X-Men Apocalypse is the sixth X-Men film or technically the eighth or ninth if you include the Wolverine films and Deadpool. This is also the fourth film from director Bryan Singer whose initial X-Men film played a big part in the resurgence of the superhero comics based film.
The previous film Days of Future Past despite making some pretty big changes to the story it was based on was still on the whole a pretty good entry in the series, with the bonus of having the older versions of key characters meet their younger selves and resetting the timeline for further films. The big problem with the X-Men films as whole though is they generally seem to be aimed at people who aren’t familiar with the source material whilst at the same time incorporating elements clearly aimed at fans of said source material, it’s a confusing approach.
Things start off well with an excellent opening sequence in ancient Egypt showing En Sabbuh Nur aka Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) being worshipped like a pharoah before being entombed alive after some of his subjects betray him. The prologue features a rowsing atmospheric choral score which establishes a great sense of momentum as Apocalypse’s betrayers plan unfolds, everything about this is great, the setting, the atmosphere, the costumes, the framing, the four horsemen themselves, it’s a shame that after such an impressive start things are rather underwhelming at best.
The young Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) has his own quick origin story of sorts before meeting the young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) at Xavier’s school. The two meeting for the first time is handled well and Sheridan and Turner do a good job with what they are given. One of the things that X-Men: Apocalypse does a good job of is establishing Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters as an actual place. Xavier’s school seems like a university with its own campus and Scott, Jean, and friends going off campus on an adventure is a rare moment of the X-Men films catching some of the spirit of the comics rather than the life is pain aesthetic that has persisted through the X-Men films. Future films would benefit massively from actually spending some time at the school.
Meanwhile Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is now living incognito in Poland with a wife and child working in a smelting plant and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has disappeared after the events of the last film despite becoming a folk hero of sorts for mutant kind. Mystique discovers Angel ( Ben Hardy) and Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler (Kodi Smitt-Mcphee) cage fighting in Berlin rescuing the latter and organising his safe transport to Xavier. Smitt-Mcphee is definitely one of the best new additions to the cast of characters, his awkward fish out of water manner is endearing.
Xavier tracks down Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) (who had her memories wiped remember) and she introduces him to the idea of mutants being worshipped like deities, especially in the ancient world. Whilst this is going on the newly awakened Apocalypse is set on cleansing the world recruiting Angel, Ororo Monroe (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Magneto to be his horsemen although aside from Magneto there’s very little indication as to why he chooses them.
Fassbender as always does a great job, so good you don’t really realise how predictable his arc is here and seeing him play off against MacAvoy’s Xavier is always good. The pair have definitely inherited the roles from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Magneto having a wife called Magda who is white rather than Romani is a bit of a slap in the face for comics fans though, especially when Anya doesn’t even feature at all. This an example of the writers distinctly half arsed approach to actually incorporating elements from the comics.
Although it is a waste of Fassbender that Magneto spends a good chunk of the running time basically sidelined whilst everything is happening and less said about Apocalypse’s field trip to Auschwitz the better.
The X-Men films have always seemed like they were a little ashamed of the fact they were based on comics (notoriously avoiding “silly” comics accurate costumes in favour of “serious” black leather outfits despite the importance of colour in X-Men). So it’s a little awkward that this film embraces some of its comic roots but in rather ill thought out or lack lustre ways. There’s Lana Condor looking great as a Jubilee that could’ve leapt off the page of an X-Men comic but she gets more to do in an, admittedly great, viral video promoting Xavier’s school than in this film. Much was said about Olivia Munn playing new character Psylocke who actually is wearing a comics accurate costume, problem being Psylocke has maybe 3 lines of dialogue in the whole film, and her costume makes no sense at all in the actual context of the events of the film when there’s a scene of Apocalypse creating armour/costumes for his horsemen but he apparently skips Psylocke because reasons.
Alexandra Shipp’s Ororo too looks like she could be straight out of the comics and fares a little better than Munn but is still a barely sketched out character at best, one of her best character moments is seeing her use her powers to help her and her band of pick pockets survive on the streets of Cairo. As for Ben Hardy’s Angel he’s equally given short shrift, getting scant few lines his character basically being summed up in a cage fighting scene with Smitt-Mcphee’s Nightcrawler .
Other scenes are aimed squarely at comics fans like Wolverine’s cameo, which was kind of ruined by marketing and then further dampened by some laughable telegraphing, despite this it’s still one of the best scenes in the film even if the importance of it will likely go over the casual viewers head.
