The final instalment in the latest X-Men trilogy, Apocalypse carries a lot of clumsy baggage from previous movies. But by the end it pays off in a big way. Read more after the jump.
(In Patrick Stewart’s voice) Mutants. The latest off-shoot of human evolution. You’ve heard this intro a million times before. This movie is no different. Except there’s an ancient mutant called Apocalypse looking to destroy the world. And he’s got buddies. It’s scary. Loads of kids have to band together to fight him. And James McAvoy goes bald. Let’s see how it turns out, shall we?
It’s hard to imagine that Days of Future Past had pretty much no new mutant talent to add to the First Class cast. Other than future X-Men like Sunspot, Blink and Warpath, we didn’t see a lot of solid screen-time. Apocalypse learned from that blunder and has injected some real life into the franchise with its new set of mutants, both good and bad. Kodi Smit-McPhee and Evan Peters took the bulk of responsibilities for humour and charisma as Nightcrawler and Quicksilver respectively. Despite a bit of accent trouble, Sophie Turner made a strong showing as a troubled but intense Jean Grey, and Tye Sheridan’s newbie Cyclops gave a good entrance into the newly established Xavier school without drawing too much attention. One difficulty with ensemble cast comic book movies – especially when it comes to X-Men – not everyone gets a huge amount of lines. Seriously, watch X-Men: The Last Stand and see how many lines Colossus has. Spoiler Alert, I’m still waiting. So Alexandra Shipp’s Storm and Olivia Munn’s Psylocke didn’t get quite as much character development as they deserved. Still, they more than made up for it by bringing the action and the spectacle.
Ben Hardy‘s Angel was a bit of an odd bird out. Angel can pretty much just fly, which isn’t hugely impressive in the X-Men universe. However, any fan worth his/her salt will tell you how important a role Angel plays as one of Apocalypse’s Horsemen. So even though he didn’t get the most lines, Hardy plays a big part in one of the most harrowing scenes in the movie. When Angel’s powers are augmented by Apocalypse, it’s not a clean or painless transition. However, for the audience it’s impressive to see something so intense and uncomfortable in an otherwise colourful franchise.
On the subject of brutality, Hugh Jackman‘s surprise cameo as Wolverine is largely to thank for the added grit in X-Men Apocalypse. This period sees Wolverine fresh out of the adamantium oven and hella pissed. What we end up with is a whole trail of bodies and no lack of bloody demises. If this is the kind of Wolverine we can expect to see in Wolverine 3, then we are most definitely on board. Jackman’s cameo ends with a sweetly intense moment between Turner’s Jean Grey and Jackman’s Wolverine. If it looks familiar, you’ll find it’s lifted straight out of the Black Widow/Hulk playbook for monstrously messed up super-flirting.
The most satisfying part of the movie by far is the final 20 minutes. Jean Grey manages to save the day by tapping into something oddly resembling the Phoenix Force. There are not-so-subtle hints throughout the film that she’s having trouble controlling her psychic powers. What’s nice about the Phoenix moment is that it’s significant enough to satisfy fans but doesn’t necessarily have to be picked up again right away. With hints that the next X-Men movie will be set a decade later, there’s every chance that The Phoenix won’t play a big role in the next movie. Maybe The Phoenix has already been and gone, or maybe the next few films will build up to it. Either way, there’s a lot of breathing room that previous instalments of the franchise just didn’t have.
As the movie draws to a close, I remember why I always come back to the X-Men movies. Bald McAvoy is looking on as the new batch of X-Men get ready in the Danger Room. They’re all wearing their character’s classic costumes. The film ends just as the wall folds away and a pack of Sentinels bear down on them. Delicious.
Time to rip off the bandaid: the intro sequence is tired. No other franchise has an opening sequence that’s so rigid or unimproved, especially after 5 movies (don’t forget First Class didn’t have one – hey, isn’t that the one that did really well? Weird). It reminds us that opening sequences are a little old-fashioned, saved for legacy franchises like James Bond? Is this Singer trying to save a grand tradition? If it is he should have tried something a little more ambitious than painfully obvious historical logos (Nazi swastika, USSR flag) to signify the passage of time. If anything the time didn’t pass quickly enough. Oh, snap.
