Review: “X-Men: Apocalypse”

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X-Men: Apocalypse begins in ancient Egypt circa 3600 BC, but that’s not particularly surprising, is it? After all, where else can the franchise go that it hasn’t already been? We’ve seen the X-Men fight across the 2000s, the 1970s and the 1960s. We’ve seen Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine run across 1840s Canada and even get nuked in 1945 Nagasaki. The last entry in the long-running and increasingly convoluted franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past, even took us to an apocalyptic near future with nothing but darkness on the other side.

So yeah, 3600 BC. Why not? With its huge crowds and  lavish sets that promise spectacle on par with any other summer blockbuster, the problem with this opening sequence isn’t where or when it’s set. It’s not even the crazy, incoherent CGI rocks that crowd the screen as a powerful God-like being known as Apocalypse is crushed under a pyramid. The problem is that this scene introduces something that has never been present in the X-Men movies before, and fundamentally cheapen the franchise as a whole: Magic.

The mutant powers we’ve all come to know are given a new, magical context rather than the organic, genetic angle that has always given the X-Men’s powers an intriguing shroud of mystery, not to mention a sense of tactility grounded in the observable world. Maybe the way Apocalypse and his powers are explained in the comics is easier to swallow. As someone who is unfamiliar with those details, demystifying the mutant phenomena and then boiling it down to ancient blue energy makes all the past films feel significant flimsier in hindsight.

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So it goes without saying that director Bryan Singer (who had previously launched the franchise with the first two films and then returned to direct Days of Future Past) found himself stuck in a corner, having to find new stories to tell about these beloved characters when they’ve seemingly exhausted all their creative potential. The only logical option: introduce THE MOST POWERFUL VILLAIN with THE MOST POWERFUL POWERS who can cause MORE DESTRUCTION than anything else.

The result: Oscar Isaac, covered in blue makeup, speaking in an ominous whisper about the folly of humanity and demonstrating the most ill-defined powers in the history of the franchise (he can turn things into not-things and sink people into the ground, among other feats). He’s no blander than your average Marvel villain, and Isaac at least conveys a more intimidating presence than the Smurf get-up would suggest. But in feeling the need to one-up prior X-Films, we end up with an even more weightless villain and an even more mind-numbing, blatantly green screen-heavy finale than we’ve seen before.

Here’s an idea for next time: focus on the relationships between the characters you’ve established as in Captain America: Civil War, rather than sticking in some new, unforeseen entity with no prior connection to this universe and calling him the most important thing in the universe. With so much time devoted to Apocalypse’s nonsense (and his ‘Four Horsemen’ he collects — all equally boring), existing characters are relegated to tired retreads of their previous dynamics (another conflicted Magneto scenario, more tacked-on Beast/Mystique love interest dialogue, etc.).

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And if you feel like you’re tired of going through the motions, it would seem you’re not the only one. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg, a long-time collaborator on the franchise, pens the most wooden and rote dialogue in the series, while Singer himself seems too preoccupied (or perhaps its overconfident) to get good performances, even out of his most talented performers (Fassbender seems to be the only returning performer who’s still willing to give it his all despite the poor script he’s working with, while others, Lawrence especially, appear visibly bored throughout). And while the new cast members include the talented Tye Sheridan (Mud, Joe) as Cyclops, Kodi Smitt-McPhee (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Nightcrawler and Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) as Jean Grey, their characters too suffer from acute deja vu, as they were all present in the first three movies with different actors, and their rebooted interpretations here add nothing new to the equation.

For all of Singer’s uncharacteristic missteps, he at least still seems to understand the importance of balancing humor and drama in a way other superhero universes struggle with. Tonally, Apocalypse falls nicely in between Batman v Superman‘s oppressive humorlessness and Captain America: Civil War‘s sometimes weightless “it’s all going to be okay” mentality. Both of those strategies certainly have their place, but it’s nice to see the X-Men juggle both sides of the coin as well as they do. Troubling things happen in this movie, but the movie knows how to make those dramatic beats feel impactful and maybe even moving, without moping over them for too long.

The jokes don’t always hit, and in some occasions they actually ruin scenes (expect the most ill-fitting Stan Lee cameo in film history), but at least this franchise can still have fun amidst all the threats of human/mutant wars and/or the end of the world. This sense of fun is best demonstrated in the slapstick-laden, almost Deadpool-esque Quicksilver sequence that expertly builds on Days of Future Past‘s similar scene in terms of scale and the overall number of visual gags stuffed into each frame. This is the moment people will immediately go to when they recall Apocalypse in the future, though it’s possible that just shows how clumsy the melodrama in this franchise has become (or maybe in the superhero genre as a whole).

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Singer also hasn’t lost his knack for creating unique, ballsy and sometimes even indelible imagery for a genre that could use some more of it. After all, this movie essentially features an action set-piece that takes place at Auschwitz. I’d like to see either Disney’s Marvel movies or Warner Brothers’ DC franchise try something so bold.  it’s a testament to Fox’s daring as a studio (demonstrated earlier this year with Deadpool), that they allow their filmmakers to take chances and actively subvert the conventions that have worked for the competition, rather than trying to imitate them. Maybe the most impactful visual moments in the film are instances of intense violence. The recent X-Men have all teetered on the other edge of an R rating, and with plenty blood splatter, multiple decapitations, and bodies twitching horrifying as they are melded into the ground, it feels as though they are good and ready to leave PG-13 behind. And considering the visceral impact these brutal action scenes had on me, I’m ready too.

Though the narrative framework is faulty to the core, there is still plenty of fun to be had with X-Men: Apocalypse on a superficial level. And if ever it was okay to like a movie on a superficial level, it’s one of these. Flimsy summer blockbusters are a dime a dozen, but at least X-Men has, over the years, accrued an incredible (and large) enough cast of likable characters that the baffling mistakes this particular iteration is guilty of isn’t quite enough to deride the series as a whole. Complemented by some of the most audacious visual moments in the history of superhero movies, and I’d even say it’s an enjoyable brain-number. It’s probably the worst X-Men movie outside of the Wolverine spin-offs, I would argue that there is still yet to be a bad X-Men movie (though I know plenty would agree). Apocalypse gets a little close for comfort, but when you’re dealing with ill-defined blue magic, that’s a risk you have to take.

Score: 3 out of 5

…And I’m still here. I’d like to share the test run of a new project created by Kyle Aaronson (whose work you can find over at More Critical) and myself, a movie review/general movie talk podcast where we hang out and talk about the same stuff you enjoy reading about here. If you’re one of those millennials who doesn’t have time to read and just scrolled down to see the score, this is an alternative way for you to hear my dumb opinions in handy audio form. Enjoy.

Music and Audio by Drew Elder

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