Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Somewhere in the first half of X-Men: Apocalypse a group of scrappy teenage mutants exit a movie theater circa 1983 after witnessing the last of the Star Wars franchise (or what should have been the last): Return of the Jedi (1983). As they debate the merits of the trilogy, mostly going back and forth on whether A New Hope (1977) or The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is best, it culminates in a joke spoken by a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) stating, “Well at least we can all agree that the third movie of a trilogy sucks.” It comes at the perfect point of no return in the film’s running time where we’re officially trapped: trapped because our human curiosity yearns for story completion; trapped because fandom creates a delusional optimism that poor starts can finish strong; and trapped because we’re too far into the film to demand our money back. The line is clearly meant to be funny—a self-referential, self-effacing jab that is reminiscent of an unconfident first date’s sorry attempt at awkward banter—but the only laugh that can be summoned is one of faint unease. We sit, stewing in our exponentially growing realization that, indeed, the third movie of a trilogy definitely “sucks.” And even though that’s a thoroughly unsophisticated word, one that has the critical nuance and deft analysis of an uncultured bromeister troglodyte who thinks Furious 7 (2015) is a magnum opus and black & white movies are “boring,” it really seems to work quite well in this particular case.
It’s a word that could easily be replaced by a plethora of other attributable adjectives: derivative, pointless, monotonous, incoherent, Wachowski-esque (that last one is only slightly unfair to the Wachowskis). Perhaps this creative exhaustion was inevitable, considering that only so much can be done in a franchise that spans nine films over sixteen years, all of which includes two full-scale diverging trilogies, multiple spin-offs, and six different directors at the helm. This isn’t to say that X-Men: Apocalypse is the lowest point for the series (that will always be held by Gavin Hood’s disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) from Brett Ratner in close second), it’s just disappointing that the trilogy curse remains even with original mutant commandant Bryan Singer in the director’s chair. Singer, after all, started it all with X-Men (2000), and gave the action series some notable depth with its lasting simplistic yet truthful cultural allusions towards modern bigotry, overcoming prejudice, and constantly returning to the stripped down bromide “people fear what they don’t understand.” His contributions to the franchise have always been relatively engaging, and he arguably created one of the superhero genre’s defining apexes with X-2 (2003). But Singer’s Apocalypse seems unrecognizable to his previous additions to the franchise, mostly because it’s unimaginative, devoid of metaphor, unfocused and crowded in both character and narrative, and exceptionally bland in its action set pieces. Or, that is to say, it’s eerily similar to Brett Ratner’s trilogy ending chapter The Last Stand (2006).
Apocalypse continues after the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), or actually 10 years after the defeat of Erik Lehnsherr a.k.a. Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and the aftermath has created a sort of unspoken détente between mutants and humans. While Lehnsherr lives anonymously and pseudonymously with a wife and child in communist occupied Poland, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) continues his work in mentoring the children of his specialized institute, igniting a series of unnecessary and repetitive reintroductions to already established characters: Scott Summers a.k.a. Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and even Kurt Wagner a.k.a. Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). All of this and more unfortunately leads to uncomfortable continuity errors within the franchise: it erases the meeting between Professor X, Magneto, and Jean Grey from X-Men: The Last Stand (2006); it awkwardly moves beyond a seen younger version of Cyclops in X-Men: First Class (2011) making him factually older than he is portrayed in Apocalypse; and subverts the twist ending of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) supposedly pulls Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) out of the water as William Stryker. Not to mention that neither Magneto nor Professor X have aged a single day since the events over twenty years ago in X-Men: First Class (2011), suggesting that the two might have the power of immortality that is unbeknownst to even themselves. Often times fans defend these and other inconsistencies in the series with the fact that the last chapter changed the entire timeline of events from the previous franchise because of, well, time travel. That defense, however, can only carry so much weight, and this series overflows with disjointed illogic.
Speaking of illogic, Apocalypse gives us some of the series’ best, especially in regards to its villain. The artificial peace between mutants and humans becomes disrupted when an ancient mutant named En Sabah Nur a.k.a. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac)—an all-powerful and invulnerable being that can absorb other mutants’ powers and consciousness—awakens from a multiple millennia depowered slumber induced by a betrayal of his enslaved people back in 3,600 B.C. Egypt. What’s the endgame for the aptly named mutant? Yep, you probably guessed it with your mutant prophetic abilities: the end of the world as we know it. In the early years of the franchise the films used to have competing philosophies that made them thoroughly interesting, with Professor X representing the build trust towards tolerance school of thought and Magneto representing the social Darwinism of superior evolution approach. Now, because of Apocalypse, it has been dumbed down to worldly cleansing, a threat that’s never exciting and practically numbing in its all-encompassing destruction. A powerful once godlike creature now seeks obliteration rather than reverence? Perhaps it would make sense if the film wanted it do so. But the character is not only written with obtuse reasoning, he’s also portrayed—though through no fault of his own—by Oscar Isaac buried in a mountain of blue makeup, which subverts his natural charisma as an actor. As the critical cliché goes, a hero is only as good as its villain, and the same could be said for a film.
