X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennfer Lawrence, Oscar Issac, Tye Sheridan & Sophie Turner
Music: John Ottman
Release Date: May 20th 2016
Despite the ever-changing landscape of the comic-book movie sub-genre, the “X-Men” franchise has remained a constant for 16 years. Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men‘ in 2000 came out after ‘Batman & Robin‘ was thought to have killed off comic book movies and is part of the trio of films that brought them roaring back to popularity again (along with ‘Blade‘ and ‘Spider-Man‘). Since then we’ve seen two more iterations of Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy”, two new Superman’s and the birth and growth of Marvel Studios’ Cinematic Universe but the X-Men movies are still in the same continuity with a rotating cast of actors and the same creative team.
Despite 2014’s ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past‘ resetting the time-line and acting as a near-definitive end to the series we’re back again for ‘X-Men: Apocalypse‘ to tie up any time-travel related loose-ends and serving as a soft reboot to certain characters whilst also continuing the prequel storyline which started with 2011’s ‘X-Men: First Class‘. It’s a shaky foundation to continue building a universe, especially with Bryan Singer’s dark, “mature” aesthetic looking like an anachronism in an era where even ‘Ant-Man‘ can gross half a billion dollars at the box-office. Can this franchise still be relevant or has this series finally peaked under the weight of its own existence?
It’s the 1980s and Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is currently using the newfound peace after the events of ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past‘ to guide and teach a new generation of mutants; those who were born with extraordinary powers. However, this peace is interrupted by En Sabah Nur (Isaac), the world’s first and most powerful mutant who has awoken after a near-5000 year sleep. Dissatisfied with humanity and its new leaders, En Sabah Nur takes it upon himself to cleanse the world and recruits four “Horsemen”, one of them being Xavier’s old friend Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender). With the help of his friend Raven (Lawrence) Charles must assemble a new team of X-Men to stop this new threat before it wipes out humanity.
The X-Men franchise finds itself in a very precarious position going into ‘X-Men: Apocalypse‘ due to dealing with two generations of characters and cast members that are supposedly in the same (though slightly altered) continuity. As a result, the movie is acting like a reboot by establishing new origin stories for Cyclops played by Tye Sheridan, Jean Grey played by Sophie Turner, Nightcrawler played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Storm played by Alexandra Shipp and more. The movie is also aiming to be a sequel by continuing long-abandoned plot-threads from ‘X-Men: First Class‘ and the events in the 1970s in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past‘ are what sets the events of ‘X-Men: Apocalypse‘ in motion. But the movie also needs to tie into prior continuity by explaining where Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was during all of this. AND the movie is also acting as a “Greatest Hits” compilation of the X-Men franchise by re-creating some of the most famous moments of the series…despite it being the same, yet different continuity.
For example, we get another sequence of Magneto killing someone using his powers to manipulate a personally significant object, we get more training in line with Charles training Havoc in ‘X-Men: First Class‘, helping a distressed mutant in their sleep like Rogue helping Wolverine in ‘X-Men‘, the villain wanting to take control of the mutant-finding machine Cerebro in order to kill all the humans like in ‘X2: X-Men United‘ and more. They even give Magneto another family JUST to stuff them in the fridge again (in a manner of speaking) and put him in the same position as he’s always been before the end of the first act. What was the point?
We also have character-arcs that feel counter-intuitive to what’s been established before. Mystique, after the televised events of ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past‘ has become a symbol for mutants and a rebellious figure for other mutants to aspire to. Naturally, she doesn’t want this responsibility but decides to fight anyway and…oh my god, this is almost exactly same character that Jennifer Lawrence has played in ‘The Hunger Games‘ series. Despite the constant “mutant and proud” rhetoric over the past 5 years, Mystique still takes human form everywhere she goes. It makes sense when she’s in a public place because mutants are still feared and she will naturally want to be incognito. But when she’s amongst other mutants and especially old friend Charles Xavier and Hank McCoy, it makes no sense for her to be in disguise.
And then you remember that Jennifer Lawrence hates being in the blue make-up and bodysuit and you realise that this is another case of the studio having to adjust the character to the actor when it should be the other way around.
