X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016) review
written by: Simon Kinberg (screenplay) Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris (story)
produced by: Simon Kinberg, Bryan Singer, Hutch Parker & Lauren Shuler-Donner
directed by: Bryan Singer
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images)
runtime: 144 min.
U.S. release date: May 27, 2016
About three weeks before its release, 20th Century Fox decided to screen “X-Men: Apocalypse” the latest in a franchise which started sixteen years ago with Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”. This new film is Singer’s fourth movie focusing on Marvel Comics mutants (if you don’t know what those are, don’t worry – there’s a voice intro during the opening credits, much like Patrick Stewart did in the very first movie) created by Stan Lee back in 1963, after his blockbuster hit “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in 2014 and it is indeed uncanny and quite odd for a Hollywood studio to screen a movie for critics that early before its release date and lift the embargo, allowing critics to post their reviews super early. I couldn’t figure it out.
That is, until I saw this heavily bloated, weirdly uncharacteristic and ultimately disappointing sequel that somehow made the same wrongheaded moves that Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” (which was co-written by Simon Kinberg, screenwriter of this movie) did ten years ago. It must’ve been the studio thinking they’d get all the negative reviews out-of-the-way early, so moviegoers would forget about them and get their anticipation back on track for yet another money-maker.
The movie opens in Egypt circa 3600 BCE, a place and time “Days of Future Past” alluded to in its end credit sequence. Along the Nile Valley, we’re introduced to En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), believed to be the very first mutant (sorry Namor), something we come to learn through exposition by way of CIA agent Dr. Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) later on. Although he’s looked at as something of a god by legions of worshippers, a certain sect thinks otherwise and manages to defeat his four mutant horsemen. He is then conveniently trapped and sealed under a collapsed pyramid after successfully transforming himself into a virile body (it is Oscar Isaac, after all) until 1983.
He’s released by fanatics (with MacTaggert as a convenient witness ) and sets off with his “to-do list” that consists of increasing his power, recruiting a new set of Four Horsemen with a goal of cleansing the world of the weak, so only the strong will survive. But who knows why or what the plan is after that. Apocalypse may as well be a mustache-twirling villain here, instead of the complex and legitimately convincing demigod of the comics. Sure, it sounds Biblical, but as MacTaggart puts it, maybe the Bible got it from En Sabah Nur.
With it being 1983, that means its been a decade since the incident in Washington, D.C. (remember “Days of Future Past”?), which thrust the existence of mutants upon a global spotlight. So, in a ‘totally tubular’ decade of Ms. Pac-Man, Rubik’s cube and parachute pants, what’s been going on with the not-so-merry band of mutants? Well, long-haired telepathic Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his boarding School for Gifted Youngsters just outside of New York City, assisted by science-geek Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), with the goal of helping those whose powers suddenly bloom at puberty control their abilities. We watch as Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Til) invites his little brother Scott (a promising Tye Sheridan) to live at the school to help him manage his optic beams and notice how he catches the eye of Jean Grey (a tentative Sophie Turner), a teenager prone to apocalyptic visions who is trying to manage her telepathic and telekinetic powers. None of these scenes feel as overtly 80s as “Days of Future Past” did the 70’s with Nixon waving a finger at mutants and Matthew Vaughn’s great “X-Men: First Class” exemplified the 60s, incorporating the plot into the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the same time, Apocalypse has begun his campaign by recruiting a pick-pocketing orphan in Cairo named Ororo Monroe (Alexandra Shipp), increasing the mohawked young woman’s weather manipulating powers, persuading her to follow him and join his world-domination crusade. It’s not clear how this zero charisma mystery man can woo whomever he hones in on though.
Meanwhile over in Europe, we find Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), quietly living with his wife and daughter, doing his best to keep a low-profile. Obviously, that doesn’t last long though, once his magnetic powers are exposed leading to a tragic event that finds Erik retaliating and returning to his resentment toward humanity.
Shapeshifter Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is found rescuing enslaved mutants in East Berlin, specifically a tattooed and blue, teleporter named Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, unfortunately left to play comic relief) who we see in a Thunderdome fight against the winged Angel (Ben Hardy, in his feature film debut) overseen by black marketer, Caliban (Tómas Lemarquis). During this time, Apocalypse shows up with Storm, looking to recruit more mutants for his cause and winds up luring Psylocke (a lifeless Olivia Munn), Caliban’s enforcer to his cause.
It’s completely unclear why Psylocke agrees to join Apocalypse, except that Singer and Kinberg have to place the character….somewhere, since she’s pretty much the only popular X-men character who hasn’t been injected into the movies yet. It’s also unclear why she changes into a ninja swimsuit (that’s so 90s!). She points her new boss (master?) to a wing-clipped Angel, suggesting he’s a candidate for horseman number three and in turn, Apocalypse painfully replaces the kid’s feathers with a set of metallic wings that launch sharp daggers. Artist Walter Simonson made it look awesome back in the day, but here it just looks kind of hokey and reeks of more presumptive fan service, without any of the dramatic effect Walter’s wife, writer Louise Simonson (who created Apocalypse with artist Jackson Guise back in 1986), developed in the original story.
It’s one of many indications that the source material should not have been condensed into one movie, which is similar to the screenplay Kinberg and writer, Zak Penn collaborated on for “The Last Stand”. Like that movie, the goal here is to throw as many characters into the speedy intros and chaotic action, without building any sense of drama or provide any unique stakes to the plot. Viewers should just be delighted to see powers increased by Apocalypse’s touch and an insane amount of destruction, I guess.
