REVIEW: X-Men: Apocalypse

May 18, 2016

Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till
Runtime: 144 Minutes




As a collective, it’s likely that we may have taken the achievements of Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class for granted. Not so much an adrenaline shot to the heart for this weary series, but more of a pick-me-up and reassuring pat on the back that not all is lost in the misery of the mutant world after the derision of Brett Ratner's The Last Stand and the middling Wolverine spin-offs. A bright, jubilant and wonderfully paced adventure story that hooked into the spirit of the comic book characters like no other before it, it really looked for a moment that the oldest running series in the sub-genre may have finally found its voice. 


And then Singer returned…


When the original trilogy occurred it became an anomaly unto itself; a series that was neither the product of its time nor the adaptation that the series title probably deserves. But amongst the black leather and muted sense of levity, there were powerful and mature themes at play that struck a chord when read by the thespians (Stewart and McKellen) playing the roles. But since the series took a nose dive following Singer’s departure, Fox have demonstrably struggled to make the brand ‘great’ again in the eyes of its fans, going so far as to bring Singer back behind the helm for two instalments (now) in a desperate attempt to repent for the sins in his absence. 


Both Days of Future Past and Apocalypse are, in all honesty, the products of a studio writing themselves out of a corner and blindly going over everything constructed since 2006 in an effort to fix the problem – and X-Men: Apocalypse is the kind of blockbuster that will make you question why the superhero sub-genre is as popular as it is.


Put simply, it isn't much good. It’s not terrible but is certainly poor enough in some regard to make you question the consequences of everything that is and has been unfolding onscreen for the past couple of years. The plot itself moves at a pace with such languor over its indiscreet running time, and overall appears to act as nothing more than a world-building piece shifter for setting up the next several films. It may just be a symptom of our obsessive compulsion with serialised storytelling at this point, but at times it feels like a single monster-of-the-week episode being dragged out and padded into feature length.


The monster of the title, Apocalypse, is played by the magnetically animate Oscar Isaac. Although you wouldn’t be able to tell that as the constrictive prosthetics slathered upon his face and torso allow for nothing in the way of emotional engagement beyond stoic and statuesque presence. The film starts off rather promisingly with a bizarrely satisfying prologue sequence set in ancient Egypt, and the reasoning behind En Sabah Nur’s perspective of the world makes total sense when he first wakes up and realises where the modern world’s true deities now lie. There might also be an interesting association to be found in relation to its Regan era setting and political backdrop. Which is such a shame because the screenplay simply doesn’t know how to apply this subtext beyond just that. Although Isaac gets enjoyably stomp-y later on, his sole motivation is set in stone from the off and never changes or evolves in his quest for absolute power. 


In fact, most of the film’s first act is encouragingly well constructed where it comes to introducing its new X-Men characters. Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner handles Jean Grey/Phoenix pretty well, Tye Sheridan endows Scott Summers/Cyclops with more character then he’s ever been dealt, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler might have walked away with the entire movie – had these characters not had to share their screen time with the present cast of players. Characters so shunted of growth and set in their ways that the screenplay has to contrive of new, ridiculous ways to keep them in the established status quo of their destined future counterparts. McAvoy and Fassbender try admirably, but ultimately fail, to overcome the unbending natures of their characters, but Lawrence has never looked more uninterested on screen than she does here - reeking of compromise to such a degree that she spends a maximum of five minutes in her full Mystique costume out of fear of relative discomfort.


Nicholas Hoult’s Beast does very little, as does the horrible contrivance of bringing Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert back into the fray. The much published Four Horsemen who follow Apocalypse – Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) - are all given lengthy introductions but we’re never given a sense of their characters beyond vaguely recognisable fan service. Even Peters’ ludicrously overpowered Quicksilver makes a return in a vain attempt to recapture the magic of Future Past’s best scene, but just comes across as an annoyance as his entire arc rests on the shoulders of a single loose gag from that previous film.


The cast, as you can tell from a brief glimpse at the marketing engine, is huge. To such a degree that the screenplay literally doesn’t know how to handle most of them in the confines of its wafer-thin plot. So an unspeakable machination is constructed before the films third act in which the film literally stops dead to check up on how things are doing with the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, snarling it up); a scene of such bewildering placement that it wouldn’t be shocking if it turned out to be an 11th Hour add-on in the midst of post-production.


The screenplay by Simon Kinberg is an overstuffed mileage of moments like this, with nothing but lead up to an impossibly unimaginative, boring and uninvolving third act battle scene that just appears to go on forever. Singer has never been one for large-scale action set pieces, even given Future Past’s minor improvements, but for a film of this scale, the lack of excitement present in both its staging and presentation makes it an exhausting slog to get through.


It’s a horrible thing to feel and witness with this film because there's still good in it. The cinematography is still solid, as is the score by John Ottman, and the first act does promise something much larger than the entity that it eventually becomes. There’s even an unexpectedly effective scene at Auschwitz which might be one of the series finest moments. But taken as a whole it’s a dour, overly serious yet inherently silly film that has very little to say or embody beyond its continued preservation of the series as a recurrent brand.


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