And for another movie, Hank McCoy is predominantly in human form which seems to completely go against his arc over the past two films about accepting his abilities. Not to mention the fact that Mystique can change her form and Beast can’t is a key linchpin for BOTH characters. Also, apart from the obvious blockbuster appeal, Quicksilver’s sole reason for being in this movie is to act as an emotional motivator for Magneto, only for the movie to abandon that whole angle 10 minutes before the end for…reasons?
That’s not to say that there’s nothing interesting happening in the movie character-wise, but it just feels like a lot of “been there done that”. Xavier and Erik’s ideologies are at odds with each other, Nightcrawler is a boy of faith etc. And because the movie has so many things it wants to be (reboot, sequel, prequel, ending, new beginning etc.) that a lot of the new talent gets shoved to the sidelines. Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner and Kodi Smit-McPhee are, on paper, great casting decisions and they shine when they get screentime but they really have no agency or influence over the story. They just stumble their way to survival and wait around until the big team-up battle at the end. Jean Grey, despite supposedly being a key player, is set up so haphazardly in the movie that when it’s required for her to step up and prove herself in the finale it feels un-earned.
The four horseman also have a depressingly small amount of influence as well. Apart from the fact that the comic books did it, there’s no reason in the movie for Apocalypse to have helpers or followers since he’s already all-powerful to begin with. Psylocke may get the most comic-accurate costume but she doesn’t offer anything other than a neat power-set, Angel is tacked-on and Magneto is the only one of the horsemen to actually factor into Apocalypse’s plans. Alexandra Shipp could make for a compelling new Storm but once she’s given a power-boost by Apocalypse to become a horseman she just stands around and occasionally fires lightning at people. In fact, I don’t think she’s even called by name in the movie. At no point is the name “Storm” or even “Ororo” said out loud, so blatant is the movie’s disinterest in the supporting villains.
It also doesn’t help that Apocalypse claims to be after the strongest and most powerful mutants to be his followers, yet he then proceeds to literally use the first mutants he finds.
Which nicely brings me to the titular Apocalypse who is easily one of the most powerful villains ever portrayed in a comic book movie and this character is a double-edged sword. Because while he has a unique look and it feels like there’s real stakes and tension in the action sequences because this guy just cannot be stopped no matter what you throw at him, his actual motives aren’t very well defined. He wakes up from a massive sleep and while in the hangover stage he watches some 80s television and decides the world needs to be cleansed (makes sense). But what exactly he intends to do, what he wants to do with other mutants or just what his overall plan is remains shockingly unclear. I can see what they were TRYING to do (Apocalypse was a ruler during a time of superb innovation in Cairo with the pyramids but he wakes up in a shanty-town full of pollution, crime and feeble humans) but it’s left far too vague. In fact, whether or not he has a problem with the X-Men is never a factor until the 3rd act of the movie as while the Mansion does get destroyed in the second act, it’s not actually his doing.
Speaking of the Mansion destruction, what should be a really tense and emotionally charged sequence of everybody about to get destroyed by their own hand, becomes an extended comedy-skit where Quicksilver saves everyone. It’s so tonally at odds with itself and despite the fact that it’s a technically astounding sequence, the music choice and Quicksilver’s behaviour during the sequence really undermine how significant a plot-point it really is. Not to mention the fact that Quicksilver does it so effortlessly and doesn’t even need to catch his breath at the end means that he’s once again phenomenally overpowered. Maybe if it was presented that Quicksilver was running faster then he ever has before to save everyone and that he’s exerting himself, it would make the sequence more tense. As much as this character is an improvement on his iteration in ‘Marvel Avengers: The Age of Ultron‘ at least that version was more grounded in that he had to catch his breath after an intense burst of speed.
Then, once the mansion is rubble, William Stryker shows up played by Josh Helman and he kidnaps the X-Men so that most of the 2nd act can take a wholly unnecessary detour JUST so Wolverine can show up for 2 minutes and not say a word. Seriously, you could remove this entire sequence from the movie and not miss anything and the fact that it’s entirely in service of a cameo that everyone already saw coming makes it all the more baffling. It’s not even about proving that the new X-Men are capable of working together before the final showdown, kinda like a warm-up act, because Wolverine just shows up and does their job for them.