This is only one of the reasons why Bryan Singer should consider retiring from X-Men movies. His fingerprints are all over Apocalypse, either with tired traditions or too-vanilla-to-fail plot devices and dialogue choices. On the subject of the plot a lot of blame should go to Simon Kinberg, another X-Men vet. Not a single piece of dialogue in this film is surprising. The jokes were funny enough and the trailer-bait one liners were plentiful, but nothing stood out. The only exception was this film’s use of the one-fuck-per-movie rule, which was pulled of fantastically by Michael Fassbender. Of all the old cast who returned for this movie, Fassbender has by far weathered the storm of a superhero franchise the best. The most powerful and emotional moment in the film rests squarely on his shoulders as he cradles his dying wife and child. He’s fairly stoic for the rest of the movie, but that at least can be chopped up to an acting choice as Magneto tries to handle his grief the only way he knows how – with destruction and grimaces.
As for the rest of the returning cast, there’s not much praise to share around. Jennifer Lawrence reminded me of Daniel Craig‘s performance in Spectre…she just seemed like she’d rather be anywhere else. When she half-heartedly mumbled “I’m not a hero”, I was inclined to believe her. James McAvoy played second banana to his hairline which seemed to have a far more interesting plot-line. Charles Xavier spent most of his screen time being used as a Tannoy for Apocalypse’s message of destruction. While his psychic battle with Oscar Isaac‘s Apocalypse was a plus, McAvoy was pretty limp the rest of the time. At one point Apocalypse is destroying Cairo and everyone in it, and Xavier is just watching with a stroppy look on his face, as though he’d forgotten where he left his keys. I’m sure Nicholas Hoult was OK but for the life of me I can’t remember a single piece of noteworthy dialogue. What I do know is that Rose Byrne most certainly didn’t say or do anything of merit as Moira McTaggart.
For the first half, the CGI was pretty disappointing as well. Some of the effects were cartoonish and unrealistic. Considering that Days of Future Past managed something a bit rougher and textured with its CGI, it’s hard to imagine how Apocalypse went so wrong. The final set piece in Cairo made up for some of the earlier visual failings. Magneto’s giant structure of magnetic fields is a big part of that, but you could feel the budget stretching on his enormous metal arcs and forcefields. His destruction of Auschwitz (yeah you heard me right) used a similar magnetic field design which worked pretty well all things considered. If they’d had a little more wiggle room with the CGI budget, maybe they’d have really done the large-scale destruction of the movie justice.
If you throw a pebble at the theatre screen at a random point during X-Men: Apocalypse, odds are you’ll hit a mis-step or a blunder. But by the end of the 2 hrs 20 mins, Apocalypse had far surpassed Days of Future Past, which is phenomenally rare for the third film in a trilogy. You need to persevere to allow Bryan Singer to dust off his cobwebs and for Kinberg’s script to get any kind of traction. Any success this film has is down to the new recruits – not their quantity but their quality. The franchise is long overdue for another shake-up. Hopefully another cast swap will do for this trilogy what First Class did for the last trilogy, and provide a fresh take on a much-loved franchise.
Making a standard comic book movie isn’t quite enough anymore. You can’t just rely on enormous fight scenes, CGI super powers or provocative costumes. You go big or you go home. Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman, for all their flaws, perfectly illustrate how far comic book movies have come. The action is stronger, but so is the drama. Spectacle has to be married with emotion or the audience isn’t going to play ball. With all comic book moves there’s a suspension of disbelief as standard. However it feels like the X-Men movies are asking us to suspend a lot more disbelief than Marvel or DC are. Even other Fox franchises like Deadpool are stretching their dramatic/conceptual muscles. If X-Men is going to keep up, it needs to do a better job of keeping things fresh, relatable and engaging.