The X-Men Go Big and Fall Apart
When director Bryan Singer and Fox Studios gave the X-Men franchise a much needed in-continuity soft reboot with 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, the film series was given needed freedom to do what they want, how they want. In 2016’s latest entry into the series, X-Men: Apocalypse, the Singer-directed franchise goes bigger and more bombastic than ever, but the results wind up being muddled, familiar, and frantic, even if the extra-large canvas of the film allows for more spectacle than ever before.
Set in 1983 and continuing the reborn franchise’s trend of leaping a decade between movies, X-Men: Apocalypse is mostly concerned with the rise of the ancient and all-powerful Egyptian mutant known as En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), who awakens after a centuries-long slumber to conquer the world. Meanwhile, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his school for young mutants are forced to join the battle while former ally/enemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is pulled into the conflict after a life-shattering tragedy.
The X-Men films have often leaned on the mutant metaphor for telling a story about outcasts and those on the fringes of society due to being born different while still throwing in action-focused, team-centric tales of superheroics. Here, the metaphors are by and large dismissed in favor of big summer action blockbuster thrills. And while not every X-Men film has to be about the oppressed, a lack of any subtext within X-Men: Apocalypse definitely leaves the film feeling like nothing more than an ephemeral bit of CGI-laden diversion.
But worst of all, it seems as though the X-Men franchise has become beholden to its trends, feeling the need to shoehorn in as many recognizable components as possible at the expense of strong narrative structure or compelling character arcs.
X-Men: Apocalypse is quite possibly the least new viewer friendly entry into the franchise. Not necessarily because the story here is built on so much that came before, but that almost all character identities and emotional ties are assumed based upon the familiarity of viewers instead of any compelling storytelling here. But while this is definitely the biggest of the three films comprised of this, First Class, and Days of Future Past, there’s no real sense of climax or catharsis, just yet another entry into the sprawling and wandering franchise. And that’s truly unfortunate, as the slate-wiping nature of the previous film should have been a springboard to so much more than this.
Instead, we find ourselves forced into all the old familiar beats. Magneto, whose wife and daughter are so clearly doomed that their house should be a fridge, becomes a compassionate villain once again. Xavier scans the world using his psychic powers, only to be conveniently nerfed by a smarter and stronger villain. The story jumps forward a decade because that’s what they did last time, plot holes be damned. The Weapon X Program pops up to needlessly interfere with the story to kill time. Fan favorite characters wave knowingly from the background. Long-established comic book heroes and villains are largely thrown at the screen as cannon fodder without a second thought.
Even Quicksilver, who stole the show with scant minutes in Days of Future Past, is the victim of heavy retread. Here, the speedster character is once again given the film’s highlight scene, speeding in at the last moment to save the day to the sounds of a classic song (Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” this time) while the surrounding world and people move in comical slow motion. But it’s just the same idea from the previous film done once again, simply because it worked last time. It’s also shoved into the film at the precisely wrong moment, coming as the capper to a highly dramatic moment and the death of a character. On its own, the scene works like gangbusters. But in the greater context of the film and the larger series, it’s far more problematic.
And for those in need of a Wolverine cameo, Hugh Jackman’s iconic metal-clawed hero makes a small appearance here in what may be the most unnecessary story detour in a comic book film ever seen. With the most minor of spoilers, our heroes are whisked away by the Weapon X Program by black helicopters from literally out of nowhere to a secret government base in Canada. While there, they find Wolverine, who has been made into the experiment Weapon X.
There is literally no reason for this to occur within the film’s plot in the slightest, as what happens here does not alter the plot and the very minor story beats that occur could have happened anywhere. It seems as though Singer and writer/producer Simon Kinberg deemed it absolutely necessary to include Wolverine and finish the small dangling plot threads concerning the character from DoFP no matter the cost to storytelling or effective filmmaking.
Outside of these well-worn elements, the narrative of Apocalypse goes just about how you would expect. Big vague villain wants to rule the world. Team forms and experiences some setbacks. They fight by shooting big colorful blasts at the bad guys. The end. Unlike First Class, which bounced along thanks to fresh ideas, characters, and settings, and DoFP, which had true ambition for a superhero film, Apocalypse just feels like a generic Hollywood action film, but with special powers.
The actors involved here are mostly strong in their roles, with the returning McAvoy and Fassbender, who can both sell the emotion and humanity of even the schlockiest of CGI-painted spectacle, being the highlights. Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, and Lucas Till as Havok also return, helping to fill out the cast with familiar faces, but they have less to do here than ever before. Just say some motivational speeches, describe the CGI devastation around you, and do a flip or two. It’s not their fault that they don’t leave an impression, as they do each well in the roles; it’s the movie and its director who fail them. But newcomers like Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler get a little more to chew on, helping to establish their roles as the next generation for what will likely be many films to come.
Unfortunately, it’s the villains who get the shortest end of this already small stick. Poor Oscar Isaac. This guy is one of the best actors to come along in recent years, with roles in Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina showing his magnificent range and finely tuned talents. Even his part in Star Wars: The Force Awakens shows what massive charisma he can bring in a small role to a sci-fi franchise. But here, layered in pounds of makeup, prosthetics, plastic armor, and a voice modulator, he’s stiff, boring, and interchangeable with most any other actor. He likely gave it his all, but there’s simply nothing to a silly blue guy whose most impressive power is to stand there and pretend to not be hurt by anything. This is a shockingly bad villain that will have even the biggest Marvel Cinematic Universe detractors thankful for hollow, dumb bad guys like Malekith or Whiplash. And the less said about the non-Magneto members of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen the better. No matter what amount of charisma the actors may have brought here, like Alexandra Shipp as Storm, it’s all tossed aside by direction that was likely along the lines of “stand there and look badass.”
Which brings us to director Bryan Singer. While Singer was largely responsible for the X-Men franchise taking off thanks to his passion for the series, leading to the strong X-Men back in 2000 and the rousing X2: X-Men United, he’s no longer bringing anything new to the table here. It was director Matthew Vaughn who breathed new life into the series with First Class and who helped with the story for DoFP, which he didn’t direct due to some undefined trauma surrounding staying with a franchise for more than one movie. But in Vaughn-free Apocalypse, Singer adds nothing special besides competently aping what came before. Nothing really pops on the screen. And when Marvel is running away with their massive interlocking franchise and DC is making massive franchise entries with world-famous superheroes, the unremarkable X-Men: Apocalypse just feels more lukewarm than it would on its own.
There’s plenty of fertile ground that could be tread in the world of the X-Men, as evidenced by the raucous Deadpool from earlier this year, but if the Fox team behind the X-Men franchise is too afraid to till it, then this is a franchise that will wither on the vine sooner rather than later.
Next, read my review of “TMNT: Out of the Shadows.”