I don’t know a lot (especially not useful things) but I do know my X-Men. Typically X-Men stories are about the conflict, or even the war, between humanity and superhuman outcasts known as “mutants”. Days of Future Past told a story of how the future would look if this war ended with humanity’s side securing victory, give or take an armada of killer Sentinels going haywire, and enslaving/destroying mutant kind. Similarly, the story of Apocalypse usually depicts what would become or our world if the opposite were to happen – if the mutants won and man was exterminated (you’d wish we could all just get along).
This version concerns another time-traveller, like Bishop in Days of Future Past (changed to Wolverine in the film) named Cable, who we soon learn is the child of Cyclops and Jean Grey, coming from the future where Apocalypse rules to warn everyone of what’s to come in the non-Sentinel future. The movie X-Men: Apocalypse follows a comic book story I’m not as familiar with since childhood, but it is nevertheless the one out of this year’s superhero movies I wanted to see the most badly.
Apocalypse, or En Sabah Nur (played in this film by Oscar Isaac) is the first mutant, meaning the mutant-gene that has given characters in the X-Men universe their extraordinary abilities over the eons originates in him, which itself means that he has the power to do just about everything. He lived in ancient Egypt and was entombed by treacherous followers, only to return in the year 1983 encased in cybernetic armor and more powerful than ever. Humanity is his target and the “Four Horsemen” are his minions. These are the brainwashed mutants Storm (lovely Alexandra Shipp), Angel/Archangel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), a vengeful man after his defeat in Days.
Aiming to stop Apocalypse and reform his twisted disciples is of course the masterful telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), alongside his school of X-Men, including pupils who are new at the time of this film’s setting but are familiar to those of us who’ve seen the old ones. There’s the occasionally Beast-like Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), anxious telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops with his optic beams (Tye Sheridan), energy-shooter Havoc (Lucas Till), total newbie Jewbilee (Lana Condor), the teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whom many a fan have missed since X-Men 2, and the impossibly fast Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a show-stealer once more. Among them is also the transmuting Raven “Mystique” Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), who is forced to set her conflicts with Xavier aside as the Apocalypse draws near.
And yes my good geek friends, it gets to a point where James McAvoy finally goes bald and begins to resemble the more classic version of his character. Also charming is his “new” wheelchair, which is the same prop that Patrick Stewart sat on during the very first Bryan Singer films. Singer, of course, directed this one as well.
Other returning characters are Rose Byrne‘s Dr. Moira MacTaggert, last seen in First Class, and Josh Helman’s younger version of William Stryker, the military man who granted Wolverine his adamantium skeleton. Although this film is set in an alternate timeline in which X-Men: Origins – Wolverine thankfully never happened, you can probably guess which iconic mutant gets a brief cameo in Apocalypse.
In the modern age of superheroes, where the movies either try to be tongue-in-cheek and fun (sometimes too much so) or too serious and glum for their own good, it’s always seemed to me like the X-Men films had found the perfect middle ground. They have heavy themes and effectively dark moments, but they can also be extremely fun and humorous when need be. The Deadpool movie was only the latter, admittedly, although the “main” X-Men films have always had it down best. I don’t doubt that this partially explains why this movie franchise has lasted for exactly 16 years – twice as long as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Like usual, the film does well when it comes to the characters and their relations, the friendly ones as well as the tragic ones. Its problems come in the form of themes and messages that feel like they’ve been done enough times, as well as logical errors; none of the characters look or act as if ten entire years have passed since the last time we saw them (despite certain shots that attempt to make Fassbender’s Magneto look more similar to Ian McKellen) and characters who appear in films that take place later seem too old here, most blatantly Angel.
Its first half is by far its worst, where a lot of time is dedicated to balancing subplots and re-introducing the new timeline’s version of these characters plus developing the ones we’ve already seen (the titular villain gets notably little screen-time in these parts), and its often cool but frequently over-the-top climax overstays its welcome. Take a sip of martini every time it features a blatant “trailer shot”, by the way.
But then there’s the outstanding middle section, wherein Apocalypse truly sets his chaos in motion in a brooding scene that involves Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and Xavier’s Cerebro device, which then transitions into an outright fantastic sequence involving Quicksilver, proving me wrong in my belief that his big scene in Days of Future Past could never be matched. By this point, I was certain that the film would manage to move from a 3 to a 4 but as I’ve explained, more problems arise in its later parts.
En Sabah Nur himself was a hit-and-miss. Sometimes he proved singularly menacing, sometimes he looked only slightly less silly than in that one promotional still that fans compared to Ivan Ooze from Power Rangers. I appreciate the fact that they used a costume rather than CGI but in this instance, it might have helped. He could have used more alien eyes, a wider chin, and a more intimidating stature. Also, I couldn’t help but feel that Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse voice didn’t really live up to the booming roar his cartoon counterpart delivered back in the ’90s, although at least his lines are marginally less cheesy.
X-Men: Apocalypse is ultimately a decent film with visible flaws. Green-screens are glaringly obvious, slow-motion is used in weird places, special effects are interesting as ideas but executed with hokey CGI (my bet is that most of the money was spent on the Quicksilver scene), and the story is too concerned with recapturing things we remember from the original trilogy (Jean’s fear of her own powers; Nightcrawler’s backstory) or doing better versions of scenes from X-Men: Origins. But its performances are superb (Fassbender, Turner and Smit-McPhee I liked especially), its characters evoke happy memories, its lighting is effective, its action set pieces are creative (particularly in their incorporation of everyone’s powers), its camera work is well-done, and its music is a good complement, even if this one reoccurring melody sounds suspiciously similar to Ennio Morricone‘s “Ecstasy of Gold”. Got my eyes on you, Ottman.
So there, now we’ve got the big three ultimate comic book villains covered. Thanos has been in the Marvel movies, Apocalypse has been in the X-Men films, and this spring’s Batman v Superman had time to foreshadow Darkseid – who looks very similar to Apocalypse, comes from a planet called Apokolips, and is basically an omnipotently powerful alien in the same vein as Thanos. And we’re still yet to see an Asbestos Lady movie.