X-Men: Apocalypse has been taking quite a bit of flak from critics, and has under-performed financially. Is the film a disaster? Absolutely not. Is the film flawed? Absolutely. Should you still go and see it? Apocalypse has moments of greatness, things we’ve never seen in an X-Men movie before, and mainly sets the stage for more dramatic moments to come. What it lacks is the connective tissue, the small but poignant character scenes, and the relentless momentum of the best films in the franchise. It’s probably the weakest team film aside from X3, but it’s worlds above X3. Minor spoilers follow below, so proceed with caution.
So why has the film taken such heat? It has itself to blame for some of the criticism, and we’ll get into that, but I think following so closely on the heels of probably the best team super hero movie of all-time, Captain America: Civil War, made Apocalypse look trivial by comparison. The film is used to introduce a new line-up of X-Men, cementing a team that will hopefully be together a few films. Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy have both expressed interest in returning for the next film which is, you guessed it, planned to hop another decade into the 1990’s.
Let’s start with the new cast members. Younger versions of characters we saw in the first trilogy are introduced: Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Angel, Cyclops, and storm. Brand-new characters were introduced in Caliban, Psylocke, and the titular villain Apocalypse. Add to that returning cast members Beast, Magneto, Mystique, Professor Xavier, Quicksilver, Havoc, Moira McTaggert, William Stryker, and a certain clawed mutant, and you’ve got yourself a lot of pieces of the board. Civil War had as many pieces, was comparably as long, and managed to give each character a meaningful story that advanced their character. In this, Apocalypse fails. Much hyped in the advertising, Olivia Munn’s Psylocke has nothing to do in the film other than look cool, is given no back story and barely any dialogue. I found Angel off-putting and never liked his design. The Archangel design from the comics would have been perfect and they wasted another chance to use it. Of the core new cast, Nightcrawler (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) was very good, Cyclops kind of made no impression, Storm was stuck as a Horseman, but Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) was by far the standout. I’ve only ever seen Turner on Game of Thrones and I hate the character she plays. She was much more likable and nuanced in this, and I hope the Dark Phoenix Saga, which is obviously where we’re headed is handled a lot better than it was crammed into X3 (a film Singer takes a direct pot shot at in a quick aside).
Wolverine’s cameo is fantastic. It’s an important moment for the character that we’ve not seen, but it makes no sense. Mystique was impersonating William Stryker and had Wolverine at the end of DOFP. What she did with him, how Stryker got back into position, none of that was addressed. It was a huge plot hole in a movie that has quite a few of them. Most of them rest on continuity. At this point, the X-Men franchise is like a snake that’s eaten its own tail. The only way things make sense is if you consider DOFP a complete reset that wipes all previous films (save First Class) from the timeline. If you do that, then you can kind of wrap your head around it, but there’s no other way it makes sense.
Before I get into my criticisms of the film, I need to take a paragraph to sing Evan Peters’ praises. I’m kind of glad the MCU Quicksilver was killed off, because Evan Peters OWNS this role. Taking a larger part than his cameo in DOFP, he does have another incredible speed scene that may even trump his DOFP romp. But he sticks around. He knows Magneto is his father at this point, he feels like he may belong with these people. He’s a fascinating character to watch develop.
The Xavier/Magneto dynamic is the heart of the franchise, and there weren’t nearly enough moments between Fassbender and McAvoy, who have an incredible dynamic. I liked Magneto’s story up to the point where Apocalypse makes him the last of his Four Horsemen (Psylocke, Angel, and Storm being the others). Even at his lowest moment, Erik Lenssher is no man’s lackey. That being said, the return to Auschwitz was powerful, and I can see how that would so blind Erik with rage (plus what happens to him earlier in the film) that he would lose his way.
James McAvoy keeps getting better and better as Xavier. The character is now approaching 40, and the explanation for why he loses his hair is a lot more clever than having poor James wear a series of balding wigs for a few movies. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is a hero for her choice at the end of DOFP and has inspired an entire generation of new mutants. It’s an interesting turn for the character in this new timeline: a teacher and a war leader for the X-Men more than Magneto’s pet.
Okay, so I’ve showered the praise I have. What’s wrong with the film. There’s too much emphasis on F/X over character building. The film feels choppy (and I sense we’ll get another Singer director cut along the lines of DOFP’s Rogue Cut), and John Ottman is too good an editor to be held responsible for that. The problems lie in the script trying to do too much and still stick spectacle and explosions every few minutes. There are some plot holes you can’t believe got past editing (Magneto is summoning all the metal on Earth and the team flies a METAL plane right up to him?), and others that just don’t make sense. It was great to see Wolverine, but in this new timeline, it’ll be the only time see ever see him unless he’s recast down the line (more on this later). Apocalypse is a villain of immense power, and Oscar Isaac plays him fine, but he’s portrayed as a one-note “I’m gonna end the world villain”. He’s more complex than that, but we never got into it due to the glut of characters.
My overall summary is that this is a bridge film to a new generation of X-Men that will hopefully be fleshed out and tightened with less of a cast of thousands to service. I’m not sure where Magneto’s road will lead after this film. It seems like Fassbender might sit out awhile. Regardless, this is still a lot of fun for mutant fans, and not at all the disaster it’s being portrayed as. X9 sets the stage for films to come, and next year we’ll bid a fond farewell to Hugh Jackman in Wolverine 3. No release date has been set for the next X-film as there are contracts to hammer down. Go catch it in the theaters, because it’s by far the best option out there right now.
PS – The end credits scene, if you did not see it, I’m going to explain, so bail now if you don’t want to know. It shows a group of men bagging and tagging the carnage Wolverine left in his wake, then a group of gentlemen, take vials of Wolverine’s blood and lock them in a briefcase labeled The Essex Corporation. The rumor is that, rather than try to find an immediate replacement for Jackman as Wolverine, they will follow suit with the comics and use X-23 (Wolverine’s clone…daughter…its complex) as the next Wolverine. I think that’s smart. It gives FOX time to put distance between Jackman and his inevitable replacement and time to find the right person to take on that mantle. The Essex Corp. implies that Nathaniel Essex, or Mr. Sinister, will be the next villain. Sinister is known for his experiments in cloning and gene manipulation, which would fit the direction FOX seems to be headed with Wolverine post-Jackman.