Inevitably, the fourth horseman recruited is a distraught Erik, who is in powder keg mode after his attempt at blending in with humanity failed. Apocalypse senses this and transports Erik and the other three fledglings to Auschwitz to remind Erik of his roots and push him over the edge. With a leveled-up Magneto now on his side, Apocalypse crosses off the second item on his to-do list by eliminating all of the worlds nukes, because it’s the 80s (Superman tried this in his “Quest for Peace” and look where that got him) and, well, we have to have a scene where a whole lot of missiles are launched into space and go boom. That’ll show those weak humans.
With Apocalypse’s activity reverberating globally, Xavier and McCoy – who have reunited with MacTaggert – realize something must be done and when Raven arrives with Nightcrawler in tow (not sure how she made it from Germany to New York, but she is a shapeshifter – no time to show that in a two-hour-plus movie though), they soon learn that Erik is now working with Apocalypse. But before anything can be done, En Sabah Nur takes hold of Xavier’s mind-control powers with the goal of transferring his body into the professor’s body. It’s up to Raven and McCoy to take their young mutants, along with MacTaggert and Erik’s son, Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to Cairo to battle Apocalypse and his four horsemen and prevent them from destroying the world.
That’s a whole lot of story and believe it or not I left out certain details that are recycled from other X-men movies. Like how once again the X-Mansion is destroyed (which likens the facility to the Batmobile, which has to be demolished in every movie) – come to think of it, Cerebro gets either tainted, hacked or destroyed in these movies – and how Col. Stryker (Joshua Helman) arrives and takes certain key students to a certain military facility at Alkali Lake where they have a brief encounter with Weapon X (Hugh Jackman, because we can’t have an X-Men movie without him). Despite, the storyline having been rebooted (“First Class”) and given a revised timeline (“Days of Future Past”), Singer and company are insistent on revisiting familiar beats, locales and characters from previous films, just from a slightly different perspective. Who are they placating to? They hope to win us over with familiarity, but it just comes across as tired repetition.
There is however one scene that tries to dip back into one of the best scenes from the last movie and it’s a welcome one. That is another yet creative rescue sequence featuring the speedy skills of Evan Peter’s Quicksilver. Granted it’s a bit strange to have his stop-and-go scene scored Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, but Peters undoubtedly is once again a highlight of the movie. It’s a shame though that they really don’t do much more with him throughout the rest of the movie. It’s also a shame that Winberg wants us to believe that he’s spent the last ten years in his mother’s basement. That may be a thing now for millennials, but it was something of an embarrassment back in the 80s. There’s even an opportunity to finally introduce him to Erik as his son – which would’ve been a cool scene – but nope: that potential is squandered. Singer has more interest in just going from one CGI action shot to the next.
Like many in the know – or, fans of the comic, I had my worries early on when they started releasing photos online of the titular antagonist of the movie, which showed Isaacs painted in blue/purple in an outfit that looked straight out of the Power Rangers television show. I figured it couldn’t be that bad, since, to date, Isaacs is awesome in anything. Well…as much as I like Isaacs and as much as I like to reserve my judgement until I actually see the movie, I did look admittedly silly. Now, having seen the film, I must sadly report that I wasn’t too far off. The problem is that not all comic book characters translate well to the big screen and the super-powerful and serious Apocalypse is one of them. It’s not just that he’s quite complex and demands more than just one jam-packed sequel to tell his tale, but aesthetically it’s hard to take the character seriously when he comes across as kind of silly with unclear motives. He should be as threatening and as ominous as Darkseid or Thanos, but here, Isaacs really looks like an elaborate cosplay – of who or what, I’m not sure.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” also suffers from another problem: Katniss Everdeen. That’s right. A year after she played young Raven/Mystique – for which she signed on for three movies – Jennifer Lawrence commandeered multiplexes in the first “Hunger Games” movie, in a role she would become known for. Once those movies became a hit, her role as Mystique in each X-Men movie became more and more prominent. During that time, she even became an Oscar winner, pushing her blue-skinned anti-hero into a brighter spotlight, to the point where in this movie she’s leading this new team of new/old X-Men. Just because of Katniss and who Lawrence has become. There’s no other reason for it and no getting around it. What’s the problem with that? Mystique doesn’t deserve it. In the comics (yes, I’m going there because there’s a reason why the source material works), the character always worked best as a shadowy manipulator and…an antagonist. She was never a member of the X-Men, nor is there a reason for her to be one in the movies. It’s not only out-of-character, it also goes against her character’s potential and short shrifts the opportunity to have Scott or Jean lead the team. Granted, those two characters are just introduced here, but we know their potential. Why can’t Xavier telepathically lead them? Blame Katniss.
I really wish the X-Men movies would layoff the reliance on repetition. It repeats other movies in the franchise and other superhero movies. You can see it in how they handle characters and the ceaseless decimation, be it collateral damage or a global scale. It’s tiresome and boring. If only the screenwriters can tap into those great characterization moments that writer Chris Claremont gave us all those years ago, when Kurt, Peter, Logan and Kitty would go into town and hang out at their favorite dive for a bite to eat or take in a movie. Actually, they did try that out here, when we see Scott and Jean and a couple other students walk out of “Return of the Jedi” and Jean can be heard saying, “The third movie in any series is always the worst”. That may have been a dig at “The Last Stand”, the film Singer dropped out of so he could helm “Superman Returns” (hmmm) and yet, at the same time this movie is also the third movie of a rebooted trilogy – so, I guess she’s right.
The movie ends with a team of X-Men decked out in recognizable 90s garb, reminiscent of both the run of comics by Claremont and artist Jim Lee and the hit animated series. A far cry from the Grant Morrison-inspired leather suits from 2000, when brightly colored suits were scoffed at. Yet, now they’re embraced in an effort and promise to deliver more familiarity. At least we have the promise of more “Deadpool” to make fun of it all. Now that’s more of the same I’m looking forward to.