I get that I’m generally in the minority in thinking that the X-Men films have been an outdated series of thoroughly mediocre superhero films ever since the original back in 2000. Yes, I understand that the first and second film played a part in helping jump-start the big superhero boom of the mid-2000s. And yeah, I’ll agree that the films have made some solid contributions to the overall collective consciousness of the X-Men in our pop culture (Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine, the look of Mystique, and the dynamic between Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, etc.). Yet, considering how far this genre has come in the past several years, it is just baffling to me that we still cling to what I feel is just a relic from an age where superhero films were still considered undignified and all the colorful, idiosyncratic and strange elements had to be restrained to a ridiculous degree for mass appeal.
This has more or less been a huge part as to why these X-Men films haven’t resonated with me whatsoever and why they simply never hold up, with the exceptions of First Class and The Wolverine. And unlike some superheroes, where I’m fine with however the filmmakers want to handle them as long as they execute it well, the X-Men have always worked for me in a very specific way. At their best, the X-Men I loved in the comics were always a big, weird, happy family. They socialize, they have friendships, they bicker, some get together, some fall apart, and every now and then, they go on a crazy adventure to save the world or simply save each other. The films have never captured this (again, First Class being the exception and I still have some problems with it as a whole). But I guess these movies have some appeal that I just will never understand.
This leads us to X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer’s follow-up to the successful Days of Future Past. Taking place in the year 1983, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is awoken from his sleep. He is a vaguely powerful mutant, considered to be the very first. He believes that the world has lost its way and decides to cleanse the Earth and start anew. So, he goes to find his four horsemen, four mutant that he makes more powerful in order to protect him and help him in his plan. One of these happens to be Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who finds himself at a dark place before going along with Apocalypse. This catches the attention of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who (once again) tries to help his old friend. Things don’t go well, Apocalypse’s plan begins to unfold and it’s up to the X-Men to stop him.
While, it may not seem like much at first, there is a lot of plot in X-Men: Apocalypse (this movie is two-and-a-half hours for a reason…..actually, that’s not true). There are multiple characters that we follow for the runtime. I didn’t even mention this whole thread involving Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and her conflict with her newfound fame after the events of the last film. There’s a whole thing with Scott Summer/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and his kinda-sorta-maybe-but-not-really crush with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) when he first comes to Xavier’s school.
But despite all this plot, all these characters, all these threads, there really isn’t much of a story or thematic connective tissue holding it together. Big dramatic beats happen, but there’s no heft or context for them. Characters do things simply because that’s what they have to do, not because it feels natural or because it means anything. Even the gay subtext that has been the underlying theme for most of these movies (especially from the Bryan Singer ones), is basically gone without much resolved. I know that if it was still in here, I’d likely complain that it’s yet another X-Men film about the mutant/human conflict that goes absolutely nowhere, but at least there would be something going on. X-Men: Apocalypse (will now refer to as XM:A) makes only the vaguest connections to ideas like worshiping false Gods and how not dealing with your past in a healthy way could lead you to near self-destruction, but it’s simply lip service at whenever the film considers it convenient to deliver. If the film was at least all in good fun, there’s room for enjoyment in the goofiness of the whole thing, but given how angst you and pouty a majority of the film is, it results in the film being, for the most part, relentlessly boring.
One of the stranger elements of the film is how it bizarrely picks-and-chooses what it wants to follow up on from the last film and what it wants to ignore. Considering that Days of Future Past was essentially meant to set up a new status quo, but there are so many inconsistencies throughout XM:A. For example, there is a random sequence in the middle of the film which was supposed to be a surprise if the trailer hadn’t given it away. The Jean, Cyclops and few others are trying save some other X-Men who were taken by Col. Stryker (Josh Helman) to his base. Jean ends up releasing Wolverine as a distraction. The last film literally ends with Wolverine being taken by Stryker, but is quickly revealed to be Mystique in disguise. How does such a big plot point get lost in the shuffle? And Mystique spends so much of the film in disguise. Whatever happened to the “mutant and proud” character that they have been building up so much? Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the way they have handled long-form storytelling has, mostly, worked out very well. Everything about these last couple X-Men films feel like the filmmakers are bending over backwards to rework their existing franchise into a more serialized format. It simply doesn’t work narratively or thematically. Another odd thing is that there is also no reason whatsoever for this film to take place in the 80s. No one seems to have aged since the last film, nothing from a socio-political standpoint plays a role in the film and the references to 80s pop culture is feel remarkably forgettable and last-minute.
