May 16, 2016
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016): Halfway to a good movie
X-Men: Apocalypse is the third movie in the X-Men prequel series, the ninth in the franchise overall, and the fourth directed by Bryan Singer. James McAvoy returns as Professor Charles Xavier, alongside Michael Fassbender as Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Evan Peters as Quicksilver, and Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, with two or three other characters also making a reappearance.
Newcomers include Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp as Storm, Ben Hardy as Angel, Olivia Munn as Psylocke, and Oscar Isaac as the ancient mutant En Sabah Nur, the titular villain Apocalypse.
Set in 1983, the movie features a scene where some of the kids sneak out of the mansion to see the then-new film Return of the Jedi, with Jean Grey quipping that “the third one is always the worst” (author’s note: Jedi was better received than Empire Strikes Back when it came out; also, Jedi is totally underrated). I can’t tell if this is a dig at the pretty bad third film X-Men: The Last Stand, or if it was a bit of self-deprecation since this is the third prequel film. If it’s the latter… well, Jean Grey is psychic, and this is indeed worse than either X-Men: First Class or X-Men: Days of Future Past.
I’m not saying this movie is bad, per se, but it’s certainly a disappointment. The first half of the movie is loaded with promise: the opening scene, introducing us to Apocalypse in ancient Egypt where he’s worshipped as a god-king, is pretty effective, though it gets a bit clunky when it comes to how he’s betrayed and then buried alive.
Flashing forward to the main timeline, we get a lot of great character moments, as we’re reintroduced to the returning cast as well as the younger versions of Cyclops, Storm, Jean, Angel, and Nightcrawler living their lives (or in the case of the latter two, forced to fight in a cage match), while Moira MacTaggert uncovers the tomb of Apocalypse and unwittingly brings him back to life.
These scenes are generally well done, and show how everyone has moved on with their lives: Xavier is no longer the drunk he was in the last movie, but at last settling into his role as mentor; Mystique is not much changed herself, but is regarded as a hero by the younger mutant population for her (misunderstood) role in the previous film; Magneto now has a wife and daughter and is living under an alias in Soviet Poland working in a metal factory, which is a nice nod to the comics, albeit with similarly tragic results when he’s outed to the secret police. Notably, he’s not in trouble for being a mutant, but for being a notorious terrorist, and the attitude of humans towards mutants seems to be one of slight progress: anti-mutant hate still exists, but most humans seem to practice live and let live, and relations are steadily improving.
Unfortunately, around the halfway point, the film loses its way. The first half drags a bit, but in general it gives us some good character development and efficient world-building, and director Singer and writer Simon Kinberg show they can handle a large cast and remain faithful to the characters, all of whom are well-served by their actors. Unfortunately, the rest of the film fails to capitalize on any of this, as characters are wasted, conflicts are teased but unexplored, some of the acting becomes pretty flat (looking at you, Fassbender), and the action pieces—both the fight scenes and the global disasters Apocalypse attempts to unleash—are unfortunately dull and uninteresting.
Mild spoilers follow…
X-Men: Apocalypse was billed as a disaster movie, but it’s a pretty boring one, since none of the main characters react with much shock and horror to the realization that cities are being annihilated, or that the end of the world is imminent.
One of the biggest problems is the villain. Oscar Isaac gives a good performance as the ancient mutant menace (though he’s no ‘90s cartoon Apocalypse: “I am not malevolent! I simply am!”), but while the character is appropriately strong and dangerous… Apocalypse is really, really stupid. The thing is, En Sabah Nur is powerful. Extremely powerful. Like, far, far too powerful, to the point where he should have easily been able to defeat the X-Men, conquer the planet, and destroy all of humanity entirely by himself, let alone with the help of his mutant Four Horsemen of Storm, Psylocke, Angel, and Magneto, the latter of whom he empowers to godlike levels himself.
On the one hand, this is a welcome step, since it brings the movies closer to the fantastical scope and scale of the source material without the usual faux-realism holding it back (it’s nice to see Erik Lehnsherr closer to the strength of his comic book self). But on the other, it means that the only reason Apocalypse doesn’t win immediately is because the plot requires that he literally wait around for the X-Men to defeat him.
