Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

Say what you will about the recent assault of Marvel Comics adaptations, Bryan Singer’s X-Men films still pack the biggest punches. More than anything, they are always about something, centering on damaged, misunderstood, yet gifted individuals sharing and encouraging each other’s unique strengths. Apocalypse sees them beat down by poverty, career failure, lust for power, and even death, persuaded into rash, destructive action by a false god promising them the means to feel whole again. That’s a great metaphor, and director Singer, one of the few auteurs left in blockbuster filmmaking, again lends his X-films the skilled balance of depth and fun these movies require.

It is 1983, and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) have learned of a new threat to man and mutant alike – En Sabah Nur (Oscar Issac), the first known mutant and foretold bringer of the Apocalypse. After being re-awakened from a slumber of over two-thousand years by Xavier’s old flame Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), Apocalypse recruits his four “horsemen” to bring about destruction on Earth – a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and of course Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The latter of whom has been in hiding since the events of 2014’s Days of Future Past, attempting to lead a peaceful life with his new wife and child. Meanwhile, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) grapples with being the figurehead of mutant empowerment and a hero in the eyes of Xavier’s newest students, Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Jean (Sophie Turner), all of whom must step up to defeat Apocalypse.

As with Future Past, Singer again sets his bar monumental in expectation – he is tasked with setting the 80’s-themed stage and getting characters up to speed ten years after the last film, introducing the new villain and conflict, keeping bankable star Jennifer Lawrence in the limelight, paying off the “prequel” trilogy begun by 2011’s X-Men First Class, including standout moments for everyone’s favorite individual mutants (namely Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, a favorite from the last movie), introducing the younger versions of the mutants from the original X-Men, and getting us essentially caught up to where that film began.

Apocalypse is huge in scope, balancing character after character with the same strong characterization and pitch-perfect casting as previous installments – I particularly enjoyed James McAvoy channeling a bit more of his “future” counterpart Patrick Stewart here, playing it gentler and more genuine. And the young’uns, Sheridan, Turner, and Smit-McPhee, seem to be shoe-ins for their
older counterparts in the original trilogy of X-films; they not only look like them, they have the acting chops to back it up. And fans will of course appreciate Apocalypse’s fun cameos and knowing winks of what we know is to come.

Oscar Issac makes for an…okay villain. “I have been called many names…Ra, Krishna, Yahweh. I was there to spark and fan the flame of man’s awakening, to spin the wheel of civilization,” he growls poetically, but emptily. It’s very apparent Singer just isn’t as interested in Apocalypse as an antagonist as he is Magneto, making the subtitle “Apocalypse” feel somewhat trivial.

But the film’s greatest sin is its clumsy editing. One gathers much of Apocalypse was left on the cutting room floor. In an instant, we go from heavy and emotional with Magneto to light and comedic with Quicksilver; emotionally, it’s all over the place. Pacing suffers as well – the film’s bloated third act composed largely of expensive effects shots never seems to end. Even the obligatory Stan Lee cameo feels more ‘going-through-the-motions’ than joyous. And the film’s backdrop, Cold War-era America in a time of impending nuclear war, just doesn’t leave the impact it should. Shame that Apocalypse’s overstuffed script can’t realize all of Singer’s ambitious.

Not to mention, continuity critics won’t be amused by Apocalypse’s further complicating the timeline. The film continues in the alternate history begun by Future Past, but leaves several questions posed by that film entirely unanswered. For one, what happened with Mystique and Wolverine at the end of Future Past? Even Apocalypse’s own logic feels questionable – how did En Sabah Nur manage to
completely avoid being awakened by sunlight for two-thousand years being buried just a few feet under the earth? Regardless, I admire how Singer seems preemptively conscious of these failings; in an amusingly self-aware sequence, after the young mutants walk out of a screening of Return of the Jedi, Jean shakes her head and says, “the third one’s never as good.”

Luckily, it’s not enough to completely hinder the heart of these movies – the mythology, the Saturday-morning-cartoon thrill of seeing all your favorite characters teaming up to fight bad guys. It’s the little touches Singer includes throughout the series – the Fox logo ending with the series’ theme riff, or the opening credits concluding by ushering us through the door to Cerebro. Even Apocalypse’s death-y, destructive tone isn’t enough to stop me from recalling the warm and fuzzy feelings of my childhood. In interviews, Singer has expressed his difficulty letting go of the series, and we as fans would have an equally hard time, I think, seeing him do so.

Apocalypse isn’t the highest the series has climbed, but it is yet another solid, fun bout with this universe. Will Singer conquer the 90’s now? That’s a decade fans often point to as a golden age of X-Men, in the Jim Lee-illustrated comics, the arcade game, and the Fox Kids animated series. After Singer takes a hiatus to direct a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I think he’s got one great home run left in him.