For most of this year, people have been talking about the “war” between two big, multi-hero comic book blockbusters–Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. Which one would be better? How much would they be better? Will the great DC/Marvel battle ever stop raging? But it seems we’ve totally forgotten about X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest film in a franchise that started the modern superhero film craze in earnest 16 years ago. After the surprise success of X-Men: Days of Future Past, could Bryan Singer live up to his own hype? Well, no. I also don’t think he’s trying to.
Days of Future Past was a take on a very highly regarded comic book arc that had a very specific storyline with stakes concrete enough that Singer and his writers could modify them to their own purposes. With Apocalypse, the big ideas are there, but the only connective tissue they have is the fact that they’re all in a movie together. The X-Men franchise has always had a ton of characters–that’s part of the fun–but the movies are only really successful when there’s a reason for each of them to be there, or at least a general “we’re on a team” thing.
Since X-Men: First Class, the central X movies have moved a decade forward each time, from the ’60s to the ’70s in DOFP, and now we’re in 1983. Aside from a few visual gags and references to music and movies, the movie could take place whenever. We also have to just be okay with the fact that the characters of Charles Xavier and Magneto have to be in their early-to-mid 50s and yet they’re still played by the rather youthful looking James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. (Whatever, it’s fine. Mutant logic.) Charles has re-started the Xavier School with a new batch of mutants including Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), while Magneto has gone into hiding following his exit in the last movie and living a quiet family man life in Poland. Of course, this cannot last. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), meanwhile, is traveling around the globe as a freedom fighter, saving persecuted mutants like Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
That’s an interesting story in and of itself, but we can’t forget the title of the movie, so an ancient, world-conquering mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) wakes up from his entombment in Cairo and begins recruiting mutants to be his four horsemen in a bid to rid the world of its debauched, non-worshipping-him ways. These horsemen are a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy), and, yes, Magneto himself, who takes up with the old baddie out of despair. Meanwhile, CIA Agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) makes her way back into the story, and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) returns to confront Magneto — seemingly for the purpose of padding the cast.
There are many moving pieces in this movie, but weirdly not that much happens. The endpoint is really just to stop Apocalypse and very little gets in the way of that, save a fun but unnecessary digression that connects some dots with X-history. It also seems like there was a much longer version of the movie, with more fleshing out of characters, that the studio cut for time. At 144 minutes, it’s already a pretty fat movie, so it would make sense for the bigwigs to want to trim as much as they could. Jean, Scott, and Nightcrawler are enjoyable but they don’t get to be the focal points they ought to be, and Psylocke and Angel are completely wasted while Storm is only mostly wasted. [Sidebar: the movie gives no indication as to why Apocalypse even needs horsemen. He seems plenty powerful on his own. Maybe just Magneto would have done the trick.]
The movie just doesn’t delight or challenge in the same way that Days of Future Past did, but that’s not to say there’s no enjoyment to be had. I’m a longtime X-Men fan and seeing the characters is always fun. Fassbender and McAvoy are brilliant once again, and even though he just has to be a villain, Isaac is great as always. There’s also a great deal of big, colorful visual moments that feel like a comic book in a good way. The inevitable Quicksilver scene is excellent, even if it does come out of nowhere tonally.
But ultimately the major fault of the movie is that the script is so unbelievably arch. People talk very dramatically all the time and much more like a comic book (in a bad way) than I remember the other X films doing. There are moments of levity, but those only serve to accentuate when the opposite is true. People speak like it’s a Greek tragedy or something. Apocalypse talking like that is fine, but nobody else should.
I will, however, say that this feels like exactly the movie, massive cuts aside, that Singer and writer-producer Simon Kinberg wanted to make, and they’re completely unencumbered by expectation or trends in superhero movies. I think this movie is for fans of the franchise or characters only. While I could recommend Days of Future to sci-fi fans at large, I don’t think there’s much here for people who haven’t seen the previous films or know the comics well. I hate to keep comparing X-Men: Apocalypse to the movie that came directly before it, but when the movie itself refuses to let you forget it, you can’t really blame me.
Here’s a breakdown of that last X-Men: Apocalypse trailer!
Images: 20th Century Fox