I can’t understate this: Apocalypse has superhuman strength, is functionally immortal, can teleport himself and others to anywhere on the planet, is resistant to telepathy, can make other mutants stronger and to some extent can control their powers, and can seemingly bend reality itself on at least a citywide scale. He’s actually stronger than his comic book equivalent, though somewhat annoyingly, he lacks the size and shape-shifting abilities that he had in the comics (he does alter size, but that’s in a mental battle), and I’m probably missing one or two others.
At one point, he manages to telepathically gloat to the entire planet that he’s going to take them all over, while the X-Men are trapped on another continent. One of the few powers he lacks is the ability to control other mutants, which I bring up because a) he seems to actually have that power at certain points, but events in the movie show he doesn’t, and b) this makes the likes of Storm and Magneto terrible, terrible people for siding with him at all, because he’s explicitly planning flat-out global genocide, and yet the film clearly wants us to think they’re acting in a morally gray area at worst, especially Storm, who’s supposed to become a prominent X-Man herself.
Actually, scratch that: a lot of characters in this film demonstrate a rather callous indifference to human life. We’ve got the usual things, like Xavier casually mind-controlling an entire room of people or admitting to spying on Moira MacTaggert with Cerebro (not to mention erasing her memory in a previous film, of course), but also, regular humans die in this film. A lot. And the heroes don’t particularly care.
Storm invites Apocalypse back to her place before she’s placed under his thrall, but only after she sees him slaughter four or five people (granted, a couple of them were threatening her, but still); Jean at one point unleashes a certain berserker mutant loose in a military base, who proceeds to massacre everyone he comes across and isn’t in the least bit disturbed; Cyclops’ family knows he might be a mutant but still lets him attend public school, which ends with him nearly killing at least one bully and potentially destroying the entire school when his powers finally activate; and everyone is willing to laugh with Magneto at the end after he plays a major role in helping Apocalypse destroy the planet with his now godlike magnetic abilities, this being the third time he’s seemingly reformed only to go back to being a mutant terrorist. Seriously, after everything that happened in this movie, the amount of global destruction wrought, and the number of shits not given by the so-called good guys after it all, you have to wonder why at least some form of mutant registration is all that evil.
The film has timeline problems, too. While it’s become something of a constant with this franchise not to expect strong continuity between movies (e.g., going by previous films, several characters are either older or younger than they should be), the internal timeline of this movie is all over the place. From the POV of Apocalypse, this film appears to take place over the course of a single day, and bear in mind that, as I mentioned earlier, he can teleport to anywhere in the world instantly, and he shows he can execute his evil plan pretty much at his leisure. And yet, other characters traverse continents, enroll in a new school, see a movie, travel to Canada for an extended diversion so we can reintroduce a certain poster boy… in short, they’re all doing stuff that should take several hours, if not entire days.
The reason Apocalypse must be stupid is that logically, he had more than enough time to achieve his victory, and the heroes are on the other side of the world when he sets his plan in motion, yet they still somehow get there in time to stop him, and the only explanation I can think of (and I mean this seriously) is that he wasted time decorating the interior of his pyramid just so his triumph didn’t come too easily, you know?
This is all a shame, because this film otherwise has a lot going for it. As previously mentioned, the characters are all well acted and mostly well written; it’s just a pity that they all got sidelined not just for an action-disaster movie, but for a boring action-disaster movie. The special effects are as good as ever, and the fact that they can pull off a villain like Apocalypse at all is a testament to how far effects technology has come. The film has emotion and occasional laughs, and it’s not terrible by any means, but it loses it way and becomes a dull, uninteresting affair riddled with lapses in logic.
I’m interested in seeing the next slate of X-films, because a lot of potentially great storylines and characters are set up and teased in this movie, and the cast and crew prove that they can deliver a solid superhero flick. It’s just a shame that only the first half of the movie is good, while the rest is dull and forgettable.