Not to mention that Stryker having Wolverine in his possession directly contradicts the ending of ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past‘ but whatever.
At this point it sounds like I hate the movie, but I really don’t. There’s a lot of good stuff here with most of the cast giving great performances, especially James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender who have always given 110% for this material and treated it with complete confidence. Even though Magneto does a lot of out of character actions in the movie (like ripping out the foundations of Auschwitz which, while a great concept, feels out of character for someone who would normally leave it standing as a symbol of mankind’s inhumanity to man) Fassbender really cuts loose and sells it, dramatically. McAvoy, despite being confined to a wheelchair for most of the film is able to have a dominating screen presence and the new young cast are great, talented additions.
However, despite what is surely a huge pay-cheque it’s clear that Jennifer Lawrence just hates being involved in this movie, which is all the more noticeable since the franchise is bending over backwards to make her more prominent and to make her more of a leader to the X-Men. Whatever enthusiasm Lawrence brought to the role in 2011 has dried up and her performance is phoned in and completely lacking in any sort of effort this time around.
But, more importantly, the movie is missing the human connection. The core of the X-Men franchise has been the mutants striving to set a good example for human-kind who fear and despite them. But there’s very little human influence in the movie and the conflict in question has zero personal stakes. This is personified perfectly when the movie includes its obligatory Stan Lee cameo during what should be one of the most dramatic moments of the film. The main human character is Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggart, but she only exits to say how she’s part of the CIA and that she’s important despite offering nothing to the overall story.
Really, when all is said and done, apart from offering blind spectacle and an all powerful villain, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse‘ really doesn’t add up to much. While there’s nothing wrong with blind, blockbuster VFX spectacle, the X-Men franchise has prided itself in offering cultural commentary and addressing universal themes of tolerance, growing up and responsibility. None of that is present here and when that DNA is removed from the equation well…it just doesn’t seem to have much of a beating heart.
Instead, this movie has traded all of that in for big spectacle with the biggest and most powerful villain in the franchise, a globe-hopping story and a no-holds-barred finale with dozens of mutants fighting each other in all out war. And while the money is up on screen, big-scale action has never been Bryan Singer’s strong suit with a lot of action clearly taking place on sound-stages and in front of green-screens, very little inventiveness in the way of choreography and some obviously telegraphed “trailer shots” to promote the movie. The action isn’t bad but when compared to the bigger event movies this summer, it doesn’t stand out much.
However, the sequences displaying Magneto’s power-set, Quicksilver’s lighting-fast abilities and a trippy sequence where Xavier and Apocalypse fight on an astral plane feel unique and offer some solid spectacle and anything that doesn’t involve one-on-one fighting feels technically strong. There’s also something still incredibly rousing and nostalgic about Michael Kamen’s original movie-theme during the opening credits and the 1980s fashion and music choices make this film stand out not just from the franchise but in the sub-genre in general.
Despite the previous 2,100+ words of negative thoughts, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse‘ is not a bad movie. It’s just that the bad parts stand out so much and the good parts are either just recycled aspects from previous movies or don’t have much room to develop in a narrative that feels equally over-stuffed, yet without much substance. I can imagine this making for a solid introduction to the franchise for the uninitiated, but those who have stuck with the series for the past 16 years, the past 5 years since the prequel/reboot or even those wanting inspired film-making after ‘Deadpool‘, will find very little new here. It just feels like the X-Men franchise is creatively running in place, unsure of what to do with this vast catalogue of characters and its talented cast of actors (and also Jennifer Lawrence). Despite everything that Bryan Singer has given the franchise this century, it seems like he’s creatively tapped and the series is in need of fresh blood. And fast. This brand new cast aren’t getting any younger.
I give ‘X-Men: Apocalypse‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
Oh yeah, and stay through the credits.
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Posted: 6th Jun 16