“You are all my children, and you’re lost, because you follow blind leaders.” ~ Apocalypse
“Whatever it is you think you saw in me, I buried it with my family.” ~ Magneto
“Just because there’s not a war it doesn’t mean there’s peace.” ~ Mystique
“I saw the end of the world. I could feel all this death.” ~ Jean Grey
“He means to destroy this world. Billions of people killed.” ~ Charles Xavier
Director Bryan Singer has returned to theatres once again with the X-Men franchise in the latest film, X-Men Apocalypse. It’s his fourth time directing the mutant tales in the franchise, which started all the way back with X-Men in 2000, and his latest since directing X-Men Days Of Future Past, which went and pretty much altered the previous continuity of much of the franchise. This latest movie, which is set in the past as was the case with X-Men First Class and Days Of Future Past, brings a new antagonist squarely into the picture, with the fate of the world clearly at stake.
The film has a prelude in the distant past, in Egypt, where a mutant called En Sabah Nur is undergoing a ritual for immortality. Things don’t go quite according to plan, and in the 1980s he is awakened when a cult worshipping him is exposed. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), as he’s otherwise known, begins to gather allies and make plans, deeming humanity as something that needs a serious overhaul.
The young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has moved on since the events of Days Of Future Past. He continues to encounter young mutants, younger versions of his students we first met in X-Men and X2: X Men United, and he still has Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) close at hand. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is an occasional presence in his life. Magneto ( Michael Fassbender) has retreated to live a quiet life with a new wife and child. And of course it’s merely a matter of time before everyone involved find themselves on a collision course with that big blue cranky Egyptian mutant.
This is the ninth X-Men film in the franchise, when you include the two Wolverine films and the recent Deadpool feature. Trying to keep track of the continuity of it all is problematic, though the events of Days Of Future Past did significantly alter everything after it, what with all that time-jumping. Angel (Ben Hardy) is brought on board, for instance, the second actor to play the part. Warren Worthington appeared in the forgettable X-Men The Last Stand as a young mutant, but here he’s young again- twenty five or so years before where the character would have been in that film. The discrepancy isn’t dealt with. There’s also the issue of this being twenty years since X-Men First Class, and aging of characters who appeared in that film is inconsistent. While McAvoy, who first appeared in that film as the young Charles Xavier, ends up with a bald head this time out, he still looks younger than the character should be in this era. Jennifer Lawrence can get away with looking the way she does, given that Mystique the character doesn’t really age that much at all. Fassbender doesn’t look that much older, nor does Hoult. It might be nitpicking, but the problem’s there regardless.
The screenplay is by Simon Kinberg, who collaborated on the story with Singer, as well as with Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. The story’s described as the true birth of the X-Men; a fair enough description, perhaps, given that when we met them in the very first movie, the team were already established in their roles, and part of the story is about bringing that team together for the first time. The 1960s and 1970s groups that have appeared in First Class and Days Of Future Past had more of an ad hoc sensibility to them anyway. And yet the story crowds so many characters in that it starts to become convoluted. While some of those characters have their already established characterization set, and others work reasonably well to expectations, the writing for others feels off- particularly the villain, who seems underwritten and appears to be being the Big Bad of the tale... well, just because.
Bryan Singer has mostly had successful films as a director and writer, but some misfires- I still wonder what sort of film he might have made of Superman Returns had he approached it with a fresh start instead of an homage to Christopher Reeve. This time out, the X-Men have something of a misfire going on. It’s convoluted and frustrating at times (though not nearly as frustrating as the Fantastic Four reboot); the cast is too crowded (which, ironically, was not a problem with Captain America: Civil War), and it shows itself here. I found myself wondering if the story was supposed to play catch up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which of course is separate from the X-Men movies, and which has gotten its storytelling done right. Singer’s already established that he can handle the X-Men, particularly in terms of setting, action and effects, but the story falters for him this time.
Most of what unfolds has previous references- the look of the X-Men specific characters have, until now, been seen in one way or another, and so their look is to be expected. Two major characters are new to the franchise (aside from a credits teaser appearance in Days Of Future Past). Psylocke (Olivia Munn) has a look that fits in with the comics version- though her character is different. The character design for Apocalypse- as well as the special effects for his abilities- certainly works as a counterpart to the comics version.
