Coming out in the wake of Dawn of Justice and Civil War, it’s inevitable that X-Men: Apocalypse will be judged in their light. And that might be unfair, since it’s not even trying to engage with the same issues the other two are; predictably enough, it returns to the same integration-vs-revolution tensions that inform every X-Men outing.
In keeping with the pattern laid down by First Class and Days of Future Past, it’s now the 1980s, complete with the last dregs of Cold War hysteria and the first glimpses of PC technology. The whole web of characters and backgrounds from those movies is taken as read, with only a few reminders for those who didn’t review beforehand. Professor X (James McAvoy) is still sheltering young mutants at his upstate New York manor in the wake of the last movie’s events, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is hiding out in Poland.
Things are generally quiet until Agent McTaggert (Rose Byrne) stumbles on a group of cultists in the process of resurrecting an ancient mutant — possibly the world’s first — buried under Cairo. This En Sabah Nur, or “Apocalypse” (an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac), reawakens with his old drive for world domination fully intact. He recruits Magneto, along with new-to-this-continuity Psylocke, Storm, and Angel (Olivia Munn, Alexandra Shipp, and Ben Hardy), as his Four Horsemutants, and sets out to tear down everything humanity has wrought while he was away the last few thousand years.
Of course, Professor X believes in peaceful coexistence, so he decides to stop these plans, only to be rounded up along with the rest of the X-Men front-line — Mystique, Beast, and Quicksilver (Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Evan Peters) — by now-Colonel Stryker (Josh Helman) who suspects them of being behind Apocalypse’s attacks. And so it falls to newcomers Cyclops, Phoenix, and Nightcrawler (Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) to free their compatriots and join the battle.
Did you follow that overstuffed cast? it probably helps if you’re already a fan of the comics, or at least the movies. It was pointed out to me that it’s become a guideline for X-Men that ever mutant is someone’s favorite, so writers work hard to include as many as possible. Simon Kinberg seems to have taken this maxim to heard.
In fact, director Bryan Singer’s whole aesthetic seems aimed squarely at established X-Men followers. The whole movie is composed primarily of fanservice and splash pages — those big, half- or full-page panels that let artists really show off. There’s a whole sequence, for instance, that features a “surprise” cameo character for no story-driven reason other than their popularity; if you noticed any conspicuous absences above, you’ve probably already figured it out.
The clearest proof of Singer’s concern comes near the midpoint of the movie. In order to dispose of humanity’s best chance of a counterattack — I assume; it’s not terribly well explained — Apocalypse causes all the world’s nukes to fire out into space. Clearly someone involved has a massive flaw in their understanding of how ballistic missiles work, but more importantly this should be a horrifying scene. We even see people watching the launches, properly horrified. And right in the middle of them: the signature Stan Lee cameo, undercutting the mood entirely.
Even once we get back to some semblance of the chilling effect a global missile launch should have, Singer segues directly into the Quicksilver Sequence. And it’s as great as it was last time, seeing Peters running around in fast-motion, manipulating the background in slow-motion. But to go straight from the horrific prospect of thermonuclear war into this fun effects-fest causes the heaviest of tonal whiplash.
But this is only really a problem if your goal is to maintain a steadily developing tone in your story. It’s only bad from a storytelling perspective. And it seems clear that Singer doesn’t care much about storytelling here; his primary concern is awesome shots and scenes. Quicksilver Sequence: awesome; nuke launch: awesome; both go in. We dutifully check off Angel with wings outstretched to fill the widescreen frame, a levitating Magneto surrounded by little chunks of CGI metal tracing out dipole field lines around him, and Phoenix coming into the full magnitude of her power. These are great scenes, and great stills, each taken in isolation, but they’ve been thrown together with little consideration for how they actually work to tell a story.
And to really bring the point home, we have Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is itself hit-or-miss as a storytelling franchise outside the usual long-arc procedural tropes common to network TV these days. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has to avoid “Mutants”, to which Fox owns the movie and television rights, substituting the similar “Inhumans”, and yet the recently-ended storyline cribs heavily from the same source material as Apocalypse, to much more satisfying results. Or, satisfying in terms of character and story, but small-screen lackluster in terms of spectacle.
Of course if a bunch of spectacular shots and scenes is what you’re after, X-Men: Apocalypse will work like gangbusters. But if you want to use superhero operatics to tell deeper, more nuanced stories the way that they’ve been doing over at Marvel, this is not your series.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace test: fail.