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X-Men: Apocalypse Review

May 27, 2016 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
X-Men Apocalypse
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X-Men: Apocalypse Review  

Directed By: Bryan Singer
Written By: Simon Kinberg; Based on the Marvel comics and characters
Runtime: 144 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

James McAvoy – Prof. Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender – Erik Lensherr/Magneto
Jennifer Lawrence – Raven/Mystique
Nicholas Hoult – Hank McCoy/Beast
Oscar Isaac – En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse
Tye Sheridan – Scott Summers/Cyclops
Sophie Turner – Jean Grey
Rose Byrne – Moira MacTaggert
Evan Peters – Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver
Kodi Smit-McPhee – Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler
Lucas Till – Alex Summers/Havoc
Ben Hardy – Warren Worthington/Archangel
Alexandra Shipp – Ororo Munroe/Storm
Lana Condor – Jubilee
Olivia Munn – Psylocke

It’s interesting to look back to where the X-Men franchise has been, and where it is now. When the first X-Men movie came out about 16 years ago, comic book movies still had a somewhat maligned and spotty reputation. They were not as widespread as they are now. However, despite its flaws, director Bryan Singer was able to capture the spirit of the themes of the comic and also subvert expectations for what comic book movies are typically expected to be. X-Men: Apocalypse is the cinematic realization of one of the Merry Mutants’ more notable villains in Apocalypse. Unfortunately, the results are pretty mixed.

Since the X-Men movie franchise has essentially gone into a soft reboot format by exploring the younger characters in the past, it has created a number of problematic issues and plot holes. Everything that was established in the first three movies, and also the two Wolverine spin-offs, was essentially wiped clean by X-Men: Days of Future Past. However, instead of giving the continuity for these films a fresh start, it has only created more problems and more plot holes.

Apocalypse depicts the legendary “first mutant,” aka En Sabah Nur (Isaac), as a ruler and pharaoh, worshipped as a god in ancient Egypt. Through the process of a sacrificial ritual, Apocalypse is able to transfer his consciousness into the body of other mutants and collect multiple mutant powers. A rebellion by his subjects traps Apocalypse’s body under the ruins of his great pyramid, and his secrets are lost to history. That is, until thousands of years later. Followers loyal to Apocalypse are able to unearth his remains, and Apocalypse awakens in the year 1983, ten years after the events in Days of Future Past set in the 1970s.

In Westchester, New York, Prof. Charles Xavier (McAvoy) has settled into a new comfortable normalcy for the Xavier Institute for Gifted Children. Due to Mystique rescuing President Nixon in the last movie, attitudes toward mutants in society have improved to some degree. Mutants have become slightly more accepted in society. Xavier has become more focused in turning the institute into a school, but Hank McCoy still has aspirations of training mutants into soldiers to protect others as the X-Men. After Apocalypse’s revival causes an apparent worldwide earthquake, Xavier’s investigation into the matter leads him back to his lady-love, Moira McTaggert (Byrne). Moira has actually been researching Apocalypse’s followers trying to bring him back for the CIA. Unfortunately for Xavier, his use of Cerebro allows him to be discovered by Apocalypse, who has found his next sacrificial lamb. Since Xavier is one of the most powerful telepaths on Earth, and can connect to every living being on the planet with Cerebro, Apocalypse is able to exploit Xavier and cause the world’s super-powers to jettison all their nuclear warheads into space. After Apocalypse recruits a new set of Four Horsemen, including an emotionally vulnerable Magneto (Fassbender), he kidnaps Xavier. With the team scattered and the institute in shambles, the remaining students, including new young students Jean Grey (Turner), Scott Summers (Sheridan), and Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee), join the fray to rescue their mentor and the world. They are joined by Mystique (Lawrence), who reluctantly joins the team in order to rescue and turn back Magneto from the edge, and also Peter Maximoff (Peters), aka Quicksilver, who is revealed to be Magneto’s biological son.

Back when the X-Men movies first started, Apocalypse as a concept was a coveted character who was desired to be seen onscreen at some point, but seemed unrealistic based on the grounded world Singer established for the movies. Similarly, taking the X-Men into outer space and dealing with the Shi’ar seemed equally unrealistic. The execution of Apocalypse here is rather symbolic of how difficult it is in realizing such a character. In the film, Apocalypse is a problematic character. He’s incredibly over-powered. Early on, he’s essentially established as an omnipotent being. He’s collected a countless number of mutant powers and abilities. At the start of the movie, Apocalypse gains a type of Wolverine-style healing factor. However, his abilities throughout the film appear to be limitless. He can manipulate matter. He can murder humans and decapitate their heads with but a thought. So, the fact that he even needs servants to do his bidding is somewhat questionable. He is established as so powerful here, that he comes off as an insurmountable threat the X-Men almost shouldn’t be able to defeat. For Apocalypse to need followers like Magneto, with what Apocalypse is already capable of doing here, seems somewhat pointless.

