I love the comic book world of the X-Men, with its action, pathos, heterogeneity, and metaphors for race wars. I’ve also loved some of the movies; in Film Debate, I believe I was the lone voice calling for an X-Men film (X2) to be included among the three best comic-book films of all time. But…the overriding mutant ability on display in X-Men: Apocalypse is the ability of a franchise to jump a shark. It’s a lamentable misfire for Bryan Singer, the director who both began the movie brand and brought it to its greatest heights. SPOILERS.
X-Men: Apocalypse is mostly set in 1983, and it’s not a great sign when half-mullets are one of the best things about your movie. Midway through the film, a mutant says, upon leaving a theatre showing Return of the Jedi, “we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” This might be seen as a swipe at Brett Ratner, a priapic tyro director much like Singer. Ratner stole took over the original franchise from Singer, following up Singer’s x-cellent X2 with the literal “third one,” X-Men: The Last Stand, a film many found too muscular and brash. (As for “Last Stand,” Xavier’s mutants have since refused to stand…down.) Or we may choose to see the comment as a preview of the third Wolverine film, coming to theaters on 3/3 (get it?). Or perhaps, as most critics have it, the quip is self-deprecation, because X-Men: Apocalypse is the third of the rebooted X-Men led by James McAvoy as Xavier and, when they can be bothered, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.
Fans know it’s not quite that simple, because the previous installment was a time-travel mish-mash that also incorporated actors from the original trilogy, and trying to square that film’s ending with the new film’s continuity would make anyone’s head feel like it had been hit by The Beast. Perhaps any follow-up that cut out Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Halle Berry would feel like less, but the larger problem is that the franchise is running out of ways to refresh itself. X2 and The Last Stand thrived, when they did, by introducing new characters, an increasingly hysterical anti-mutant government, and new ways for Magneto, a.k.a. Erik, to argue with Xavier. X-Men: First Class was an interesting reboot with a fresh cast and JFK-era setting; X-Men: Days of Future Past got by on posters that blended the faces of McAvoy/Stewart and Fassbender/McKellen. But now the cast is getting harder to re-create, government interference is mostly a sideshow (what happens to the nuclear missiles in space in this one? The movie doesn’t care), and the period details are just confusing.
In X2, Bryan Singer found charming ways for the mutants to use their powers, as when Iceman chilled Wolverine’s beer for him. Not only is there no charm here, we often don’t even know the mutants’ powers. What exactly can Storm do? Psylocke? Jubilee? Apocalypse, for flock’s sake? This is one reason you might say that the film isn’t trying to draw new viewers; another is the fact that they take for granted your memory of a very brief scene in a previous film that established that mutant abilities slow every mutant’s aging, not just Wolverine. But if this film is only for fans, it seems awfully strange to strand Magneto in a situation that the imperious Nietzschean character would never have countenanced in the comics, becoming a plebeian wage slave for the sake of living a Norman Rockwell painting. Michael Fassbender can do anything, and he sells his scenes, but there have to be better ways to get Magneto to the Act Two evils that inevitably precede his Act Three heart-to-hearts with Charles. Yet his arc is half-hearted: for the first time in six movies, Erik feels like a bystander rather than the plot’s engine. That sort of thing doesn’t help the final scenes when the audience feels like, yeah, right, Charles always sees the good in Erik. X-Men: Apocalypse relies upon references, in ever-more incessant flashbacks, the previous two X-Men films, as well as the original Star Wars trilogy. I don’t believe this is a film that disproves the advice given to every new screenwriter: don’t reference too many great films in your scripts, because if an audience keeps hearing about The Godfather, Casablanca, and The Lord of the Rings, eventually it will start saying “yeah, why aren’t we watching one of those?”
Regarding X-Men: Days of Future Past, everyone agreed that the film’s riotously joyous showstopper was the scene where Quicksilver saved his fellow mutants’ lives in a time-slowing sequence set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” (Among other things, it proved that Fox was actually handling the Quicksilver character better than Disney/Marvel.) The problem with X-Men: Apocalypse’s reprise starts with the song: Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”? What about (also 1983) Culture Club’s “Time (Clock of the Heart)”? Of course an additional cleverness about the Croce song was that bottled time was obviously a major theme throughout the time-travel-oriented film, and so if I’m being generous I might suggest that “Sweet Dreams” obliquely refers to Apocalypse’s millennia of underground snoozing, or Jean Grey’s latent abilities, or “travel the world and the seven seas” regards the world’s spent nuclear arsenals? But see, no one’s perceiving any of that in the same way that “Time in a Bottle” was so easy and fun to understand. And on the Magneto scale of life-choice unlikelihood, would a guy who can see the world moving in years every day really have remained in Mom’s cellar ten years (which for him is like 10,000 centuries) after the last film? Yet what’s even unlikelier is that Quicksilver, a.k.a. Peter, would arrive at Xavier’s mansion at the moment that it begins to blow up and then just happen to save (almost) every mutant inside it. Yes, he can move fast, but that still doesn’t get him inside those reinforced-steel underground-hallways. Yes, he’s moving just as they’re blowing up, but by the time he can squeeze through the bent doors, wouldn’t our core characters have already been blasted? I know: best not to think about it too deeply. An entirely unnecessary attitude during the “Time in a Bottle” original. Evan Peters is a terrific Peter, but this is the sound of a franchise Peter-ing out.
