X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)
Directed by Bryan Singer
So here we go again. An ancient evil force has come out of long term slumber and is intent on destroying the world via largely undefined powers for no particular reason, save for some vague religious twaddle. Next, a team of stubborn heroes bicker for a while between elaborate set-pieces, before learning that it’s teamwork that makes the dream work. Rivals become friends and friends become rivals, before an operatic digital-effect heavy showdown that sees a whole city being destroyed. The end. Cue a teasing post-credits sequence.
I suspect this sounds familiar, and so it bloody should. Since it’s almost the modern superhero movie template. To be fair, Apocalypse does it better than some of its contemporaries, offering punters much bang for the buck. There’s also some fresh faces to combat franchise-fatigue (young Cyclops, young Storm and young Nightcrawler). But at the same time, it feels more like a series greatest hits than an actual film in its own right. This is mostly owed to the complete absence of arcs and forward momentum. Sure, characters switch alliances throughout, and superficially things happen. Yet given just how extensive the mutant gallery has gotten, the script struggles to give any of them much screen time or signs of an internal life. In this respect it relies on the goodwill and knowledge audiences will have built up several films ago. The first two-thirds consists of numerous character introductions, with some being relegated to just a few lines (particularly on the villainous side). Nobody goes on a mental journey. Rather they teleport from a headspace in act 1 to another in act 3 because the plot requires it: there’s almost no mid-section to speak of. This seriously hurts the finale, where it’s difficult to be emotionally invested since the X-Men themselves are as disposable as the many civilians getting tossed in the explosions. The lack of clear agendas sees the fighting boast all the necessary spectacle, but none of the purpose or personal stakes that make the best superhero films the best ones.
This limp characterisation’s a shame, given how strong many of the cast members have been in other projects. Series veteran James McAvoy gets time to shine as both a dramatic and comedic performer, yet the movie only ever asks him to do one or the other. Similarly, Michael Fassbender almost sells Magneto’s torment, particularly during a return to Auschwitz. Though with so little to work it descends to sulking by the later sections. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult are both underused, with fairly diminished roles and a certain returning character’s cameo is a wasted punchline. Yet the actor given the greatest disservice is series newcomer Oscar Isaac, who is buried under layers of prosthetics as the titular Apocalypse: an utterly generic supervillain that has no aims beyond pointless destruction. This is a character who couldn’t be anything but a cartoon baddy, even in their own head. And when he soliloquises about how the Earth has fallen you wonder if the actor even buys the role as having a third dimension. Really, the only ones with notable parts are Kodi Smit-McPhee, who gives Nightcrawler a lot of humanity, and Evan Peters as Quicksilver, who comes in late to steal the show.
So it gets a lot of the plotting fundamentals wrong, but what about the action? Well, some of these bits are as good as any you’ll have seen in the series so far. In particular, there’s a strong pre-credit sequence, a captivating forced cage fight and a stunning slowed down time sequence (even if the latter recalls a bit from the previous film). In addition, the campy visuals and periodic attempts at humour capture the comic’s feel, without being overdone, and the 80s setting offers some nostalgia – even if one of the jokes inadvertently offers critics ammunition to use against the movie (you’ll know it when you see it). Plus, for all its dramatic flaws, the last battle’s also pretty cool. The digital effects are excellent throughout and it’s hard not to be reaching for the popcorn when bridges, boats, and buildings get uprooted. And most importantly, the near two and a half hour runtime rarely feels long.
Thus, while this fails to live up to the best the genre has to offer, it won’t be discussed in the same breaths as Fantastic Four, The Last Stand or Iron Man 2. Instead, if it’s spoken about at all in a few years, then it’ll likely be to supply a point of reference for the next one i.e. ‘this is even worse than Apocalypse’ or ‘at least it’s better than Apocalypse’. Not the worst thing you can say about a franchise entry made 15 years after the first. But it still suggests the series needs to mutate more and do something new.