by Philip Price
At this point in the 16-year old ‘X-Men’ franchise the only thing the film that followed the ultimate team-up/culmination of 14 years of ‘X-Men’ movies had to be was a good next adventure. Going from the high that was ‘Days of Future Past’ featuring both old and new cast members with a time hopping plot that saw everything torn apart only to be put back together on a new timeline there was never going to be a way to compete, so why not just give audiences what they really wanted in a proper follow-up to ‘First Class’? Where the younger versions of the mutants we've all grown to love go on an adventure together and further solidify themselves as the X-Men? Maybe that would have been too easy. Maybe that would have been looked at as taking the road more traveled, but in following up the popular comics storyline of ‘Days of Future Past’ it was immediately obvious director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg thought they needed to do the same with the sequel and so they opted to adapt another popular storyline from the comics that included one of the ‘X-Men’ universe's biggest bads: Apocalypse. This was a fine idea in theory and certainly had fans of the series excited for a showdown between Professor X's mutant team and the very first mutant, but seeing as how Kinberg and Singer have chosen to execute that story on the big screen it feels less like a step in the right direction and more like a recycled collection of comic book movie clichés. The whole affair feels tired, rushed, and nowhere near as layered or nuanced as the two previous films that were all in all pretty stellar. That this latest trilogy of ‘X-Men’ films featuring the incredible core cast of Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy goes out on such a generic note is rather disappointing, but more than that it is frustrating. It is so abundantly clear not only how much talent this cast has that is being wasted, but also how much potential this film had to be a really solid super hero flick with the same story even, but conveyed in different and more interesting ways. Fans of the genre will always be indebted to the ‘X-Men’ films for jump starting the current domination of movies based on comic books, but while their counterparts at Marvel are flourishing it can't help but feel as if the X-Men are currently somewhat stunted.
Set 10 years after the events of ‘Days of Future Past,’ “X-Men: Apocalypse” finds Charles Xavier (McAvoy) in a peaceful state as his school for gifted youngsters is up and running and he's found promising pupils in the likes of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) as well as continued support from friend and colleague Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). The pre-opening credits sequence concerns itself with the origins of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and explains the fact that he not only once ruled the world as he saw fit, but that he transfers his consciousness from one body to the next (presumably a mutant body) so that he can live forever while also inheriting the powers of the mutant whose body he is inhabiting. Though the sequence is filled with an abundance of CGI given it takes place in ancient Egypt and some of the aesthetic choices feel a bit off or rather cheap in that they are clearly costumes not convincing enough to be taken at face value it at least does its job of setting up who this character is and how he comes to be silenced for thousands of years. Jump to 1983 and we are introduced to a young Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) as he reaches peak emotional stress in his formidable years that brings out his mutation with full force. Taken by his brother Alex (Lucas Till) to Xavier's school we see Cyclops meet Jean Grey for the first time. Meanwhile, in the last decade Mystique (Lawrence) has become something of a national hero and savior figure for her fellow mutants whereas Magneto (Fassbender) has become just the opposite. While Mystique roams the globe searching for fellow mutants of extraordinary abilities, namely Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for reasons we're not fully aware of Magneto has gone into seclusion in Poland where he works day in and day out at a steel plant and comes home to his wife (Carolina Bartczak) and daughter Nina (T.J. McGibbon) to live a quiet existence. CIA Agent Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) resurfaces from ‘First Class’ as she is still involved in the identifying of mutants which brings her to a cult in Egypt who are intent on resurrecting Apocalypse. When they inevitably do so is when things begin to get really hairy. Apocalypse rounds up his four horsemen including Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy) before tragedy strikes Magneto easing him into his allegiance with the immortal, all-powerful mutant.