But hey, maybe the story sucks, at least it’s a big Hollywood production, so you can at least expect a decent spectacle, right? Nope. XM:A, from a technical standpoint, stands side-by-side with the likes of Gods of Egypt. It boasts some of the worst visual effects that I have seen for a major blockbuster in a very long time. Even the Gods of Egypt comparison is unfair. Gods of Egypt wasn’t even from one of the major film studios, XM:A is from 20th Century Fox, it’s a comic book property with a solid fan base for the previous franchise installments, and this was the level of quality that they thought was OK for release? There was a cheapness to all the X-Men movies, but for the most part, they weren’t distracting. Here the VFX are embarrassing and when they take hold, they overwhelm the screen. It’s hard not to be in awe of just how poorly they handled such an important aspect for a film that is as big as it is.
And of course, like with most of Bryan Singer’s films, I’m simply not impressed with his filmmaking. The shot composition is so detached, so unemotional, so cold and uninvolving that it feels like the work of an amateur despite him working with his regular DP, Newton Thomas Sigel (who has done excellent work elsewhere). It’s likely made worse here, considering the sheer amount of bad green screen work. The action sequences are still a bore, full of poor staging and devoid of tension. The moments of humor fall absolutely flat and, more often than not, clashes with the tone of the scene around it. This film features the worst Stan Lee cameo, something that should be pretty easy for any filmmaker by this point. At a moment that is meant to evoke fear, suspense and high stakes, we see nuclear weapons around the world flying into the sky. People look at them, worried at what is about to happen, and then all of a sudden, Stan Lee shows up completely taking you out of the moment. It makes the audience laugh at a moment they should be at the edge of their seat. This isn’t just a “whoopsy-daisy, let’s just move on” kind of moment, this is straight up bad filmmaking.
When it comes to the characters, Bryan Singer is working with some top notch actors. However, there isn’t a whole lot to talk about since only a few have anything to actually do in the film. Oscar Isaac tries the best he can to act through the horrific makeup, and while some moments do come across as funny seeing one of the best actors of this generation essentially acting like someone out of a bad Saturday morning cartoon, the character is far too dull to get any lasting enjoyment out of. Michael Fassbender is the closest this film comes to a good performance, but even that doesn’t prevent from him having a moment that is so bad it feels like the kind of unintentionally hilarious attempt at drama you’d find in a high school play. This moment is in the “forest scene,” which I’ve noticed being hyped as one of the best moments in the film before the film was released. No, it’s terrible. In fact, it’s not just terrible, but incredibly regressive. In the beginning, we are introduced to Magneto’s wife and young daughter in Poland. What are their names? Who care? They are only there so the filmmakers can fridge them as a way to motivate Magneto for his later actions. Funny how the filmmakers thought Magneto being a holocaust survivor wasn’t enough for the audience to empathize with him, so they made up two women for his life for the sole purpose of being immediately killed. But I guess that’s about as much as I’d expect from a film where the most biggest consequence is Xavier going bald.
Basically everyone else is on auto-pilot. Jennifer Lawrence is as bored as ever. James McAvoy looks lost, not knowing what tone a certain scene should be, so he makes it up as he goes. Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner offer some promise at first, but become nothing more than walking props with little to no personality. That criticism can be applied to everyone else. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, Ben Hardy as Angel, Alexandra Shipp as Storm, all wasted with nothing remotely interesting or compelling to do. Evan Peters is forced to repeat the same shtick he did as Quicksilver in the last film; I wasn’t crazy about his scene in that film, and the one here basically the same nonsense, but longer. Olivia Munn spoke about the fact that she turned down the role of Vanessa in Deadpool so she can be the badass in an X-Men movie. It’s funny that between choosing Psylocke or the sex-freak-turned-damsel-in-distress, she ended up going with the least dignifying role.
I almost feel like I owe Batman v Superman a huge apology (almost, let’s not get carried away here). It’s one thing to be ambitious, but fall flat, but with X-Men: Apocalypse, not only does theming and depth go out the window in service for empty spectacle, it ends up in service for empty and poorly-made spectacle. It’s not just the worst in the X-Men series, but it’s a top contender for one of the worst films of 2016. At least X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were well under two hours. X-Men: Apocalypse was an absolute torture for me to sit through, not just because it was boring or because it looks like cheap garbage or because the post-credits stinger only promises more of the same tedious nonsense or that I am forced to witness Bryan Singer take a crack at some characters I love for a second time (Cyclops, Jean, Storm, Nightcrawler) and completely ruin them all over again, it is the experience of seeing an amalgamation of poor decisions piling on top of other poor decisions resulting in a film that feels like everyone is absolutely embarrassed and ashamed of, and rightfully so. In a time when we have now seen a total of three Spider-Man reboots, I feel like the X-Men have done more than enough to get the next spot in line.
Oh, and the film has a joke where several of the young X-Men including Jean, Cyclops and Jubilee walk out of Return of the Jedi and remark about how “the third film is always the worst one.” Go fuck yourself. 15 / 100