By Travis Trombley
As a sequel to First Class and Days of Future Past, the preceding two films in the X-Men prequel trilogy, comparison is not only fair, but required. These installments, directed by Matthew Vaughn and Brian Singer respectively, stand apart not just as good superhero films, but as well-made, character-driven cinema, especially the latter of the two. Understanding and appreciating X-Men: Apocalypse, also directed by Brian Singer, mandates an understanding of the narrative constructed across these two films.
In First Class, Charles and Erik present opposed ideologies: peaceful coexistence and defensive, egocentric disdain. Erik is the oh-so relatable pragmatic consequentialist, and Charles tows naive idealism. In the end, Erik chooses the tragic path, embracing revenge and conflict while simultaneously being proven, well, kind of right. In Days of Future Past, also directed by Singer, a broken Charles finds the will to hope again, putting his trust in his friend-gone-awry Mystique to refuse the vengeance Erik embraced so as to allow for understanding and peace.
After a manic opening scene devoid of any significant characterization in ancient Egypt, Apocalypse launches tenish years after the events of Days of Future Past in a late 80’s world dealing with the fallout of the Raven’s rescue of President Nixon from Magneto and sparing of Bolivar Trask. In a darkened high school classroom a big-haired teacher cycles through transparencies of the aforementioned incident, claiming that it marked a change in human-mutant relations, though, she admits, some prejudices remain. Already our ears perk up, ready for the next chapter of the X-Men civil rights metaphor.
With the exposition over, young Scott Summers, brother to former X-Man Havok, excuses himself to the bathroom where his famous mutant power manifests, propelling him and the plot to Xavier’s school for Gifted Youngsters.
No longer the derelict mansion from DoFP, the school is up and running, with students attending classes, playing frisbee, and awkwardly bumping into each other for the sake of character introduction, as teenagers are wont to do. Before long, we meet James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, a man who lives a dream-come-true as he helps mutants like Scott control their powers and reintegrate into normal society. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto - for unknown reasons - works in a Polish steel mill and goes home to his wife and daughter, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven works as a mercenary of sorts and rescues mutants like Nightcrawler and Angel from a Russian mutant-fighting racket.
As the film’s name suggests, though, it’s the appearance of the titular villain the drives the action forward. Oscar Isaac’s makeup heavy Apocalypse recruits his four disciples, attacks Xavier’s school to kidnap Charles for his powerful mind, and ultimately sets up a fortress on Egypt from which he plans to - wait for it - destroy the world, forcing a group of X-youngins to mount a rescue and save the day.
This bleeds into a conversation between Raven and Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy (aka Beast), who built a war plane in the X-basement in hopes of forming another X-Men team. Unlike the professor, he hopes for the best and prepares for the worst. And with that, the viewer realizes, “Okay, we are going to talk about how a guy who champions peace through education comes to condone and lead a quasi militant team of mutant teenagers who can weaponize their powers.”
And that’s great. The natural progression here would be an eventual ideological compromise between Erik and Charles in the form of an X-Men team. But besides an awesome line from Xavier in the film’s second act and the closing scene in which a bald McAvoy stares into a newly assembled danger room as Mystique rallies the X-Men for combat training in the Danger Room, we’re given nothing in terms of why Charles would make this progression, unless you count mentally getting pounded by Apocalypse a reason.
I don’t. Not given the film’s pedigree. But it was cool to see some classic influences on the costumes.
But this, too, gets no payoff in the end. His philosophy isn’t argued as much as dismissed. Xavier boasts that he can beat the giant smurf (oxymoron?) simply because he’s “not alone,” implying that Apocalypse’s tyrannical brand of ubermensch philosophy is inherently competitive and, therefore, rejective. But that’s it. The seeds for a great conversation are planted, but never watered with the degree of care given to the previous two films or Nolan’s Dark Knight.
Most of what works here is rooted in the proven quality of the X-predecessors. Here, none of the ideas quite land, probably because Singer and writer Simon Kinberg overbooked the tarmac. Lacking the hyper efficiency of DoFP, the film falls into a rut of serving a mediocre plot first and foremost to the detriment of character and theme.
But even then, the plot feels clunky at times, usually due to insufficiently explained content or distracting unnecessities. Why was Erik - a racist extremist - rehashing Wolverine’s cliche “bad guy tries to reintegrate only to be rejected, despite good intentions, and returned to a life of vengeance by pain” lifestyle? William Stryker and his Weapon X facility provide an almost too convenient crucible in which to develop the teens’ powers. Moira, Charles’ CIA love interest from the first film is here for apparently no other reason than for Xavier to stumble over some lines and, I guess, have a love interest again?
And why, at the end, is Apocalypse able to beat Xavier in a battle of minds, depicted in impressionistic form as a fist fight in the mansion? Clearly a psychic battle, what’s the metric of power used? What would it mean to have a stronger mind, and how is Apocalypse's so much stronger? Without awareness of the economy at play, the audience can’t invest, diminishing the spat into something less dramatically effective than the Scarecrow scenes in the Batman Arkham games.
For the most part, what’s here is handled as well as it could be given the time frame. But only Maximoff walks away with a significant return on investment. The others just kind of start using their powers by the end of the film because emotions or acceptance or something.
Jean Grey’s arc is the most offensive due to the narrative weight it’s given in the climax. The defeat of Apocalypse ends up resting on Jean embracing her inner power, a struggle mentioned only twice earlier, only one scene of which took any significant time with it. And, well, she does, because Professor X went from saying that her issues will go away in the beginning of the film to saying she should embrace her power without fear at the end. Nobody really underwent any conversion that would justify this change, other than, perhaps, the necessity of the moment, but that simply isn’t compelling. Nothing Jean experienced in their little Weapon X escapade catalyzed her growth. Singer simply didn’t earn that development or that ending.
The students, too, perform well with what they are given. Evan Peters’ Maximoff steals every scene he’s in with a chipper sincerity. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler, too, brings out the character’s innocently comical nature with oafish ease. The others, for the most part (Olivia Munn’s scantily clad Psylocke and Alexandra Ship’s Storm are given far too little to do to judge, which - again - is an indictment of the writers, not the actresses) are more than serviceable and could very well carry their own film, if Fox decides on such a direction, but there’s not much more to mention here. On the plus side, though, these actors are responsible for a number of laugh-out-loud jokes scattered throughout.
As for Oscar Isaac, I will say that I appreciated the subdued disdain and solipsism with which he handled Apocalypse. What he had to do, he did well, especially with his eyes. But is this the villain I want for Isaac? Hell no. After seeing him in Ex Machina, I wanted a Joker caliber performance here, but it simply wasn’t in the script.
Apocalypse proves the superiority of the dramatic, more chess-like action from DoFP (remember those power changing sentinels and Blink’s Portal-esque maneuvers?), which emphasized collaborative tactics and creative depictions of powers, over the laser-light show of this film’s final act.
The fact that Apocalypse put the X-Men (and their viewers) through yet another superhero end-of-world scenario is not in itself condemning. The fact that the film didn’t handle the trope well, however, is. Despite the introduction of a few thought-provoking nuggets, the film simply over-extended its own means, sacrificing quality of narrative for quantity of characters and fancy displays of mutant abilities. The film’s conclusion fits within the trilogy, but seems entirely unearned by the merits of the film itself. Like a train in a tunnel, it took us where we needed to go, but we really have little idea of how we got there or what we passed along the way.