X-Men: Apocalypse is a story meant to bridge the gap between the previous generation of characters fans have been rooting for since 2011’s First Class, and the mutants they came to know from the first Bryan Singer films in the early aughts. Because of that, Apocalypse has quite a lot to of ground to cover, and a lot of characters to juggle.
Does the film manage that circus act? Um… very yes and very no.
The real problem with Apocalypse is that it feels like two separate films. The first half is a sloppy mess of bad cliches and disparate plots that don’t hang together whatsoever. But somehow the film manages to pull everything together at the end and become the film that it’s trying to be. The result is jarring on both an emotional and a cognitive level.
So let’s start with the bad, and get it out of the way. Apocalypse is our super bad, a god-like mutant from ancient history that got buried by the ancient Egyptians. (And the film does deserve some credit for showing just how ingeniously complex Egyptian architecture was and could be.) The opening sequence is overlong and needlessly action heavy, and it’s deeply saddening to watch Oscar Isaac disappear behind all those prosthetics; even if he does manage to act his pants off through them as a character who has all the subtlety of a bulldozer, it’s hard to forget that Poe Dameron is under there somewhere, desperate to free his tousled locks.
Fastforward to 1983 and we find that the world has moved on since the events of Days of Future Past, largely for the better. Charles Xavier has his school, Mystique is spending her time finding and protecting wayward mutants being abused by regular humans, and Erik Lensherr has managed to find himself a family in Poland, a wife and daughter whom he loves deeply.
If all the bells went off in your head at the mention of Erik having a family, you win a prize for Spot the Film Cliche. It is obvious from the outset that Erik isn’t going to be able to keep this family, which means we’re in store for a good old-fashioned fridging of female characters, with extra points for them being related to the male character who gets to experience a lot of manpain over their passing. It’s upsetting because while Magneto does need to experience painful loss in order for his part in the plot to work, it honestly didn’t have to be a family. The film could have just as easily set him up with a group of mutants he was protecting in Poland, and had them get discovered. Making it a wife and child smacks of the laziest storytelling possible, the placeholder suggestion at the initial script meeting that no one remembered to change. It’s almost hard to be angry about the choice because it’s so insipidly boring in the first place.
But then you remember two women who were barely characters have just been needlessly murdered in yet another movie to move forward some guy’s plot, and you summon up some anger all the same.
Sigh. Let’s move on to Moira MacTaggert, who is around for Apocalypse’s resurrection. It results in an earthquake felt halfway around the world, which gets the attention of Hank McCoy, and then Charles. He uses Cerebro to find out what’s going on, and sees that Moira’s at the heart of it, and his crush rears its wily head. Of course, he has to admit to Hank that Moira doesn’t remember him because he wiped all her memories of their time together in First Class (something that every character is appropriately and quietly disdainful of when they find out). So they head to the CIA and find out about Apocalypse, and the supposed four followers that he has every time he rises.
The first follower this time around is Storm, who gets an imaginative new backstory as an Aladdin-esque street rat in Cairo who uses her powers to steal food and stuffs for herself and the wandering kids in her neighborhood. Edit: I should point out that I’m likening it to Aladdin as the difference jokingly, since her comics origin is a bit more akin to Oliver Twist. Apocalypse likes her and helps her magnify her powers. (He also turns her hair white because he’s super into fashions. There is literally no other reason.) This results in Apocalypse’s World Tour, where he picks up three more disciples and gives them cool new duds, extra juice for their abilities, and lots of aesthetic tweaking. For serious. He cuts Angel’s hair to be more like Storm’s, and then gives him weird face tattoos. Everyone gets fabulous full body armor, except for Psylocke, who is unexplainably still wearing her typical cut-out swimsuit.
I’m just saying, some consistency would have made more sense, regardless of the popularity of her costume.
We also meet some our of favorite characters as teens! Including Scott Summers, who has been reimagined as Youthful Punk Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), I guess in an effort to make him seem like less of a good ol’ boy? (It doesn’t work.) Jean Grey is well adapted by Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is an adorable Nightcrawler, even if he really only exists in this film for his ability to teleport people and gets no meaningful character work whatsoever. Jubilee is not in the film nearly enough, which is perhaps more upsetting. We thought we were getting Jubilee, movie! Uncool. (It seems as though there’s an obvious deleted sequence at the nearby shopping mall to that tune.)
Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is back to prove that he is by far the better alt-universe incarnation than the one we saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron. He also comes with the revelation that he’s Magneto’s kid (true in the comics also). Seriously, if they wanted to give this guy his own movie, I’d be 110% for that. He’s one of the bright spots of the film, no contest.
So after an hour of The Gang’s All Here, we finally get to the plot, and Charles gets kidnapped by Apocalypse. (Also poor Alex Summers dies to give Scott something to be sad about and Jean a reason to look at him twice.) A bunch of the important mutants plus Moira are kidnapped by none other than William Stryker and we get another ride to his creepy dam base again. Also, the school gets blown up, making Negasonic’s quip about it in Deadpool that much funnier.
Raven is at the heart of the film, a hero to all the kid mutants who still prefers to stick to the shadows because while Charles is keen to help kids control their powers and blend in with humanity, she is aware that the effort can simply be another brand of hiding. And she is hiding, to tell the truth, knowing that the results of 1973 did not bring peace at all. It would all be more interesting as a plot point if the film dealt with this recent history in more depth rather than wasting time with Apocalypse because it’s the better part of the story and, not coincidentally, more of what X-Men is meant to be about.
We get a cameo from Wolverine, which is basically meant to set up his first movie, and also explain why he had hints of memories in the first X film that he can’t piece together. It’s fine for Jackman fans, but does add one more unneeded element to a crowded movie. Once Jean, Scott, and Kurt spring the adults plus Quicksilver, the movie finally begins to coalesce into what it wants to be: a film about trust and love and the very nature of found families, which is something that X-Men is expertly set up to tackle.
Apocalypse wants to use Charles’ body for his next upgrade to get his powers (of course), so the crew set out to Cairo on a rescue mission. Raven gives the kids a pep talk, harkening back to the good old days when she had a team and family (even though said team and family wasn’t very good at allowing her to be herself), and first went into battle on a beach in Cuba. She tells Scott about Alex, and assures the group that it’s cool to be scared and also cool to use their powers, whether or not they can control them. Erik is busy destroying the earth slowly with his amplified powers, unwilling to shake off his pain fugue until Mystique and Quicksilver show up. They don’t play the cheap card of having Peter be all I’M UR SON MISTER, instead opting to prove that Raven is the only one who gets this whole shebang at all; yes Erik is in pain, but he still has family and it’s all right here and it needs him. He let’s that sink in for a bit (while pointedly flashing back to Charles talking about how much they need him and stuff).
The transfer from Apocalypse to Charles nearly goes through, leaving them with an unfortunate link that Biggest Blue uses to abuse the professor while everyone else stands around telling Xavier that he can’t interfere or else the bad guy will take over the whole planet. Apocalypse nearly chokes Raven to death before Charles realizes that a link between minds goes both ways. On the one hand, this is a silly and somewhat obvious set up, on the other hand, it might have been worth it for when Charles’ brainspace avatar creates a simulacrum of the school in their heads, then roundhouse punches an earth-threatening villain while shouting YOU’RE IN MY HOUSE.
No? Just me?
Eventually Xavier starts losing that fight, and that’s when Erik finally stops twiddling his thumbs destroying the earth and takes a stand against the bad guy because he’s didn’t care so much when Raven’s life was on the line but don’t you dare touch Charles Xavier, dearly best frenemy, other half of his coin,
and occasional lover. At least some things are consistent in this universe.
While this is all going on, the kids are learning to work as a team and not hold back with their abilities. (Storm is also understandably having a change of heart, seeing how casually Apocalypse casts aside his other children if they’re not up to snuff—Angel is dead.) All except for Jean, that is, who is understandably terrified to use her very substantial powers that she has been warned against time and again. But everyone working together can’t stop the guy, so Charles begs for Jean’s help, recognizing that Raven has been right all along: Sometimes control is overrated, and the powers these children wield are beautiful and needed. So he tells Jean to let go and nail the guy.
Which she does in spectacular Phoenix-like fashion. It’s obviously the best part of the movie.
At that point Charles opens his eyes to find Moira lingering over him, and realizes that he was a real jerk twenty years ago. He gives her memories back. And it is so vindicating to see the film make good on the biggest mistake two films previous, though we miss the obvious fallout where Moira probably threatens to keep him in a secret CIA bunker for the next twenty years as recompense for doing something that unethical and awful. Storm makes some new friends, Psylocke runs off in a tiff (because she is the most boring character in the entire film aside from Angel), and everyone wonders what comes next.
The answer, of course, is for Erik and Jean to rebuild the school, classes to resume and Charles to give Raven room under the house to reform the X-Men, under her tutelage. Which is honestly an awesome idea if the movies going forward stick to that—Raven deserves to be the head of this group far more than either Charles or Erik, and understands the need for the X-Men better as far as these films are concerned. If they keep with this setup, we could end up with a pretty awesome spin on the universe.
But it still doesn’t really make up for the first half of the film, which has plenty of cute laugh lines/scenes (like Charles losing a beloved childhood tree to Scott’s super eyes, and Quicksilver rescuing the entire student body from the house explosion), and is otherwise muddy mess full of poor choices. A good ending can help you forget a bad beginning, but here it isn’t really enough of it. If they had spent more time sticking to the individual perspectives of the protagonists and built up the differing philosophies between them, we would have had a great movie. Instead, we just have a weird wasted big bad, who manages with his final breath to acknowledge that maybe Jean Grey’s Dark Phoenix persona could be a problem going forward? And a whole lot of set up for things that will happen in other movies.
It’s cute, but not cohesive, which so important in a film series that has already gotten flack for being confusing as far as timelines are concerned. Unfortunately, in the places where it needed to shine the most, X-Men: Apocalypse didn’t quite make it to the finish line. It just sort of… teleported there instead.