Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee
I’d like to see an in-universe explanation of why so many mutants in Fox’s X-Men series are blue. I’d also like to see an out-of-universe explanation as to why they’ve become such a chore to watch. I imagine the name “Bryan Singer” would come up a lot in the second one.
The second trilogy of X-Men movies comes to an end with more of a thud than either a bang or a whimper, as we slide rather nonsensically into the early ’80s in order to, well, not even bother to tie up or satisfactorily conclude the arc that began with X-Men: First Class. Doubtless you’ll recall that the Matthew Vaughn-directed soft reboot was set in 1963, a cute idea at the time (Uncanny X-Men #1 came out in ’63) now made odious in hindsight by Singer’s insistence on setting each subsequent film a decade down the road for… well, no discernible reason. We’re not going to link up with the original timeline, which has been utterly thrown out of whack by this stage of the game; even the most casual viewer must twig that not much makes sense here any more. It’s all affectation and hand-waving, which would be fine if the end result was fun. Its not; it’s moribund and self-serious and takes all the wrong lessons from Marvel’s cinematic success (like that fan service trumps narrative sense) and none of the pertinent ones (like giving us characters we care about and themes that matter).
In terms of plot, X-Men: Apocalypse is pretty rote: the titular ancient villain (Oscar Isaac, who deserves better – or at least better make-up) is awakened from his millennia-long slumber and commences to try and take over the world, using a suite of mutant powers that seems to be consist of whatever the powers that be thought would be cool at the time, and four followers he recruits to be his “horsemen” – Angel (Ben Hardy), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
But wait – Storm and Angel have cropped up before, haven’t they? Yeah, ignore that – their incarnations here bear no resemblance to their previous appearances, and although it’s kind of fun to see Storm rocking a mohawk and scratching out a living as a Cairo street rat, the choice to make angel a gay German klub kid is an odd one. Meanwhile Psylocke is apparently a mutant bikini with the power to wrap itself around Olivia Munn without using double-sided tape, with the unfortunate side effect of rendering Munn both monosyllabic and completely redundant to the plot (she’s not alone on the second count).
Magneto actually gets to do some interesting things, put into a kind of Unforgiven position when the slaughter of his family awakens them old genocidal urges. The implications of his actions in Apocalypse’s service get left on the table, though, because it would be kind of messy holding him to account for the literal millions of people he’s killed by the time the credits roll. That he recognises it was wrong is enough for Professor X (James McAvoy) and his X-Men.
Speaking of Professor X, it’s taken three movies for him to finally go bald. I may never complain about the soporific place-setting of the Daniel Craig bond movies again.
Back at the Xavier School, the opportunity has been taken to recast three key characters – Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler, now played by Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smitt-McPhee, because audiences cannot believe that Famke Janssen could play someone under 30, even though we’re expected to blithely accept that neither Xavier, Magneto, Mystique (Jennifer Laurence) , Beast (Nicholas Hoult, utterly shortchanged here) or Havok (Lucas Till) have aged in the last 20 years. Any character development for these three gets left flapping in breeze – it’s as though we’re supposed to recognise where they’re going to end up as people (even though that future has been rendered utterly unobtainable) and just make the connections for ourselves, with nothing so gauche as obstacles, action and catharsis to get us there.
Even as spectacle, Apocalypse falls down. Tonally it;s all over place, with Singer constantly undercutting his pathos and drama with out of place humour and pointless references. A scene of nuclear missiles rocketing from their silos over suburbia – a plausible nightmare for anyone who actually lived through the Cold War – is scuppered by the insertion of the now-requisite Stan Lee cameo. Almost all the action seems weightless, pointless, without consequence.
There are a couple of exceptions. One is a scene where Quicksilver (Evan Peters) does the cool thing he did in the last movie, which is nice enough, but strikingly unimaginative – yet still not as unimaginative as having the character still living in his mother’s basement a decade on from his last appearance. The other is the cameo, which spoiler culture forbids me from talking about, although I will say that a) it benefits from the much more laissez-faire approach we have to on-screen violence and gore in this “everyone watches Game of Thrones” age, and b) it rhymes with Bleapon Blex. These two sequences at least hold the attention; not much else does.
Also, Jennifer Lawrence is in this movie. She doesn’t want to be.
The X-Men movies have always been the median of the superhero film genre – the broad but dividing line between the great (Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the better Marvel films) and the terrible (the last couple of Spider-Man efforts, every Snyder comics adaptation). Now it seems that the barbarians have crossed the Rhine and taken the border provinces for their own; even charitably, X-Men: Apocalypse is a wheel-spinning, mediocre effort that seems mired in outdated, coy interpretations of comics lore and a steadfast refusal to do anything interesting with the rich and infinitely malleable IP it’s built on. The threat of another one of these things set in the ’90s (Christ!) is a horrifying thought – better to let sleeping mutants lie.