Yet that’s just one scene; what about the movie? Well, ideally, the Apocalypse character would have grown out of the basic conflict between Xavier and Magneto, or between them and the U.S. government, or Apocalypse would have at least been teased in previous films, as the Avengers movies have been doing with power crystals and Thanos. Because Fox has none of that, and is under the gun from Marvel to keep making movies or lose the rights to the intellectual property, Vox is right that this feels more like a “franchise placeholder,” “existing only because some movie with” X-Men has to exist. This is where I should mention that technically Apocalypse was mentioned in Days of Future Past’s post-credit sequence. You can hardly be blamed for missing these things, and thus let me entirely SPOIL the new one for you: some creepy white guys in suits walk around the carnage Wolverine left at Stryker’s compound, approach the Weapon X work station, withdraw a vial of blood (presumably Logan’s), and stick it in a suitcase that says “Essex Corp.” Cut to black. Oooooooooo. We have no idea why we should care, and we don’t.
Some fans complained that Raven/Mystique was given too much to do in First Class and Days of Future Past because they were catered to the Obama administration’s biggest movie star, Jennifer Lawrence. Those particular Monday-morning quarterbacks should be thrilled with this new film, because now Lawrence has next to nothing to do. The linked Vox review can get by without even mentioning her. In this context, it’s a little too perfect that Fox is apologizing for posters that show Jennifer Lawrence being strangled – that poster is actually truth in advertising, because cutting off her voice is pretty much all the film does.
Only once, instead of the usual minimum of thrice, does Mystique do her trademark move where we think she’s somebody else for a moment. And she never fights, quite unlike her role in previous films, also unlike Scarlett Johansson in the new Captain America film (sadly more like Katniss in Mockingjay: Part 1).
As a general rule, the film doesn’t really have enough fights, or at least not the kind anyone can understand. This is where it really pales in comparison to its cousin Deadpool. X-Men: Apocalypse could have used a really strong brick mutant a la Colossus. I guess Apocalypse counts, but he’s so caked in makeup and voice-auto-tune that the wonderful Oscar Isaac becomes the most wasted actor in a villain part since Tom Hardy played Bane in the last Batman movie.
Another tiny issue is the film’s callous disregard for human life. Other versions of Charles Xavier, in comics and on film, would have wanted Erik to see prison for his slaughter of a cadre of police (however justified); at film’s end, Charles pats Erik on the back and sends him on his way. Wolverine, during most of his cameo, rips to deadly pieces at least a dozen goons. Though this is also justified by his maltreatment, the level of carnage certainly would have shocked and terrorized family audiences in, just to choose a year at random, 1983. And then of course there’s all the destruction that Apocalypse brings, tearing asunder highway bridges and cargo ships. There’s a nascent school of criticism that takes Hollywood to task for movies, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Bad Boys 2, in which Americans and/or whites go to exotic places, fight with each other, and wind up destroying much of the local area while utterly ignoring the actual locals who live there. X-Men: Apocalypse might be said to address this slightly, by casting Latino Oscar Isaac as the 10,000-year-old bad guy and African-American Alexandra Shipp as a Cairo local (utterly ignoring Storm’s comic-book canon) – but it’s still a problem.
The performances are fine and the directing is technically proficient, but this goes to show that you can only do so much with a weak script. Sophie Turner seemingly proves that every British actor can master an American accent in less time than it takes Nightcrawler to teleport. Olivia Munn proves not only that she can look exactly like a super-bad-ass (please, clone her), but that Cameron Crowe could have avoided a race controversy by casting her in Aloha and no one would have missed Emma Stone. Whether you see X-Men: Apocalypse in 3-D or not, Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy, winds up as the lone character with three dimensions, and thanks to McAvoy’s strong work we feel for him as a good man wrestling with difficult choices. At the same time, we feel that the creative team behind the film should have made some different difficult choices.