In the beginning, the amount of story “X-Men: Apocalypse” has to offer is both ambitious and exciting, but it becomes clear quite quickly that the film has no real desire to dig in to one certain aspect, idea, or theme that could come from any of its multiple storylines. Rather, the film seems to have this facade that it is attempting to make these huge strides in terms of character and story points, but in reality they are simply treading the same water they did in earlier ‘X-Men’ films giving the movie not only a lack of momentum, but a feeling of redundancy. Much of Isaac's dialogue as ‘Apocalypse’ feels redundant and this stems from him being the most typical of antagonists in that he wants to take over the world, destroy the human race, and blah blah blah...but there is no motivational factors here-there is nothing for us to root against and no sympathy to be elicited because there is no character development. The same can be said of other new characters with the familiar characters only feeling fleshed out because we've seen them in other movies. Psylocke may as well be a random hired gun for how much screen time and dialogue she gets, Angel hardly registers, and the four horseman storyline may as well be non-existent as there are no relationships formed or defined, but more it simply serves as an opposing force for the good guys to fight in the climactic battle. Josh Helman's William Stryker seems to only show up so that a certain adamantium-clawed mutant might show up reinforcing the idea that everything happening here is a means to justify an end we already know is coming. But in simply highlighting such moments there is no substance to the narrative as a whole. Worst of all is that the movie would have probably been better off without the titular villain in it at all. For all his intents and purposes, Apocalypse looks cartoony, is the blandest of bad guys, and is a complete trope in every action he decides to take. That they were able to get as talented and charismatic an actor as Isaac to play this part was incredibly promising, but that Singer doesn't seem to have allowed the actor to do something interesting with his performance and that Kinberg clearly supplied little to nothing for the actor on the page makes this use of Isaac a complete waste. Sure, he looks like a “Power Rangers” villain, but as there is nothing beyond his clunky looks to offer other than the mundane "world domination" scheme it makes the silliness of his appearance all the more embarrassing. All of this is to say that more than anything, ‘Apocalypse’ feels like two plus hours of fan service without any weight in between such moments to tie it all together or make audiences feel invested in these moments that fans of the series have been looking forward to seeing on the big screen for years.
It's difficult to discuss how depressing this film is as there are redeeming qualities as well, but these only make clearer the real potential this project had. To sum it up, there are two stand out portions of the film. The first deals with Magneto's arc and the insight provided by going back to the younger days of these men we came to know as seasoned friends and enemies all those years ago. To know that at one point Magneto attempted to live as Professor X would have wished him to is insightful on its own, but that the catalyst for him truly becoming the Magneto he will forever be is played so effectively and that Fassbender gives the material as much credence as he does allows for these scenes to resonate more than anything else in the film. Though the events do somewhat mirror that of other tragedies in Magneto's life I'll give Kinberg the benefit of the doubt in assuming he wrote things this way so as to reinforce both the sense and the amount of loss that Magneto has taken on and that he can only accept so much at the hands of homo sapiens before there is no turning back. It is in these moments alongside Fassbender's Magneto that we feel the authenticity and mostly serious tone of Singer's super hero films come through. What is largely distracting about Apocalypse is that it is the first Singer ‘X-Men’ movie that doesn't retain that aesthetic and tone. More than ever it feels like our players are on sets or green screens, cheapening the experience and discrediting what has come before. The other stand out sequence of the film deals with Evan Peters' Quicksilver as he once again is given a rather spectacular set piece in which to display his abilities. Matched with the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" this time around the technical achievement that this particular sequence displays is very clear and just as clever if not more fun than the one from ‘Days of Future Past,’ but given they do more or less repeat themselves here this one will undoubtedly go down as the less memorable of the two. And that kind of sums up the whole issue with the film in that Singer is repeating himself in sometimes fun, sometimes spectacular ways, but the fact is he's still repeating himself and if you can't find new ways in which to use these characters there is no point in telling the same story over and over again.
Ultimately, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is an action movie that is a by the numbers excursion with moments of real inspiration and inventiveness that are outweighed by the corny and more conventional aspects of its story. In these types of films one at least hopes the action sequences might be worth the price of admission, but even in this area the film feels uninspired as the choreography comes off especially staged and inorganic to many of the characters while allowing the visual effects to take over to such an extent that the fact there is no emotional investment in the reasons why these characters are fighting one another is all the more apparent. And if the action isn't as great as it could be one can typically count on the performers to at least try and sell the material and for the most part, this rings true here still. Lawrence largely feels disconnected from the material and performs as if this was more an obligation than a passion, but McAvoy, Hoult, and the aforementioned Fassbender are still giving this material their all even when they too have recycled lines to throw back and forth at one another. The newcomers including Sheridan and Turner are fine enough, but the dialogue they have to exchange isn't exactly natural and is cringe-inducing at points. Smit-McPhee and Shipp are also all well and good in their roles as younger versions of mutants we've met previously, but they are given so little to do they hardly leave a big enough impression on which to judge them fairly. One can appreciate the attempts to tie character arcs and motivators back to ‘First Class,’ one can appreciate the presentation of Magneto in a light we haven't seen him before, and one can appreciate the ambition to go big or go home in making this not just another adventure, but taking place within an earth shattering, world ending set of circumstances, but in trying to do so much the film ends up leaving us with very little. An aimless excursion with familiar passengers whose films were once about something, but now feel like little more than the next summer super hero movie to come down the conveyor belt.