X-Men: Apocalypse Review
X-Men: Apocalypse portrays a relatively peaceful time in Marvel’s mutant world of 1983. Professor Xavier’s (James McAvoy) school for the gifted is thriving and growing; Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is leading a family life in Poland, performing mundane job and looking after his little daughter. And X-Men are a long gone memory from decades past. Things seem to be fine between homo sapiens and homo sapiens superior. But, of course, this is not to last as the alleged first mutant En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is awakened from his sleep and tries to reclaim the world that, according to him, decided to follow “weak and blind leaders” during his absence. In his quest, he recruits four horsemen - Storm, Psylocke, Angel and Magneto - to help him realise his destructive plan. Thus, the age of Apocalypse starts and X-Men need to reassemble and fight for another day.
For a series that managed to raise some important issues and moral dilemmas, X-Men: Apocalypse feels basic and underdeveloped. It’s really nothing more than a story of a monstrous villain that wants to destroy the world. Just because. While it is certainly packed with everything fans might want, the script just doesn’t quite cut it. It feels simultaneously like too much... and not enough. Bryan Singer brings back all the characters from previous films and adds some more on top of that. Most of the creative team from two previous film is back as well. Seems like there’s nothing that could possibly go wrong... and yet the end result seems somewhat of a disappointment.
Many of the ingredients are sound: actors do a fine job, there are some really cool easter eggs and a few exciting moments. However, it all feels strangely redundant and tired when put together. The Quicksilver rescue sequence, while probably the single most entertaining moment in Apocalypse, is a shameless attempt at recapturing the unique feel of a similar scene from Days of Future Past. The extensive Alkali Lake segment feels oddly forced as well, never really contributing much to main narrative. Hugh Jackman makes an obligatory cameo as Weapon X in which he shows off certain shortcomings of his take on Wolverine. He was perfectly fine as a “domesticated” Logan but, as this scene demonstrates, might not be feral enough for an all-out berserk version of this character. It certainly doesn't help that certain elements just don't work well together. The idea of putting a goofy Ancient Egypt prologue and serious Auchwitz references in one film just feels... ridiculous. But that's exactly what Singer does in X-Men: Apocalypse.
The major attraction of the two previous films was the relationship between James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Those two fine actors managed not only to replace the loveable McKellen/Stewart duo but also give those roles even more immediacy and intensity. That is why it comes as a slight disappointment that this dynamic seems to be playing a secondary role in X-Men: Apocalypse. The ever-excellent Fassbender is particularly wasted as he seems to be reduced to a mere plot device by the time of gigantic climactic confrontation with ancient Apocalypse. McAvoy at least gets a chance to bring back some humour and lightness into his role after the relatively dark take on Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Jennifer Lawrence always seemed to be a fairly problematic aspect of his trilogy. Her character has less to do with the original comic book character with each subsequent film and started to become yet another incarnation of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. It might be due to the star status of young actress but Mystique never quite meant to be portrayed as a young heroine. In this latest film especially, her character becomes a role model for young struggling mutants who look up to her. As a result of that, she is a driving force behind creating new X-Men and that in itself might be puzzling to some comic book fans. Lawrence is fine in the role but, similarly to Fassbender and McAvoy, never really feels charismatic enough to overpower the terribly overstuffed script.
If the old-timers feel slightly underused then the collection of newcomers fares even worse. Apocalypse is so crowded that there is no real time to flesh out any new characters. One standout performance would that of Sophie Turner in the role of Jean Grey. Her character is nothing like Famke Janssen’s version from the original trilogy, despite sharing certain similar plot points, but young actress manages to make this role her own and it will be interesting to see how things develop for her in future installments. Tye Sheridan feels strangely miscast as young Cyclops. He’s just a kid that shows none of the leadership skills this character demands and and thus remains just a random teenager caught up by accident in this epic conflict.
Just as with all the previous films, the most underutilised X-Men character is still Storm (played by Alexandra Shipp). She shows promise in her first few scenes as a thief in Cairo but is immediately sidelined once Apocalypse recruits her. As the matter of fact, none of the Horsemen are actually properly fleshed out. Psylocke and Angel are never even properly introduced and seem to be in the film solely to fuel a couple of action sequences. No one even bothers to properly explain who they and what they want. Not to mention that we never really get a true explanation of Apocalypse’s enigmatic mutant powers. All of this might cause random audience members to scratch their heads in confusion. This lack of storytelling quality is very prevalent in this film.
The Apocalypse himself potentially offers some visual possibilities for big budget Hollywood production, given his ancient origins. In the end, however, he is simply too one-dimensional of a character to be really captivating on screen. And even an actor as talented as Oscar Isaac won’t be able to do anything about the flat characterisation. It’s almost pointless to cast him in such a role. He makes several attempts to make his character more human through using his softer fatherly voice to seduce naive mutants into his cause. But there is nothing to understand or explore about him, or his quest. He certainly isn't quite as interesting as Stryker or Magneto. He just wants to rule the world and this, coupled with his slightly silly appearance, makes him the most cartoony character in this series.
Unlike Marvel Studios, Fox doesn’t seem to have any plan as to what their X-Men should look like. There are so many inconsistencies between each film that it’s almost impossible to make sense out of chronology and/or integrity of their mutant world. Even though, the studio seems to be making clearer attempts in establishing clearer chronology after Days of Future Past, there is almost no attempt to explain why characters don’t seem to age at all, even if some of them - Havok, Beast or Moira - were around ever since the early 1960’s. And no, few throwaway joking lines of dialogue don’t count.
The funny thing about X-Men: Apocalypse is that it is probably the closest filmmakers ever got to source material. The climactic confrontation seems to be taken directly from the colourful comic book splash pages. And here lies the biggest problem - this film serves as an example why the two mediums are so different from one another. There is definitely a certain whimsical quality to even most “realistic” comic books which makes them so appealing. That is why images of colourful clashing beams of energy works very well in this context and never looks silly. Films, on the other hand, no matter how outlandish and spectacular they might be, need some sort of grounding in reality and relatable human experience. They require something else. The original 2000 film had quite an unique chamber-like quality that almost felt like a theatre play. Granted, some of that had probably to do with a moderate budget but it should also show that the concept worked perfectly well without global destruction and/or character overload. And that is why the latest Bryan Singer film, with all its flashy CGI climax, doesn't really accomplish much.
Ultimately, X-Men: Apocalypse suffers because it is too eager to please everyone at the same time. Seems as if though Fox tries compete with the grand spectacles of both Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Bros. And while it certainly isn’t a complete disaster (like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), something definitely got lost in the process. Gone is the unique message of those films, replaced with a glamorous but empty spectacle that makes it look like… pretty much any other summer blockbuster out there. Ingredients are still there: interesting gallery of characters and young new actors with a potential to grow into those iconic roles. But they need a more focused and character-based narrative to reach their full potential. As it stands, the film entertains in a few places but leaves very little impression overall.