One of the major problems though is Apocalypse himself, the film makes a confusing stab at explaining his myriad powers which include bordering on omnipotent displays of telepathy, telekinesis and matter manipulation amongst others. This isn’t the Apocalypse of the comics but rather a body hopping mutant who “collects” mutant powers by transferring his consciousness from body to body using Celestial technology (something which is never explained or referenced, probably for the better all things considered) also making him effectively immortal. This makes zero sense according to the X-Men films own world mythology though because mutations are genetic, so switching from one body to another wouldn’t allow Apocalypse to collect powers but rather inherit the power of that specific body, in theory.
Isaac himself actually does a pretty good job of portraying Apocalypse as an ancient being so powerful he’s callously indifferent to the lives of regular people he sees as weak and worthless. Although he never comes across as the megalomaniacal nightmare inducing tyrant that many know from the 90’s cartoon and the fan favourite Age of Apocalypse comics event. Here Apocalypse seems far more dialled down, this Apocalypse doesn’t stare at his defeated horseman saying “You are not fit! You are not worthy!” Some of the demonstrations of his powers are the right kind of awe inspiring, although they do leave you wondering why he would even need his four horsemen and also his grander displays are oddly less effecting. The look of Apocalypse was something that gathered a lot of buzz and most of it not good, whilst I think they definitely could’ve done a better more comics accurate job (especially given people with nowhere near the funds this film had like Cinema Makeup School pulled it off for this great viral video a few years back). This is undoubtedly another side effect of the film’s love hate relationship with the source material.
A scene revolving around Apocalypse and Xavier having a psychic war was a pretty good workaround for having Apocalypse change size, which is another example of why X-Men Apocalypse is so frustrating because it gets some stuff right but so much wrong, but there’s no Apocalypse changing one of his arms into a cannon or shield or any other examples of his mastery over his own body despite his other displays of power which is a massive disservice to the character and the fans of the character really.
Further problems manifest in Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique who seems to be phoning it in, as though Lawrence could not care less about being in this film. This is a problem because Mystique is a major player in the film. Mystique becoming the reluctant hero of the the last few X-Men films and the X-Men’s leader here has always come across as a bit odd as far as storytelling goes. The character is far more suited to being a villain or an anti-hero as seen in the earlier X-Men films with Rebecca Romijin’s take on the character. There’s a sense that the writing is built around Lawrence becoming one of the biggest actors in film since her first portrayal of Mystique in 2011’s X-Men First Class, rather than because it was the story that needed telling.
X-Men: Apocalypse suffers from a big problem of having too many characters with some of them being there for no real reason, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is basically there to do a redux of his scene from Days of Future Past, only this time it’s not as impressive visually and it really smacks of the writers not really knowing what else to do with the character, as though there’s no other way they can incorporate him using his ways in a meaningful way.
Peters is a great actor if he’s actually given something to work with but Quicksilver seems very one note here and there’s very little reason to care about the shoehorned subplot about him meeting his father Magneto.
Another major problem is Apocalypse’s plan to cleanse the Earth never really seems to have any stakes. There’s very little done to demonstrate people other than the X-Men will be affected. The death toll for this film likely goes into the millions but none of that is shown. Early scenes show Cairo as being full of bustling streets whilst later Apocalypse decimates Cairo to create a pyramid but there’s no indication at all of the human cost anywhere.
One of the good touches is Apocalypse creating statues of himself and his four horsemen in the pyramid, it’s a brilliant display of Apocalypse’s raging megalomania.
There’s an over reliance on some generally pretty poor CG FX work akin to a substandard disaster film as the film culminates in a profoundly anti-climatic showdown between the X-Men and Apocalypse, and a major plot point hinges on Nightcrawler being able to navigate his way around a humungous pyramid he’s never been in before in a very short space of time.
There’s a distinct irony in one of the best on screen portrayals of an X-Men character to date is in a film that isn’t called X-Men. On the back of Captain America: Civil War and Deadpool, two distinctly different but incredibly lucrative but more importantly well crafted films based on similar material X-Men: Apocalypse seems profoundly lacking.
The most frustrating aspect of this latest X-Men film is there’s clearly some stuff in there aimed squarely at fans of the comic, so somebody’s actually being paying attention, but equally some of it is basically a slap in the face for the very same fans and there’s an inherent feeling of deja vu to pretty much everything, this is concerning since the ending heavily implies that the Phoenix Force might feature in the next inevitable X-Men film.