THEATRICAL REVIEW: X-Men: Apocalypse
Produced by: Bryan Singer, Lauren Shuler Donner, Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker
Screenplay by: Simon Kinberg
Edited by: John Ottman, Michael Louis Hill
Cinematography by: Newton Thomas Sigel
Music by: John Ottman
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Olivia Munn, Ben Hardy, Lucas Till, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Tomas Lemarquis, Hugh Jackman
Based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
I actually didn’t initially intend on reviewing this, considering the number of superhero movies I’ve reviewed lately as well as the fact that, apart from The Wolverine, I haven’t reviewed any previous X-Men movies, and this was the third in the rebooted timeline series. However, in the wake of seeing it and thinking on it for about a day, I just couldn’t help myself, because I seriously needed to get this out of me in some way beyond nagging the one friend of mine who saw it with me.
There’s a scene in this movie in which our teenage heroes – Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee – are coming out of the theatre, where they have just watched Return of the Jedi, debating the quality of the movie in relation to the first two. (Sidenote: This movie is set in 1983, if you didn’t know, having jumped forward another decade from the previous film Days of Future Past’s (mostly) 1973 setting, itself set apart from its predecessor First Class’ 1962 setting.) The characters enjoyed themselves but were clearly disappointed with the film, with Jean commenting something along the lines of, “I think we can all agree that the third movie is always the worst, anyway.” Now, see, I get that this is yet another snide remark aimed at Brett Ratner, director Bryan Singer’s replacement after Singer didn’t return for X-Men: The Last Stand, but you know what? Singer really has no room for insults right now because Apocalypse is not exactly a masterpiece itself, and it’s also technically the third film in this rebooted timeline series. (Deadpool really is kind of its own thing, while The Wolverine took place in the original timeline that has now been effectively erased. The X-Men films have kind of turned into a Terminator-esque series recently.)
Now, don’t get me wrong – it’s not nearly as bad as The Last Stand and is definitely much better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But after the successes of I consider the two best films in the series and mere months after the release of a brilliantly entertaining spinoff, X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it has the lowest stakes of all of the films, save for maybe the first movie, in spite of its villain being the most threatening single force the team has faced so far. The movie has a serious problem with editing and tone, particularly within the first hour or so, when it feels like it cares more about setting things up than examining characters in detail. After a prologue set in Ancient Egypt, we’re thrust into the 1980s and are suddenly being introduced to pretty much the entire cast of characters all at once, cutting back and forth without much thought towards smooth tonal shifts, developing thematic connections, or even just considering the passage of time, with some characters’ stories taking place across a few days and others mere minutes. It’s entirely possible that the filmmakers thought audiences would lose interest if they stayed on one set of characters for too long, and so they settled on throwing them at us all at once. Granted, their assumptions may not have been unfounded, as apart from Magneto, there’s really not much to find out about them.
Xavier is now running his school for gifted youngsters. Mystique is still having identity issues but helps out any mutants she runs into who are facing human persecution. Pre-Cyclops is getting bullied and discovers his concussive blasts. Jean is having issues controlling her telepathic powers, as usual. The future Storm is running around as the leader of a pack of impoverished kids stealing stuff. And even Moira MacTaggert returns for the first time since First Class and is… still doing covert CIA stuff 20 years later, her memories of First Class having been wiped by Xavier… … because…? So, yeah, they’re all pretty much where we either left them off or expected them to be at this time – again, excluding Magneto, whose newfound, low-key life as a family man in Poland actually leads to one of the bigger character developments in the entire franchise. Elevated by Fassbender’s always incredible work as one of the most troubled and conflicting comic book characters, the consequences of his story and his journey from that point onward are far more interesting and dramatic than anything else that happens to anyone else in the film. It’s a shame, then, that the momentum behind it, much like everything else, just kind of fizzles out by the time the movie comes to its climax, where all the characters come together to throw shit at one another before they all realize who the real bad guy is.