Equally problematic is the questionable character direction for this story. Mystique is essentially taking the reluctant Wolverine hero role here. It’s a role that doesn’t seem to fit or work for this character at all. The reason why this is happening is clear because Mystique is played by Jennifer Lawrence, and Lawrence has since become one of the biggest stars of the planet since First Class was released. There’s even a contrived reason for why Mystique takes the form of someone resembling someone that looks like Jennifer Lawrence for most of the movie. The reason why Mystique sides with the X-Men here is silly, and the film in no way earns it. This is not a believable outcome for the character who was established in the comics–and the earlier movies for that matter. Mystique seems more like the person who would side with Apocalypse and Magneto, rather than try to stop them. In addition, it is laughable for Mystique to basically take the field leadership role.

Another disappointing aspect is Nicholas Hoult’s performance as Beast. Hoult is a talented performer, but this is not his A-game. There’s simply nothing Beast or Hank McCoy about Hoult’s interpretation of the character. Hoult just has none of the flavor or identity that comes to mind with Beast. X-Men 3 is a weak movie, but at least Kelsey Grammar’s Beast is a decent realization of that character and his persona. Hoult does not bring any of that to the table for this franchise. Beast has always been a cultured genius. He always has a witty comment or quote, even in battle. He loves Shakespeare and literature. Hoult’s Beast has next to no personality at all. All he really does is pine after Mystique.

Those who were expecting Olivia Munn’s Psylocke to become a breakout character here will be sorely disappointed. Psylocke is basically this movie’s Lady Deathstrike. She barely talks, and her power set is a bit of a letdown. For example, her psionic blades can seemingly cut through just about anything, but then she switches to an energy whip for no apparent reason when the blades are far more effective. Psylocke also has a particularly odd story beat that comes off as incredibly out of place and cheesy for the X-Men film universe. The other Four Horsemen characters, other than Magneto, are equally marginalized throughout the film. This has long been a problem for Singer’s X-Men films that haven’t really gotten better over time. There is not a strong enough narrative economy for the X-Men characters. Singer is good at showing their power sets, but not their unique personalities.

In terms of structure and presentation, Apocalypse sadly has more in common with X-Men 3: The Last Stand. It’s evident through the flawed writing of Simon Kinberg. No disrespect to Kinberg because he has gotten better in some respects. In terms of the story’s presentation, Kinberg is good at creating large scale, epic set-pieces and scenarios. However, what Kinberg and Apocalypse lack are the character moments and texture that made the earlier X-Men films so superior. As a result, this plays more like a vapid Transformers sequel than a really good X-Men movie.

Structurally, the movie is also problematic, since smack-dab in the middle it goes on a pointless tangent. At one point, Josh Helman’s Stryker appears as a temporary adversary. It’s a contrived sequence that only enables a superfluous cameo for another famous character from the comics. First of all, as with other characters in these movies, there’s a disconnect between Helman’s Stryker and the man he grows into with Brian Cox’s version. Helman comes off more like a college frat guy than a believable William Stryker. This Alkali Lake sequence really could have been cut completely from the film. It only artificially lengthens the story and really adds nothing besides forcing a certain cameo.

The movie does have its strengths. As a director, Singer does have a strong direction and style. Quicksilver’s trademark scene is another joyous moment and highlight of the film, similar to Days of Future Past. The film does have a decent amount of humor and levity, and some of it was quite amusing. There’s even a pithy bon mot directed at a previous X-Men sequel. It’s all the more amusing, considering that writer Simon Kinberg is complicit in trashing a film he co-wrote. What Singer does do well is the displaying of mutant superpowers onscreen, which are impressive. The film does explore Jean Grey and the pathos of how frightened she is about her almost limitless powers. The way the story realizes and climaxes this idea are among the film’s more satisfying moments.

The overall problem: beneath all the flaws and structural problems, it looks like there is a better movie underneath all of that. It seems what Singer needed were some better writers or collaborators to bring that side out. He needed some stronger visionary writers on the set, similar to Mike Dougherty and Daniel Harris for 2003’s X-Men 2 to polish up the story. Case in point, X-Men 2 lost a number of additional action scenes, such as the Danger Room, before it went into production. As a result, Dougherty and Harris were able to make up for the loss of action scenes by adding in some strong character scenes. Hence the movie is missing those stronger character moments and substance for the sake of banal, bombastic action.

It’s somewhat hard to see where the X-Men franchise goes from here. By establishing this new past continuity, viewers are constantly waiting for these X-Men characters to catch up to the present day. The problem is that all these X-Men sequels are set in the past, and the characters can never be shown fully formed in the present since the original actors are all much older. The actors playing the characters now can’t realistically keep playing the characters as they get older too, despite the fact that they refuse to age the character at all and despite the fact that 20 years have passed between X-Men: First Class and Apocalypse. This means that Magneto and Prof. X should be in their mid-50s by this point, but they still look like they are in their early 30s. It seems the X-Men franchise keeps backing itself into a corner when the only place to go next is another hard reset instead of a soft one.

The final score: review Not So Good
The 411
X-Men: Apocalypse is easily one of the weaker films to come out of the franchise. The film is ambitious, but it's not really able to reach those ambitions through a flawed script and some disappointing character interpretations. It's hard to see where the story goes from here considering they keep skipping ten years every movie, but the characters virtually do not age at all. Sooner or later, the franchise is going to need a harder reboot and bring a fuller, more modern version of the fully formed X-Men into the present day, instead of continuing to fragment the team in these period storylines.