X-Men: Apocalypse was a disaster for its titular villain. Here's how
There’s a scene in X-Men: Apocalypse, where Professor X’s young new recruits sneak off to watch The Empire Strikes Back (the movie is set in 1983). On the way out, Jean Grey (Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner) snidely remarks, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst”.
Though intended as a dig at Brett Ratner’s disastrous X-Men: Last Stand, Grey's dialogue proves ironically prescient: Bryan Singer’s third film in this semi-rebooted universe is its weakest, often stumbling upon its series' strengths, taking too long to do not very much with far too many characters. Apparently, Sansa Stark knows things.
First, some plot
X-Men: Apocalypse revolves around the godlike titular villain attempting to destroy humanity and guide his “lost children” aka all mutants, back to the right path; Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac in blue-face) is the original mutant, also referred to as En Sabah Nur. Worshipped as a deity in Ancient Egypt, he rules through four powerful acolytes dubbed the 4 Horsemen.
Betrayed by his followers in the opening scene, he is trapped under the ruins of a pyramid. That is, until he is accidentally re-awoken 6000 years later, by CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, returning in a forgettable turn as Professor X’s love interest).
Soon Apocalypse sets about recruiting new Horseman, including the seemingly retired Magneto to help him conquer the world and put mutants in charge. The X-Men obviously, must come together to stop him.
The set-up harkens back to the very first X-Men, where super powered individuals who find themselves shunned by society at large, must overcome their isolation and unite to save the very people who ostracize them. Apocalypse ditches the time-hopping of the two previous films and thankfully sticks to one time period, namely the 1980s.
Though it certainly puts the setting to good use aesthetically, drawing skilfully from the era's fashion and music, (one character adopts Michael Jackson's jacket from 'Thriller' as his uniform), it ultimately lacks the sexy intrigue and political overtones of the 60s and 70s era.
One notable exception was Magneto’s powerful return to the Auschwitz Concentration camp, in one of the movie's most stirring sequences. However, for the most part, the setting ultimately has little impact on the movie's direction.
Who had it worse: the super villain or the superhero crew?
The movie unfortunately forgets to imbue Apocalypse with anything resembling originality. And so one of the comics’ most compelling villains becomes more of a reason to toss what feels like a hundred more mutants into the mix. Storm! Cyclops! Nightcrawler! Arch Angel! Purple lady? Wait, who? The sheer number of characters makes them difficult to keep a track of, let alone care deeply about.
Also read: Captain America: Civil War might be this year's biggest superhero hit. Here's why
Unlike Civil War, the movie manages them inefficiently; sacrificing them at the altar of spectacle, even while displaying promising sparks of dynamism.
Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) play well off each other providing some of the movie's comic relief. Professor X (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) fall right back into their comfortable dynamic. Neither of them have much time to shine though, as the show must go on.
Sophie Turner is serviceable as Jean grey, though her arc feels entirely unearned by the end of it. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is consistently grim, and consequently one note. Worse still, fan favourite Wolverine is reduced to the X-men equivalent of a carnage-filled item number. However, Evan Peters makes a welcome return as the infectiously fun Quicksilver. Unfortunately, he too, is let down by some odd plotting choices, particularly concerning his relationship with Magneto.
The biggest problem though lies with Apocalypse's chosen followers, dubbed his Four Horsemen. The new Storm (Alexandra Shipp inheriting the role from Halle Berry) though promising, is ultimately given little time to develop. Psylocke (Olivia Munn), for all her physical prowess, is more of a bouncer for Apocalypse rather than a fleshed out character. Arch Angel is present, which is about all I can say.
Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is the one true saving grace here. He gives us a vulnerability to match his gravitas, adding a new dimension to a now familiar character, imbuing him with a tragic sense of purpose. One wishes him and Professor X had more time together.
The whole enterprise moves forward rather unevenly. We jump from Upstate New York to Berlin to Frozen Tundra to Cairo with little regard for coherence or audience interest. The structure, an echo of the original X-Men, doesn’t hold well when overburdened with so many characters and events. The film’s supposed centre, Apocalypse lacks what it takes to keep it all together.
This dulls the impact of the otherwise gigantic action pieces to the point of numbness. At times, it feels like a Transformers movie, complete with giant pyramid destruction scenes. Don’t get me wrong though, this isn’t a Michael Bay level fiasco. It’s just disappointing to see from Bryan Singer, a man behind films such as The Usual Suspects.
Singer deserves due credit for playing a big role in resurrecting the flagging superhero genre, giving it maturity. He understood the allegorical heft of The X-Men as a case for civil rights. But here his familiarity and respect for the enterprise let him down. Even an updated version of the beloved Quicksilver slow motion sequence from the previous movie, though entertaining, fails to give us the same thrills as the first time around. It’s still pretty cool to behold, if nowhere near as thrilling.
All told, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a once great 80s band trying to stage a comeback, complete with substitute members, hoping to capture its former glory. Unfortunately, what it ends up feeling like is a pale imitation of its best days, familiar and yet lacking that old magic, burdened by the weight of its former greatness.