of the Horsemen, her role then becomes just to stand around until the fight at the pyramid. There, she uses the wind to toss a few cars around, blasts a bit of lightning, and — in a moment that really does disservice to the character — cowers in a corner after Nicholas Hoult's Beast tosses a car back at her. Her brief duel with Tye Sheridan's Cyclops — which she's clearly winning — is good, though.
Where Storm becomes unrecognizable is in her adulation for Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique. X-Men: Apocalypse is a strange, confused creature, attempting to absorb more comic book continuity than any X-Men film before it, while also continuing the character beats and continuity from the X-Men movies. As such, Mystique's heroism in X-Men: Days of Future Past has become a matter of legend, and she's an inspiration to mutants worldwide. Storm views her as her hero, and it's the sight of En Sabah Nur about to kill Mystique that really causes Storm's betrayal. It's a consistent motivation, but as a fan of the comics I admit that I found it jarring.
While Alexandra Shipp portrays the role very well indeed, the script does Storm a serious disservice.
All in all, the Four Horsemen suffer from the same problem we've seen before where there are teams of villains in the X-Men films: One or two stand out, while the others are given little opportunity to shine in the script. (However, the film really managed to do justice by Jean and Cyclops.) Really, we have three bodyguards and one Horseman — but in Magneto, Apocalypse has the only Horseman he needs to almost break the world.
I'll be interested to see what comes next. Although Ben Hardy's Angel seems dead, Alexandra Shipp's Storm is now an X-Man, sure to appear in the next X-Men movie. Olivia Munn's Psylocke will hopefully get her second wind in an X-Force film, and I'm sure we're going to see more of Michael Fassbender's Magneto. The villains may have been one of the weaker elements of X-Men: Apocalypse, but the best is hopefully yet to come!