A big problem with this film is that it has some great ideas for its individual characters, but I don’t think the bigger story chosen for the film afforded the opportunity to explore those ideas further. Apocalypse is very much a straightforward “stop the villain from destroying/taking over the world” movie, and that’s really about all there is to it. There’s an attempt to connect it to the anxieties of the 1980s-era Cold War, but the retro setting is really kind of superfluous and forced compared to the last two movies as it has no bearing on the characters, so the film, overall, feels as if it could have taken place at any time and not felt any different. Thematically, it’s not as though this provides any sort of allegorical purpose for these characters’ dilemmas apart from “The world fears me, so do I give them reason to fear me?” Which is pretty par for the course as far as the X-Men go, admittedly. It probably would’ve been fine if the villain had been interesting.
Apocalypse himself has no real motivation beyond wanting to take the world for mutantkind and then ruling mutantkind as a god, assimilating more and more powers for himself through the convoluted body transference process explored in the prologue, which itself doesn’t so much suggest “mutant power” as much as Frankenstein-like science, so the whole ritual kind of just feels confoundingly convoluted. It’s almost as if the filmmakers knew they had a flimsy story to base a whole movie on or something…. It’d be one thing if we could get some background on who he was before, but we only know that he was once worshiped as a god in Egypt and that some people rejected this and managed to entomb him for a few thousand years. Once he’s woken up, he just goes around and assembles his Four Horsemen, who… just kind of follow him around and look neat while their boss orates on and on about taking over the world. That’s really it. Oscar Isaac, try as he might, cannot overcome the immensity of Apocalypse’s blandness as a villain, and he kinda looks silly in that makeup, too, even if it does look better in the context of a whole movie than trailers and stills. (The same cannot be said for the special effects, which looked cheap in the trailers and actually manage to look even worse when seen as a whole. There’s a shot of some construction wreckage in water, which is mostly metal and there are absolutely zero people in it, and yet it still manages to look like some half-finished composite effect from the early days of CGI.)
There are some good things, though, even apart from the fantastic Magneto stuff. There’s a sudden detour to the Weapon X program that reintroduces a familiar set of adamantium claws that get put to good use, if only briefly. This whole sequence – while mostly serving to pad time, set up future plot in part with the post-credits scene, and get these characters into a spiffy new jet – also at least gives us a chance to see the rookie heroes working together for the first time. It’s much more fun than the stuff about stopping Apocalypse. It also gives me hope that these new actors will do better with a more interesting and focused script, as they were generally well cast, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee as the new Nightcrawler. I just wish they had more to do than serve as familiar faces – particularly Psylocke and Jubilee, the latter of whom once again gets sidelined with absolutely nothing to do beyond getting to finally have a few lines of dialogue. (It’s the freaking 1980s, and yet they squandered their second most decade-appropriate character, yet again!) Quicksilver also returns in a larger capacity to steal a few scenes, including one more elaborate sequence set to music as time seems to slow around him. It’s not as well executed or memorable as the “Time in a Bottle” scene in Days of Future Past, but it’s still plenty entertaining, even if it does end up contributing to the film’s infuriating inability to shift tones smoothly. One moment we’re having a few laughs at Quicksilver’s speedy antics in a time of extreme crisis, and the next it’s revealed that someone freaking died a horrible death as a result of that crisis. Similarly, the Stan Lee cameo in this film totally ruins a key moment in which we and the characters are supposed to be horrified at what’s happening.
The movie is a mess, but not nearly on the same level as other recent messes like Batman v. Superman or that other Fox movie from last year that was masquerading as a Fantastic Four adaptation. It’s poorly edited and composed, but it’s coherent, and the character motivations make sense, even if they’re not entirely interesting. The Magneto, Quicksilver, and Weapon X stuff alone make Apocalypse worth seeing, and the new cast members certainly seem like they could potentially carry a much better film and mesh well with the established actors, too. Do not, however, expect to see anything nearly as great as X2, First Class, or Days of Future Past. This feels more like a bigger version of Bryan Singer’s very first X-Men movie (and some of the visual effects are about on the same level, too). I feel as though a lot of material was cut, and there’s definitely potential for this to get an alternate version, just as the last movie did with the Rogue Cut. Fixing the editing problems and giving a few more scenes for underserved characters like Storm, Jubilee, and Psylocke would greatly improve the film. Unfortunately, nothing short of a complete revamp will ever change the fact that the film’s main conflict and villain are just not that interesting. Hopefully this serves as a warning to Fox and/or Bryan Singer for the next film.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2.5 / 5