Before the Marvel cinematic universe, before Batman v Superman, before Netflix made superhero shows, there was X-Men. This 2000 classic showed that large casts in superhero movies could work, paving the way for the MCU and DCCU. But it’s been over 15 years since that happened, and two semi-reboots later, we’ve arrived at X-Men: Apocalypse. The good news is the franchise has remained fresh, and if anything is stronger than ever.
The film kicks off far out of the usual timeframe- thousands of years ago, at a ceremony in honour of En Sabah Nurr- or Apocalypse as you and I know him- the mutant pharaoh of Egypt. His underlings aren’t very happy about his tyrannical rule, and spark a plan to entomb him forever. It works, but only to a limited extent: newly powered with the ability to regenerate, he survives until the present day, where he is accidentally freed and begins to gather an army. Meanwhile, the X-Men have had a few changes: Magneto has a wife and kid and is working as a humble steel labourer, while Xavier has finally kicked off his School for the Gifted, even opening with his patented The Once and Future King lecture. (He’s taught that in three movies now- is it the only book he knows?) Mystique is rescuing wayward mutants, like the young circus brat Nightcrawler, and Hank McCoy is teaching at the school. That’s the world young Scott Summers is thrust into after his powers manifest rather explosively- and after a vision from troubled teen Jean Grey, the disparate group come together to fight the emerging threat of Apocalypse.
Bryan Singer‘s direction is as operatic as ever- the chaotic opening of X-2 is recalled with the portentous and dialogue-light assault on Apocalypse’s pyramid, and a welcome reprise of Quicksilver’s superspeed saving of the day from X-Men: Days of Future Past was met with cheers in my screening. The script does what it should, providing some nice character beats, particularly for Scott (he provides the now-ubiquitous “powers out of control” scene, a self-conscious mirror of Rogue, Angel and Magneto in previous films). He’s ostensibly the main character of the film, and has a complete character arc that gives the film the feeling of being self-contained; this frees them up to reference past and future incarnations of the X-Men. Magneto himself is also further fleshed out, with some intense scenes revolving around Michael Fassbender‘s performance. For an actor of his skill, it’s an easy decision to make him shoulder the thematic weight of the film, and it pays off. Evan Peters as Quicksilver remains a delight, and he’s the major source of comic relief in the film. That’s a nice choice as it helps the other characters remain serious in the face of high stakes, while avoiding the ‘everyone gets a sitcom one-liner’ weirdness of recent Marvel pictures.
The film suffers from the ‘third act mass devastation’ common to all recent blockbusters, and from heavily featuring its least interesting component: the villain, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaacs). Like many, I wasn’t sure about his make-up/costume, but it works excellently in the final film; the problem is that he’s relatively generic, a sort of ‘i am evil, do stuff’ villain. This fits in alright with the bubblegum aesthetic of the film, but next to Fassbender’s brilliant, tortured, complex Magneto, or Jennifer Lawrence‘s brilliant, tortured, complex Mystique, it gets lost in the mix. And none of that is a comment on Isaacs’ performance: he brings real gravitas to a role that’s quite difficult to get right. But ultimately there isn’t enough there for him to work with.
Singer’s movie is fun, high octane, summer blockbuster fun. It doesn’t overreach by claiming to be a 70s-type political thriller, or a socio-religious deconstruction of the nature of power. It’s about people in costumes fighting, and it has glorious fun with that concept. It’s also accessible to those new to the series- there are more layers to each character with prior knowledge, but the roles and motivations of characters are clear within this film, pulling off a trick (self-containment) that Marvel has been unable to do for a while.
Have you seen X-Men: Apcalypse? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments section or send us a Tweet!