Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 27 May 2016
Category: Reviews Comments View Comments


Is a bigger, badder, more powerful antagonist still relevant as a plot device for a sequel? If it's executed the way it has been done in X-Men: Apocalypse the answer is no. Hackneyed storytelling and destruction devoid of moral consequences mars the latest instalment in the X-Men franchise.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a continuation of the X-Men storyline that started with X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days Of Future Past, in which the appearance of mutants among humans is documented and the early years of the leaders of two conflicting philosophies are explored.

Film Review: X-Men: ApocalypseThe film starts off well with an opening scene set in 3600 BCE, in which En Sabah Nur (or Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who we later learn is likely the first mutant) is being helped by his four horsemen to have his consciousness moved from his dying body to a younger body. The attempt is sabotaged but not before the transfer is completed, although in the process the four horsemen are killed and En Sabah Nur becomes entombed deep underground.

Back in the present, which in this case is 1983, a decade after the events in X-Men: Days Of Future Past (in which the timeline was reset by the film-makers to fix the mess that the original X-Men trilogy had become by the third movie), CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is conveniently in Cairo when a cult discovers the resting place of En Sabah Nur. He is able to escape his tomb and, upon experiencing the current state of humanity, becomes appalled and decides to cleanse the planet of the weak and rebuild it for the strong (which really means destroying everything and moulding the surviving humans into more passive, subservient entities). For this he needs his four horsemen so he goes about recruiting suitable mutants to fulfill the roles.

Elsewhere Professor Charles Xavier's (James McAvoy) School For Gifted Youngsters is making progress recruiting young people to help them to learn to control their abilities, which includes a young Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), while Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is drifting around incognito but with a purpose - when we see her she is trying to help mutants, including Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), escape Eastern Europe with the assistance of a financially motivated underground.

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Meanwhile, off in Poland, Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a normal life under the radar after becoming a wanted man due to his actions depicted in X-Men: Days Of Future Past in which he took control of the Sentinel prototypes (robots that were designed in the 1970s to police mutants but by the future were exterminating them) and tried to kill the US president. He has a blue-collar job in a factory but goes home to his idyllic country house complete with wife and daughter... until the inevitable happens.

I try to write spoiler free reviews but I can't quite get around this one. While I won't expressly say what happens you can guess if you know anything about tropes that are used to motivate the actions of male characters in movies. It's the same plot junk we've been seeing for years (case in point: it's the exact same motivator used in Captain America: Civil War, which is also on circuit at the moment) and is incredibly lazy writing that's a massive insult to men in the real world who have actually gone through something similar.

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Instead of getting drunk, having existential crises, and not bothering to vacuum and dust (or even get out of bed), like any normal person would do, Erik, distraught that the universe seemingly won't allow him to have nice things, goes on a grief bender with the intent of destroying everyone in his path, which makes him ripe pickings for Apocalypse as he assembles his team of supervillains/four horsemen. (The scene in question takes place at Auschwitz in what is one of the most tone deaf and disrespectful movie scenes I've ever seen in my life. The intention was to provide an emotional echo from previous movies that showed how Erik's family was murdered in Auschwitz and he was tortured until his powers manifested but in this movie what happens is just so wrong that I sat in the cinema in disbelief at what I was seeing.)

Raven wants to save Erik, Xavier tries to help, and in the process Apocalypse discovers Xavier's ability to connect with all the humans and mutants on the planet - so, why destroy everyone if you can control everything?

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

The inevitable showdown ensues and there are brief reflections on the nature of family and belonging, as well as a chance for new characters to this storyline to demonstrate their abilities and contemplate their allegiances. Cairo gets destroyed in the process (with intimation that most major cities around the world also suffer massive damage) but there's no focus on this or reflection on the monetary or moral consequences, as there is in both Captain America: Civil War and Batman Versus Superman: Dawn Of Justice, which I think is something that is important to bring up now that superhero movies have matured. Even Ghostbusters II, back in 1989, had the team disbanded due to the crippling costs they accrued as a result of the damage that was done and the public's goldfish memory of having been saved from otherworldy entities.

