Movie Review: X-Men Apocalypse

Had to sit on this review for a while to give it some thought, and that ended up making it a long one.

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Starring:
James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac
Director:
Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men)
Rating: M
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Well, it turns out that couldn’t last.

The X-Men movies continue to exist, for better or worse, as the only discernible remnant of the superhero movie scene pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe. The way they have always done things sits somewhere between DC Comics’ macabre big screen blockbusters and the MCU’s lighter escapades, boasting an embarrassment of riches in the character department to mine for both humour and drama. When the movies are good, they feel like giant middle fingers to the critics who think there are too many superhero movies kicking around these days. When they’re bad, they tend to become the easiest targets for said critics, as at their core they tend to feel extraneous and disposable.

X-Men Apocalypse isn’t a bad movie, but it is the worst X-Men film since X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and as an X-Men fan first and foremost within the superhero movie realm, that stings a little.

Now Apocalypse does not belong in the same tier of quality as that 2009 travesty of an origin story – not by a long shot – but there is no doubt in my mind that it sorely lacks the focus and flair of X-Men First Class, Days of Future Past and The Wolverine. Despite sharing the same director as Days of Future Past and the first two X-Men movies, Apocalypse frequently exhibits the exact opposite of those movies’ strengths, even when it essentially repeats scenes from those very movies. It’s baffling, really. Bryan Singer‘s fourth mutant spectacle in the director’s chair makes him look more like a bumbling newcomer than the veteran he is.

The movie has three main gimmicks it uses to draw in audiences – it emblazons its advertising with fresh Hollywood superstar Oscar Isaac in heavy blue makeup as supervillain Apocalypse, it neatly follows in the continuity footsteps of its immediate predecessors by setting itself in the 1980s, and it finally introduces us to the young versions of franchise trailblazers Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm and Nightcrawler. If you feel so inclined to judge the movie on how effectively it delivers on these marketing points, the results are mixed at best.

The movie’s opening – set in ancient Egypt – actually sets a pretty good standard, introducing us to Isaac‘s all-powerful Apocalypse by way of his rather capable “four horsemen” mutant henchmen and some flashy gold-streaked effects. It’s an exciting sequence that’s also rather unique among superhero outings these days. And yet from the moment he awakens from the millenia-long sleep that follows, the character’s stock falls. Isaac brings a certain theatrical appeal to the role but there isn’t a moment where his prosthetics don’t look oddly cheap, his character doesn’t really develop at all aside from one extremely tired “learning” scene early on, and the underuse of his modern horsemen (Magneto, Storm, Angel, Psylocke) is just woeful. Aside from the returning Michael Fassbender, whose character Magneto goes through some pretty familiar motions, they get next to no lines and spend most of the movie standing on poorly constructed sets glaring into the distance. Olivia Munn‘s much-hyped Psylocke is perhaps the widest-ranging disappointment here, but being personally quite partial to Angel as a character, seeing him like this is almost painful.

As for the 1980s setting, it’s far less pronounced than either the obvious swinging ’60s vibe of First Class or the kitschy tech feel of Days of Future Past‘s ’70s half. The odd frizzy hairstyle/oversized pair of glasses aside, the movie looks like it could have taken place in any time period, and given how much the first two films in this continuity benefited from a sense of place, that only emphasises the cheap look of the costumes and environments here.

On the flip side, the choice to continue with the whole 10-year progression thing lets us drop in on James McAvoy as an actual teaching professor version of Charles Xavier, which is great fun to see. McAvoy is as comfortable as ever in the role, proving to be one of the best things about an X-Men movie yet again. Xavier and Jennifer Lawrence‘s Mystique together provide the bulk of the direct references to DoFP and especially First Class, but to say Lawrence looks disinterested this time around would be an understatement, so McAvoy largely holds the chronology together on his lonesome. He also gets some of the best lines of an undercooked script that, in direct contrast to the snappy DoFP, seems terrified of alienating new viewers, finding the need to repeat expositional dialogue in very awkward fashion on a semi-regular basis. So it’s good that he continues to provide such exceptional value.

Storm aside, the baby-faced versions of the original X-Men trilogy’s stalwarts fare better than the other talking points of X-Men Apocalypse. Perhaps nothing will ever top the iconic introduction to Nightcrawler that audiences witnessed in X2: X-Men United, but Kodi Smit-McPhee does a pretty decent job in the role this time around, and he gets to use his powers more than almost any other character in the movie to boot. Tye Sheridan re-introduces us to Cyclops well enough, playing the most vulnerable screen version of the character yet, but Sophie Turner‘s Jean Grey is given the most attention of the bunch, and for good reason. Singer has clearly always had a fixation with Grey and after Brett Ratner‘s much-maligned take on her in The Last Stand, the original X-Men director makes no secret of his desire to fix the character’s trajectory. As a result, and due in no small part to Turner‘s committed performance, the telekinetic powerhouse gets one of the coolest scenes in the movie on top of some tidy characterisation. It’s an odd bit of closure that might come 10 years too late for some, but I definitely enjoyed it.

Speaking of closure, fans of First Class in particular will likely enjoy the many nods to relationships established in the Matthew Vaughn movie that largely went unaddressed in Days of Future Past. Beast and Havok (Nicholas Hoult and Lucas Till respectively) feature heavily in these, but the resurgent Moira McTaggart gets the best of all the callbacks (Rose Byrne slays in the role once again, by the way). All of which leaves Quicksilver (Evan Peters), the breakout star of DoFP, as the only character left worth mentioning. Despite shamelessly recycling the best elements of his surprising 2014 cameo with a much larger 2016 part, he still gets the best scene of the whole movie. Sweet dreams are indeed made of this.

Ultimately there’s no getting around the fact that X-Men Apocalypse is a disappointment. It lacks the freshness of First Class, the relentless pace of Days of Future Past, the restraint of The Wolverine and the novelty of the first two X-Men movies. It’s better than The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is hardly high praise, but does mean its worth a watch if you’re an X-Men fan. If you can get over the sub-par visual presentation and long stretches of wasted villainous screen time (Oh that’s right, I haven’t even mentioned a 15 minute detour the movie takes in the middle somewhere that is on an Iron Man 2 level in terms of pointless plot derailment), you may find a rather fun movie that provides just enough “oooh” moments to carry you through to the end credits. It’s almost a bad movie, but it isn’t.

Although I must finish on a negative note. Would it kill you, Twentieth Century Fox, to give Jubilee one scene where she actually gets to use her powers? Just one? Supposedly the next X-Men film is set in the 1990s, so she’d better be back in her full Animated Series glory, or I swear…

 2.

THE VERDICT

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Good:
Some great individual scenes, provides isolated pieces of closure, McAvoy always good to watch
Bad:
Strangely poor visuals, retreads too much familiar ground, messy pacing
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3 VsS O L I D

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