X-Men: Apocalypse: Not bad but a bit of a space filler
It’s difficult to know where to start with the X-Men. The well-loved mutants manifest themselves in a variety of forms: comic books, graphic novels, an animated television series, and, since 2000, in film. I’ve read some of the comics and graphic novels, seen the series (err…a long time ago, when it was first aired), and I’ve seen all the films. So first, a point on the X-Men themselves.
A mutant is a mutant is not a mutant
Not only are the X-Men a heterogeneous group in terms of their individual mutations but their manifestations across media and even from film to film are mixed. This makes it tricky to follow who is who as it feels as though their relationships are constantly changing. I’m sure someone once told me that Mystique is Nightcrawler’s mother, yet here they are meeting for the first time in an underground den in East Germany where mutants are pitted against each other in an electrified cage. And is she called Mystique or Raven anyway*?
I was confused until I realised I didn’t have to be. The films are not really standalone films but film arcs, like you’d have in a TV or comic series, and this is the third arc we’re being exposed to. That’s why Wolverine’s flashbacks to Alkali Lake in other films aren’t the same as in X-Men: Apocalypse – the Wolverine films are a different (and awful) arc, so nothing that happened there matters. It’s easier to assume that things have happened in between each film that justify why things don’t quite line up. We have to constantly realign the histories with the inconsistencies, and go from there.
On the the film itself
Our heroes face Apocalypse, supposedly the first mutant and so naturally a powerful being used to being worshipped as a god by his human slaves in ancient Egypt. Naturally, he is betrayed quicker than you can say En Sabah Nur and trapped under a mountain of rubble that used to be a pyramid. You might wonder how to collapse a pyramid in thirty seconds: it takes two big CGI blocks and a couple of sledgehammers. Thousands of years later, Moira MacTaggert, Professor X’s love interest, releases him. Apocalypse promptly tries to reinstate himself as the venerated ruler of the world. No surprises here: this goes as you might expect.
The film itself goes at a good pace, and there is a good balance between humour, tragedy (if a little clumsy and hackneyed), and suitably apocalyptic and well-executed action scenes. It was very light on what should be the central theme of the X-Men films, the question of integration and peaceful coexistence with humans, but presumably this will be picked up in the next film. We are faced with a similar but safer will-they, won’t-they question as at the end of other films on who will remain good or go bad, or vice-versa, and although Magneto’s flip-flopping is a bit tiresome, Mystique’s felt genuine this time.
Apocalypse is not as good as Days of Future Past and feels a bit thin in terms of its own story, but it introduces an array of new characters who will surely form the basis of the next series of films. If this sounds like X-Men: First Class, well that’s because it is very similar. It feels like we are being introduced to generation after generation, with nowhere for many characters to go and the films at a bit of a loss for direction. What happened to Banshee, Angel Salvadore, and Riptide? What will happen to Psylocke this time, as she flees rather than join the goodies? In the comic book universe, the multiplicity of the medium allows for a hundred different arcs and revisions, but in film you have to be more careful. They need more direction, more depth of characterisation, and more consistency.
But if the idea was to introduce the next generation of X-Men – Jean Grey, Storm, Quicksilver, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler – then X-Men: Apocalypse did so very nicely. This does mean, though, that the new X-Men will need to move out of the shadow currently cast by the triumvirate of Magneto, Professor X, and Mystique. This shouldn’t be hard as Magneto and Professor are as unconvincing here as they are in the other instalments of this arc.
Sophie Turner comfortably owns the character of a younger Jean Grey and shows that acting is indeed something you learn – I was unconvinced by her in the early days of Game of Thrones (before I stopped watching) but it looks as though she has learned to act better with time. Of the X-Men characters recast as younger versions, she comes out ahead of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and even Jennifer Lawrence, none of whom I have ever felt to really get into the skins of their characters they way Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen or Rebecca Romijn did.
After the success of the kitchen scene in DOFP, Evan Peters’s Quicksilver does his thing again and it’s similarly entertaining but shouldn’t become a stock scene. It’s also a shame I’ve seen him do his thing a thousand times already thanks to the abuse of his character in Sky’s fibre broadband marketing campaign. Cyclops too provides enough laser-spliced walls and objects to counterbalance the doom and gloom. And on the subject of comic relief, I really liked Jean’s quip, after a group of Xavier’s students have been to see Return of the Jedi, that everyone agrees the third film is the worst in the series – a reference to the lamentable X-Men: The Last Stand. Nightcrawler gets a few lines in, but I’m afraid that’s it.
The main flaw of the film was the titular Apocalypse himself as a sort of ex-machina bad guy with no real delving into his origins, aside from the fact he is god-like and expects to be worshipped. He too-easily recruits some power-hungry mutants, including a young Storm who seems promising as a character but is almost immediately sidelined, and Magneto, freshly wounded by the death of his wife and child (I can’t remember their names because their only purpose was to make Magneto want to kill people again) and ready to sign up without much questioning.
The film successfully builds to the predictable grand finale as Apocalypse attempts to recreate his Cairo of old, complete with an enormous pyramid designed to transfer his essence into another vessel and so allow him to effectively live forever. His vessel of choice is none other than Professor X, chosen for his psychic power, for which the other mutants will of course not stand. After the requisite explosions and clouds of flying rock and metal, Xavier goes hand-to-hand with Apocalypse inside his own mind, and is given a good thrashing until he pulls out the classic ‘I pity you for you are alone’ line. For a moment I thought I was watching Harry Potter talking to Lord Voldemort. But then Jean Grey erupted prematurely into the Phoenix and my mind was brought back to The Force Awakens, where Ren masters the force with ridiculous ease**, a skill that nearly cost Luke Skywalker an arm, and definitely cost him a hand.
This annoyed me. Why have the Phoenix manifest so early in the arc, and have her do it so easily? A better solution would have been to have Jean mentally defeat Apocalypse while he is running rampant in Doctor X’s mind as the other X-Men vanquish him physically. It is far too easy to grant superpowers without a struggle and it takes away their value, so I was disappointed that the Phoenix manifested so soon with none of Jean Grey’s struggle or sacrifice as portrayed by Famke Janssen in the earlier X-men films. Incidentally, Famke Janssen doesn’t make an appearance in this film, but Hugh Jackman does as Wolverine and you really have to ask yourself why, seeing as his scene served absolutely no purpose.
The ending itself is a bit weak but does what is now expected of superhero film endings and lines up the next instalment of the franchise***. After Magneto and Jean Grey rebuild Xavier’s school – who knew they were architects as well as mutants? – Xavier and Magneto roll out the by now all-too-familiar banter-and-repartee spiel and may as well have hugged to say goodbye, eroding for good the electric relationship that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen had without quite so much repetitive back-and-forth.
The film ends with Mystique strutting in front of her new recruits, introducing them to some large robots that are presumably target practice in preparation for … well, we’re not quite sure. But what is sure is that the next film will have to build on the characters of Jean Grey, Quicksilver, and Cyclops (and Nightcrawler if he’s lucky). It will also have to do something to really draw the battle lines between Professor X and Magneto since they are not meant to be friends, they’re meant to have been friends. It will have to give the series direction. Otherwise, it will just be more of the same.
Overall verdict: 3.5 stars
*I’m going to call her Mystique
**Without even trying. That really annoyed me.
***I used to be bitter about how cynical that felt but if you treat films like comic books, why not?