There are sections of X-Men: Apocalypse that are beautifully shot, with superb special effects throughout the movie, and I much preferred the (slightly) slower pace when compared to the barrage that is Captain America: Civil War, which seemed just to be a vehicle for wisecracks and showdowns that were so choppily filmed and edited that they were physically difficult to watch.

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Once again Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) gets the best scenes - the main one is particularly impressive and outdoes what the film-makers managed to achieve with his standout scene in X-Men: Days Of Future Past. The opening sequence in Egypt is also wonderful with great production, costume, and make-up design, and I wish the movie had lingered there for longer.

The 1980s, recreated subtly and not as a caricature of itself, also makes for an entertaining backdrop for those of us who lived through it (should I even be admitting that?), complete with bold hair and bright fashion choices, Ms Pac-Man, and a delightful cameo by Ally Sheedy as a school teacher.

From that perspective I really quite enjoyed the movie, although it could have done with more 1980s music. (I think there was one song - it was really disappointing.)

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

The rest is largely forgettable, including another score by John Ottman (the composer on X-Men: Days Of Future Past), which is completely unnoteworthy. There's no emotional resonance in this film, though I would argue the same about Captain America: Civil War, whereas I thought Batman Versus Superman: Dawn Of Justice, for all its faults, did offer a stronger emotional component (and, no, I'm not talking about the "Martha-Martha" moment).

On the surface X-Men: Apocalypse appears to be an interesting continuation of the new X-Men path but when you really start to examine it it becomes apparent at how weak this film is in a series that needs new thought for a more sophisticated audience, not tired, offensive tropes and stereotypes, and "conflict" in the form of a bigger antagonist. A bigger antagonist doesn't result in a better movie. It results in the audience being less emotionally involved in the story. Apocalypse doesn't seem particularly menacing even though he's arguably the most powerful mutant in the world. In fact, at one point he does something that had me quietly cheering so it was very hard to connect with how evil and dangerous he is supposed to be, especially since the destruction of civilisation is so prominently background decoration rather than a real, terrifying consequence of the actions of a mutant who considers himself a god and has the powers to match.

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

At the same time his horsemen stand around doing nothing but imitate bad superhero poses. Olivia Munn as Psylocke is particularly terrible at this but, in her defense, she is given nothing to do but stand around throughout the entire movie, much like Halle Berry who was wasted in X-Men: Days Of Future Past. Worse, she is given a really awful exit that even bad student film-makers wouldn't have shot.

Meanwhile Erik's constant back and forth between good and bad, which has now been going on for three movies and is part of the moral dilemma at the heart of the series, is no longer a fascinating internal conflict. It's become pathetic in the way it is portrayed as his motivations rely more and more on tropes. It feels as if the film-makers are too scared to take him to a really dark place, which is what they need to do.

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

It's unfortunate that the quality of this series has slipped. Perhaps it's because, in the interest of serving up bigger and better set pieces and epic battles, the film-makers have forgotten what the X-Men series is all about - the conflict of protecting mutants from humans at all cost (represented by Magneto) or choosing to live among them and work towards common understanding (represented by Xavier). The comics, at their best, have allegorically examined issues of racism, diversity, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and more. Yet now all of that has been reduced to a bigger punch up. It's disappointing - and audiences have become sophisticated enough to expect more.

X-Men: Apocalypse is written by Simon Kinberg, based on a story by Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris, is directed by Bryan Singer, and stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Lucas Till, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, Lana Condor, and Olivia Munn.

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

The review screening was courtesy of Times Media Films.
X-Men: Apocalypse opened in South Africa on 20 May 2016 and opens in the US today.

Tags: #comics, #screen, #speculative_fiction Opinion
Rating: 4/10 (downgraded on 3 March 2017 from an original score of 6/10)

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