And diluting a performance of one of its exceptionally talented cast members isn’t something the X-Men franchise usually does. In fact, despite some questionable creative choices and deviations from comic folklore accuracy, the franchise has continually been enhanced by its consistent cadre of prodigious actors. You don’t get much better than the likes of Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan gracing their talent and presence within the first established trilogy as Professor X and Magneto, and their younger respective counterparts of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have been equally convincing. And yet, Apocalypse is the first of the series to seem wasteful of its talent, except of course the obvious waste that was Rattner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Even though the film is crafted similarly to Singer’s previous efforts, where the film builds slowly towards a dense plot that possesses a deep focus on character development, nothing within Apocalypse feels organically constructed or performed. Minus an exceptional scene of loss from the tortured perspective of Magneto—a sequence that has the feeling of being a lost short shot by Andrzej Wajda or Jirí Menzel—Apocalypse makes Professor X and Magneto into little more than props for narrative momentum. Once Magneto becomes one of Apocalypse’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” his presence within the film shrinks dramatically (apparently a side effect of becoming one of the horsemen is bland personality disorder, at least when looking at the performances of Olivia Munn, newcomer Alexandra Shipp, and Ben Hardy). And an entire focused review could be written about the increasing ambivalence from Jennifer Lawrence who clearly despises being in this series (just look at the differences of makeup detail in each of the films), and how Sophie Turner is officially the January Jones of Game of Thrones.
Just like the titular character of the film who destroys everything in his path, it seems Singer himself has created a creative one of his own with Apocalypse: it has diminished the metaphorical complexities of the original franchise into grossly one-dimensional hero and villain motivations; it has taken its characters for granted and refuses to expand on the existing relationships or adequately tackle newcomers; and it also squanders its history for making inventive action sequences. Singer has been responsible for two of the X-Men franchises greatest action achievements, which means they could possibly be two of the greatest action sequences in history. The first, of course, is the White House infiltration by a mind-controlled Nightcrawler in X-2 (2003), with the second being the slow-motion kitchen pummeling taken from the speedy point of view of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). Skeptics of Singer could always depend on him bringing a heightened technicality to the basics (The Usual Suspects (1995) anyone?), so the action would, at the minimum, be of the exciting variety instead of the muddled action we get in typical blockbuster affairs. Unfortunately, that doesn’t even come close to reality in Apocalypse. There’s barely any notable action until the final twenty-minutes, and it’s all a jumbled, boring mess, with even the positive aspects—such as the psychological landscape battle between Xavier and Apocalypse—reek of germane frivolity. Singer avoids the new and sticks with the familiar, even shamelessly mimicking his own Quicksilver slow-motion sequence from before but this time edited to the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” Action was the last vestige of hope that Apocalypse could be enjoyable, and not even Singer can fulfill on that promise.
Where do the problems of Apocalypse ultimately stem from? It could be exhaustion on everyone’s part, including Singer, who has given this franchise a lot of himself with personal struggles and allusions to his own experience of bigotry and intolerance. But looking deeper there’s drastic issues with narrative, a problem that can be directly attributed to one sole person: screenwriter Simon Kinberg (Fantastic Four, Jumper). After the first two X-Men films, both of which were written with a convincing semblance of metaphorical depth and inventive action by David Hayter, Kinberg was brought in to pen the horrendous X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). And though he also penned the laudable Days of Future Past (2014), it was based on a story template that was conceived by the writing team of Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn who constructed the intriguing resurrection of the series with X-Men: First Class (2011). Kinberg, this time, was left to his own devices again, and he has constructed an equally wasteful final chapter that is directly comparable to his last trilogy ender. It’s unfortunate that history keeps repeating itself within studio produced tentpoles, where an ambivalence for quality and a focus on speediness to market keeps quality products from getting constructed. The mythos of En Sabah Nur had the potential of being the ultimate X-Men film that satisfied devout fans and general audiences alike. Instead, we’ve been given the generic treatment, and it’s as disappointing as it is unenjoyable.