If there’s a single point where the X-Men movies are consistently more impressive than the Avengers/MCU ones, it’s in their specificity of time period. All X-Men: First Class’ strongest elements come from its embrace of Cold War paranoia. Likewise, while Captain America: The Winter Soldier paid narrative and tonal homage to the 1970s, X-Men: Days of Future Past set up most of its shop there. It remains one of the strongest superhero movies to date, too—juggling an immense cast, epic stakes, and the usual diet of X-Men story beats to create something that managed to break new ground and honour what had gone before it. The closing scene—and in particular one surprisingly moving blue-furred cameo—remains one of my favourite scenes in any Marvel movie to date precisely because of that. It felt like the characters, and the movies, had both endured a season in Hell and were earning a well-earned rest. Even better, there was a sense that they would be coming back refreshed and ready for something new.
X-Men: Apocalypse does not make good on that promise.
[Please note: this review avoids specific/detailed spoilers, but does discuss the pros and cons of the film and individual performances, overall.]
Moving the action forward a decade to the 1980s, the movie opens with the sense that the events of Days of Future Past brought the mutants very much to public light but since then, by and large, things have died down. Until, in Egypt, Moira MacTaggart finds something both impossible and impossibly old…
There are a lot of moving parts in Apocalypse and that “mutant singularity” is one of the few notes where the script really sings. Unfortunately, while the rest of the script channels the massive cast and epic feel that dominated the X-Men comics in the 1980s, it embraces all the worst elements of that time far more enthusiastically than what worked.
The good news, and there is some, is the three leads continues to impress. James McAvoy is still great as Professor Xavier who, epic ‘80s hair and Miami Vice jacket and all, is a peaceful, compassionate figure with none of the irresponsible zeal of his earlier years. Instead, it’s his compassion and determination that come through, as well as (in one of the movie’s very occasional and welcome surprises) guilt for some of his past actions. The two-fisted rock star psychic of the earlier movies is gone and he’s much closer now to Patrick Stewart’s gentle, mischievous father figure here.
Nominally, the same is true for Michael Fassbender’s Magneto but he fares less well with the material he’s given, largely because it’s almost entirely covering old ground. Magneto is tormented, again. Magneto suffers a long night of the soul, again. Magneto is tossed on the horns of a dilemma, again. Like the franchise itself, Magneto has often seemed to be in a holding pattern and that’s certainly the case for most of this movie. Like Xavier and Mystique, however, he ends up in an interesting place. Although, as we’ll see, that opens up a whole new set of problems.
Finally, Jennifer Lawrence holds the movie together. Mystique’s actions at the end of Days of Future Past resonate up and down Apocalypse and the film is at its best when it both grants Lawrence’s fiercely pragmatic heroine agency and actually gives her something to do. Like McAvoy, she lifts every scene she’s in and, much like McAvoy, seems to relish the new places she’s allowed to take the character.
The rest of the cast fare much less well. Nicholas Hoult is required to do less than he has in either previous movie and none of it’s new. Tye Sheridan and Lucas Till as the Summers boys are equally badly served. Worse still, Evan Peters’ ludicrously charming Quicksilver has been bro’ed up and given an angsty storyline that, like very nearly everything outside the central plot here, basically ends in a “To Be Continued”. Even his stand-out super speed sequence feels, ironically, a little rushed. Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey likewise gets to do very little, other than introduce herself and lay some groundwork for what she’ll be doing in the next film. Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert is reintroduced here and, yet again, gets some interesting development that will pay off in the next movie. In Apocalypse, though, all she’s required to do is repeatedly identify herself as a CIA agent and look worried. Elsewhere, Kodi Smit-Mcphee’s Nightcrawler is a plot device with occasional lines, a status Ben Hardy’s Angel can only dream of. Worst of all, Alexandra Shipp’s Storm has a promising opening scene and then does functionally nothing for the entire movie before yet AGAIN being set up to maybe do something fun next time. Finally, Olivia Munn’s much vaunted role as Psylocke consists of one badly directed fight scene, a handful of lines and—you guessed it—a dangling plot thread.
This isn’t an ensemble, it’s a cast in loose formation waiting for stuff to do—often literally in the film’s dismal middle half hour. Even Oscar Isaac struggles as Apocalypse himself, alternately holding forth with Shakespearean (or should that be Skeletorean?) force and putting together a ludicrously obtuse plan which has at least one section seemingly designed solely for the movie’s trailers. There’s almost no through line, almost no arc, and almost no moments of actual character development. The script is primarily dour or functional exposition, and that makes the few moments when it actually remembers that these people are supposed to be people shine all the brighter. A late scene reminiscing about the first Blackbird flight in First Class is a lovely, gentle moment that feels like it’s wandered in from a much better movie. Likewise the opening half hour or so at the Xavier School is infinitely more interesting and fun than the perfunctory slog through badly-executed CGI and uncomfortably linear wire work that fills the last half hour.
In fact, it was around the point at which the CGI really doubles down in the finale that I figured out what was bothering me about the movie. It’s not just that we’ve seen very nearly all these characters do the vast majority of these things before, often more than once. It’s that they’re doing it in the exact same way. The finale really is a disaster, not just in scripting but in execution. The action is either epic scale but oddly bloodless CGI property destruction, or the exact sort of wire work that Singer was doing on the original X-Men.
16 years ago.
It’s not just that the characters haven’t progressed, it’s that the series hasn’t—and after the wonderful closing scene in Days of Future Past that breaks my heart. Worse still, it badly damages the franchise’s internal credibility. In a post-Man of Steel-finale world, you simply cannot do what this movie does to multiple major urban centres and just assume everything and everyone is fine. It’s empty spectacle for the sake of empty spectacle and it’s executed with none of the verve, wit, or realism that even the earliest MCU movies achieved. And in a year where we got the latest chapter in Marvel’s ongoing exploration of the human costs of the superhuman singularity that just can’t stand. Like them or loathe them, superhero movies are barrelling towards the end of their second decade of box office dominance because they’ve continued to evolve. It’s a bitter irony that a franchise that uses evolution as its central concept has failed to do exactly that.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.