There are two minor spoilers below. Truthfully, I wouldn’t even classify them as spoilers, but some people out there are quite sensitive and forewarned is forearmed.
At their best, the X-Men movies marry spectacle with deep philosophical discussions about how we treat those who are different from us. Many of the films feature Charles Xavier (either Patrick Stewart’s version or James McAvoy’s) pushing for a world in which humans and mutants can live side-by-side. His frenemy, Magneto (Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender), tends to take the position that humans and mutants cannot co-exist, that mutant-kind must win out (often by any means necessary).
While we in the real world don’t face such questions about mutants and humans, we regularly do face questions about whom this world is for and how to treat those we come across. The questions asked by the films then are highly applicable to our lives and the way we see things. This has helped elevate the best films in the franchise above other empty actioners.
More than in any previous X-Men film (excluding standalones), that discussion—that crucial discussion—is missing from “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Fassbender’s Magneto is a shell of himself for most of the movie, at first hiding and then just acting on impulse, without thinking. He has no great conversations with Xavier. He doesn’t even have a plan about what he’s doing. He is, instead, turned into a minion of the powerful mutant, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who would like to be a god on Earth and kill nearly everyone be they mutant or human.
The big questions with “Apocalypse” don’t exist as conversations between characters but as larger queries about the film. Apocalypse’s plan to rule the world would seemingly have him rule over a desolate, barren, landscape; a place wholly devoid of everything except for where cities one stood and the bodies have come to rest. He would be the god of a dead planet.
Bryan Singer is back again as director following his return to the chair in the last franchise entry, “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” That film, the second in the “First Class” trilogy and fifth overall, brought the franchise to new heights. It combined the original cast with the new cast, rewrote the history of the franchise entirely, and overall was an enjoyable tale.
(minor spoiler one in this paragraph) “Apocalypse,” more than anything else, feels like an afterthought, or a coda. It is an “X-Men” movie so lacking new ideas to offer that it actually blows-up Xavier’s school… again. This occurring once more within the franchise would simply be silly if “Deadpool” hadn’t made fun of the fact that the school seems to blow-up regularly earlier this year. In light of the joke made by the Merc with the Mouth, it feels exceptionally tired.
It also feels irrelevant. As with so much in the film, there is no requirement that any of it play out as it does, particularly in its echoes of earlier films. Things just happen as Apocalypse puts together his team and the good guys play catch-up.
(minor spoiler, and only a spoiler if you haven’t watched the last trailer, in this paragraph) One of the biggest disappointments in the film is the appearance of the Adamantium-clawed one. Hugh Jackman’s brief inclusion as Wolverine in the movie feels like a knowing attempt to fill in some of his backstory now that it’s been altered due to “Days of Future Past.” It is more than entirely irrelevant in “Apocalypse,” it is a complete distraction, a moment of misplaced fan service.
Absent of thought-provoking discussion about our place in the world and how we choose to share this planet with others, “X-Men: Apocalypse” offers up high-intensity CGI-enhanced action sequences. From the opening moments in ancient Egypt as the camera swoops around in impossible fashion through to the incredibly destructive finale, “Apocalypse” revels in the destruction it causes. We go from country to country, continent to continent, watching famous landmarks get destroyed. Much of the destruction in the finale does not stem from an on-site battle, but rather action elsewhere in the world. In other words, it in no way enhances the plot – it is destruction for the sake of destruction.
Here again Singer and company seem to be the joke rather than being in on the joke. In a recent trailer for “Independence Day: Resurgence,” Jeff Goldblum’s character, David Levinson, notes that aliens love destroying landmarks as we see landmarks get destroyed. Levinson’s joke shows that the movie is aware that it is doing something we’ve seen done so many times before and consequently gets away with it. “Apocalypse” shows no such understanding – things blow up because they can make things blow up.
All is not dark, however. One of the echoes of a past movie from the franchise works beautifully. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, just as in “Days of Future Past” gets to run around here in “Apocalypse” as time around him is slowed. Here, his sequence plays out to The Eurythmics’ classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” It is unquestionably the highlight of the film… or would be if not for the specific reasons why and where Quicksilver is doing his thing.
Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is a relatively long film, but thinking back on it, it is difficult to figure out exactly where the time goes. As noted, it isn’t taken up by plot and it isn’t taken up by moral quandaries.
A fair amount of time is certainly devoted to introducing mutants, particularly ones we’ve seen before in other movies. “Days of Future Past” may have changed the world, but there are only so many moments that “here’s a younger/new version of…” can play out. New characters, like Psylocke, are given short shrift in favor of showing us this Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), this Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), this Angel (Ben Hardy), this Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and this Storm (Alexandra Shipp). The actors and actresses acquit themselves to greater and lesser degrees but with each one that is brought in, the returns diminish. They can’t all be so terribly different from the earlier versions and the movie doesn’t get into motivations as well as it might. Again, the movie feels like it’s fill in little blank spaces in our X-Men timeline as opposed to telling a story it wants to tell.
There is one time the film makes a meta reference that does work, and that is when they call the third entry in any film series the weakest. “Apocalypse” may be better than “The Last Stand,” but it still finds itself near the bottom of the “X-Men” franchise.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox