Cast: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult, Olivia Munn, Evan Peters, Lucas Till, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Rose Byrne
Director: Bryan Singer
Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Market saturation. Franchise-building. End-of-the-world destruction. Punchy, wham-bang crash boom CGI vomit. Multi-hero team ups. Stand-alone spinoffs. Respected thespians caked in makeup wearing silly outfits. Capes. Mind powers. God-like entities bent on, well, what else...the complete annihilation of the human race as we know it, maybe? The real question hovering over Bryan Singer’s latest stab at the X-Men universe isn’t whether the titular villain (played by Oscar Isaac as some kind of demigod Blue Man Group reject) will bring about the end of all things, but rather, is there anything novel left in a franchise which began quite humbly way back in 2000?
Well, for starters, as Mr. Dylan famously said, “times, they are a changin”, and this sentiment holds true when it comes to the comic book movie gauntlet. The original X-Men laid the groundwork for the next decade plus of cinematic superhero products, peaking in many people’s with the Singer directed X2 in 2003, and the repercussions have been keenly felt ever since. Now we have all those colorful Avengers, Wolverine spin-offs, and vulgar quips from Deadpool to contend with. The early 2000s were a far more innocent time. A time where one could be wowed by simply having beloved comic book characters brought to life on the big screen. A time where years would pass before another superhero effort would come down the pipeline. Now, in 2016, if we go more than two months without one of these things, the fanboys go into panic-mode.
Truthfully, Singer and writer Simon Kimber feel like they are responding to the current pop-cultural climate of superhero mayhem rather than forging their own path based on the spirit of previous X-Men pictures. That’s not to say they’ve necessarily forgot their characters, but rather, in keeping with the current Marvel franchise-building model, there are simply too many characters with too many subplots to intertwine in order to set up future installments. Whereas last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past took place, at least partially, in the early 70s, Apocalypse jumps a decade to give us younger versions of certain characters growing up in the 80s. These include Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) as high School kids meeting for the first time while struggling with their newly developing super powers. We also have returning characters, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Xavier (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), among others. New faces pop up too in the former of Olivia Munn’s Psylocke (whom we can only guess will have more to do in future films other than wearing skimpy outfits and slicing cars in half) and of course, the titular Apocalypse (played by Oscar Isaac under mounds of blueberry sauce). The plot here is convoluted and silly; having to do with the universe’s most powerful mutant being resurrected out of his Egyptian tomb in order to see how horrible human beings have become. Hoping to completely annihilate the entire human race gives the film the highest of all possible stakes, which of course, means we get the inevitable punch/crash/pow climax featuring dozens of superheroes squaring off and duking it out via a variety of nifty super powers.
On the other hand, part of the charm of the X-Men movies has always been about charting the central metaphor regarding the disenfranchised and marginalized. These are stories about people who don’t fit in or are ostracized for being different, and this has given the series a considerable cultural relevance. This thread is apparent throughout Apocalypse, but isn’t highlighted as much since this time, there’s world-ending stakes to contend with. In terms of the villain, Isaac is supremely dopey under that lumbering costume, but the camp factor actually elevates Apocalypse into one of the more entertaining arch rivals in quite some time. It doesn’t matter if he’s imposing or if his diabolical plan makes sense; what matters is that he learns about the perils of humanity through watching TV and absorbing pop culture, even taking time out of his busy villain schedule to give his minions (deemed the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse”) super sleek makeovers.
X-Men: Apocalypse does share many of the weaknesses of the latest crop of superhero fodder such as Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War—over-plotted, crammed with too many characters, dovetailing into chaotic final action sequences—but it does have an impressive cast and Singer’s understanding of filmic grammar. Fassbender and McAvoy bring gravitas and emotional depth to their roles, with the former getting a rather jaw-dropping sequence involving Auschwitz that doesn’t exactly pay off in terms of the overall structure of the film, but nonetheless works as a singular character moment for Magneto. Unlike studio hacks the Russo brothers (they of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War fame), Singer has a way with pacing, camerawork, and rhythm that gives his film a sense of forward momentum. If things ultimately cater to formula with a final fight involving buildings toppling over and Apocalypse ominously intoning book of Revelations-style destruction while Magneto lounges mid-air as metal and debris swirls around his body, well then, blame it on the current state of multiplex blockbusters. At the very least, we do get a surreal mind battle between Xavier and an ultra-huge Apocalypse in which the latter attempts to squash the professor’s head down to the size of a soda can. The movie deserves points for going there. For being ambitious. For being unafraid to look silly. Unlike Civil War, which dutifully checked off all the geek boxes while giving us an epic throw down at an airport tarmac, Apocalypse suggests that the most important battles are the ones within our own minds. In order to fully take control of humanity, the villain must overcome Xavier’s mental capacity to communicate, and that sounds much scarier than our heroes battling an intergalactic space turd in order to save the planet.