The cast is big, and some of them get underwritten, a nod to the fact that they’re written into the story more simply because the writers wanted them there as opposed to sense in them being there. Rose Byrne returns as the sympathetic Moira MacTaggert, having had appeared in First Class, and the character doesn’t look like twenty years have passed since the events of that film. Still, there’s a connection carefully re-established with Xavier, and Byrne has good chemistry with McAvoy. Josh Helman returns as the military officer William Stryker, having had played the part in Days Of Future Past. The character has appeared in other time lines played by Brian Cox and Danny Huston, and continues to be a perennial devious bastard, which Helman plays to here as well, even while getting more to do than before. And there’s a cameo tied to Stryker’s presence in the film; Hugh Jackman turns up briefly as the mutant with a complicated history where the officer is concerned, giving us a Wolverine appearance in a pretty good and timely way.
There are familiar mutants introduced (or reintroduced) in the film, though in a couple of cases they’re rather different in terms of character motivations than their counterparts from the comics. Olivia Munn gets a lot to do as Psylocke, though her loyalties are shifted this time around. The same applies to Warren Worthington (the aforementioned Ben Hardy), who in the comics was one of the first X-Men and yet here ends up in a position his character later occupied.
Oscar Isaac occupies the primary role of the antagonist as Apocalypse, an ultra powerful Big Bad, a mutant supremacist who has a rather high and mighty opinion of himself, and a pretty low regard for others. It’s that whole god complex thing going on. While Isaac is an outstanding actor in and of himself, he’s hampered somewhat by being underwritten as a character. Yes, Apocalypse is a Big Bad, but it never comes across as he’s being that way aside from... that’s what the story calls for. That’s not on the actor though, that’s on the script.
The film also presents younger versions of the characters we first met back in the first two films, such as Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Nightcrawler, effectively turning the movie into their origin story. Tye Sheridan seems to fit in well enough as the young Scott Summers, while I liked the way Sophie Turner played the young Jean, anxious about her growing powers. Storm is played here by Alexandra Shipp, certainly looking like the character appears, and her journey as a character goes from one set of loyalties to another. Nightcrawler, who we’ve seen before played by Alan Cumming, is here played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, and the actor gives the character a hint of dashing charm and some levity; he’s one of two actors in the mix who provide humour to the proceedings.
The other in that equation being Evan Peters, who returns to the fold after Days Of Future Past as Peter, otherwise known as Quicksilver, the one character in common for the X-films and the Marvel cinematic universe, though Peters manages to see himself live through two films rather than one, and he plays the role as more snarky than Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s turn as Pietro in Avengers Age Of Ultron. Peters gives the role that sarcastic streak that helps things move along. Another returning face is Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy, aka Beast, who’s been in the mix since First Class, and continues to play the role as brilliant but a bit socially awkward.
Jennifer Lawrence returns as the younger version of Mystique, perhaps for the last time. She’s played the role since First Class, and she’s more sympathetic and compassionate than Rebecca Romijn’s take on the role, though both actresses share the same ferocious and devious energy in their performances. The character occupies a sort of middle ground between Xavier and Magneto in this film, becoming a de facto leader of sorts along the way, and Lawrence is one of the positives in the film.
Michael Fassbender reprises his role as Magneto this time out, still a character given to anger (and given what he’s lost before and what he loses in this film, it’s more than understandable). I do like how the actor plays to that different world view from his old friend Xavier, while the friendship itself still lies there under their philosophical differences. The actor conveys the intensity and rage of the character well.
James McAvoy continues the role of the younger Xavier, starting to be more like the Charles we first met in X-Men. Charles is by nature a pacifist, believing in the dream that mutants and humanity can live together in peace, and he finds himself facing the ultimate nightmare, something the actor brings across as he goes along. McAvoy is also carrying himself as much more of a teacher than before, dedicating himself to the cause of educating young mutants. He’s more cultured and refined than the younger version of himself we met in First Class, so it’s more plausible now to have him closing in on the Xavier we knew in the first film (even if the actor’s a good deal younger than his role calls for.
X-Men Apocalypse has its flaws. The story has both highs and lows, and while it’s convoluted at times, it doesn’t bother me in the way that Fantastic Four would have. It’s rather crowded with characters at times, and unlike Captain America Civil War, which had no shortage of characters, this film doesn’t make the right use of all of them and really give them a chance to shine- instead it just feels crowded with them. As such, some of those characters benefit while others are underwritten. The movie’s entertaining enough, with a lot of high stakes being played out, though it doesn’t come near how well Civil War worked so well as a comics adaptation.