When Apocalypse, the world’s first and most powerful mutant, wakes after thousands of years, he is displeased by the world as he sees it. Can Charles Xavier and his X-Men save the world as they face their biggest threat? Only the strong will survive. But will the franchise?
You may have noticed we’ve gone pretty big on X-Men this week, with re-views of X-Men and X-Men: First Class, a detailed breakdown of our favourite (and least favourite) bits of the franchise in our Snooty Ushers On… X-Men article, and then we listed the whole lot of them in Ranked! Part of the reason for this is that, both as individual films and as a whole, the X-Men franchise is just so interesting. It’s different. The discussion of mutation has encompassed almost everything, from teenage angst and awakening sexuality, to religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and government oppression. And that is just in the cinematic output. Although I’m not a reader of the books, I’m assured even more complex issues are dealt with.
So the X-Men films come with a bit more expectation than most superhero fare. And after a fun reboot in X-Men: First Class and critical and box-office acclaim with X-Men: Days Of Future Past, we continue the storyline with X-Men: Apocalypse. I’ll keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, although the trailers and promotional spots seem to have given away a big chunk of story.
We start in Ancient Egypt, with crowds saluting a towering, near god-like leader, during a procession to a religious ceremony in a Pyramid. This is En Sabah Nur, or Apocalypse, the world’s first and most powerful mutant, and his group contains his disciples: The Four Horseman. The ceremony is to transfer his consciousness into a new body (a young man with regenerative powers, played by Oscar Isaac), a ritual performed many times in the past to allow him to grow in power with each new mutant body, rendering him almost immortal. However just as the process is happening, a group of rebels scream “Death To The False God” and release huge stone blocks around the pyramid, causing it to collapse in on itself. Apocalypse’s Horsemen and the rest of his group are crushed to death (quite grizzly for a 12A, which becomes a recurring theme) and a de-powered Apocalypse is trapped beneath the rubble
We then see millennia of humanity pass in the title sequence, stopping in 1983, a decade on from the events of X-Men: Days Of Future Past. After trying to assassinate President Nixon on world wide television, Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is now living in rural Poland, working in a steel mill (without using his powers) with a wife and child, under an assumed name, and basically living a normal, happy, low key life. During a broadcast marking the tenth anniversary of Magneto’s baseball stadium/White House visit, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) re-affirms his desire to meet his father, despite warnings from his mother, and so sets out to find Charles Xavier.
Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is in East Berlin, rescuing mutants in need and paying for them to get a fresh start. A mutant called Caliban (an especially creepy Tomas Lemarquis) provides identification for them to get to the other side of the Iron Curtain, assisted by Psylocke (Olivia Munn). Mystique has become a global hero after saving the US President ten years before, so now spends all of her time looking like Jennifer Lawrence, to avoid being recognised. It is a bit of a cheap trick, but Lawrence has become one of the biggest film stars on the planet since she signed on for these films, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the naturally-blue Mystique is in short supply in this film. She saves the teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi-Smit McPhee) from an underground fight club, where he had been locked in a cage with Angel (Ben Hardy)
We quickly drop in on a 1980s high school, where Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) is having problems with his eyes. Unfortunately, it will take more than some prescription eye drops, as he starts shooting energy beams from them. This leads to his brother Alex (Lucas Till making a return as Havok, although he really doesn’t look like a guy in his mid thirties) taking him to meet Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who has finally successfully set up his School for Gifted Youngsters. There he meets Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and forms a friendship after a tricky start, and has a pair of glasses made for him by Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult).
However, all of these characters are thrown into chaos when Apocalypse awakens, just as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne making a welcome return) has tracked a cult to his resting place. He sets off a (seemingly global) earthquake, which causes Jean Grey to have a terrifying vision of the future, an Earth destroyed by the risen Apocalypse. This leads to Charles heading to Langley to reconnect with Moira, whose memory he had wiped twenty years before. It also nearly causes an accident at Erik’s factory, before he uses his powers to save a workmate. Unfortunately for Erik, this doesn’t play out for him as well as Xavier’s consequence, as it leads him being outed as Magneto, and the police arriving at his house, with truly tragic consequences.
The risen Apocalypse is unhappy with the world that he sees, and decides to destroy it, to wipe the slate clean. He recruits a new set of Horsemen, starting with local Egyptian pickpocket Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and then adding Angel and Psylocke, giving them stronger powers in the process. Finally he finds Magneto, about to slaughter the factory workers he had once worked alongside, and recruits him to complete his team.
When the Xavier meets MacTaggert, she fills him in on Apocalypse, and it becomes clear to him that they need to stop this incredibly powerful mutant. But when the team is splintered, can his young students possibly survive on their own?
As you can tell by how I’ve written to set up the plot, one of the issues with setting the films 10 years apart is that each film has to put a lot of pieces into place. In turn, we miss out on big chunks of interesting stories. We care about the characters at the end of each film, so why then put so much distance between the films that the characters have to have moved on. Xavier’s School is up and running, so we just assume everything has been going well for him and McCoy for the last decade? Mystique has become a global icon to mutants everywhere and is hiding away as an almost reverse bounty hunter, saving mutants – you’re just going to skip over all of that story and drop it as soon as she sees Magneto needs help? And Magneto/Erik is probably worst of all at this. The character jump from First Class to Day Of Future Past was a strange one, but for him to go from being determined to take down humanity (and had gone full Magneto) to settling down into a domestic life is a big leap to ask the audience to take.
The time passed also causes another big problem – these characters do not look 20 years older than they did in X-Men: First Class. A few grey hairs aside for Charles Xavier, the characters all look remarkably young for their age! Mystique and McCoy it might be acceptable, due to the fact that their mutations directly affect their appearance. But Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier have to be approaching 50 at least, and the should have been some mention made of their aging.
Having brought up Hank McCoy, I should also add that the decision to have him taking medication to suppress the Beast appearance throughout most of the film is a difficult choice to get behind. In a way, I do appreciate sticking to the character choices made in X-Men: First Class, where he was desperate to find a way to fit in, but here it robs him of most of his character. I like Nicholas Hoult a lot, but is he a Jennifer Lawrence-level box office draw that the studio needed to keep out of make up as long as possible? The character comes across as a Hulk rip-off, being a mild mannered scientist who turns into a monster when the action kicks off.
And when the action does kick-off, the destruction is spectacular. An entire city is levelled – literally MILLIONS of people surely killed – just to set up the finale. This then ups the ante even more, as “everything built from the Bronze Age onwards” starts to be destroyed. Again, literally millions of people die in this film, as buildings simply fall apart all around the world. It makes Man Of Steel look restrained. And it feels out of place in an X-Men film. This isn’t Transformers, we expect better. For a 12A, even though it is not explicit, this is still very violent.
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know I’m not a critical reviewer: I simply want to be entertained when I see a film. The fact that I noticed all of these issues should tell you one thing – the story isn’t quite good enough to draw you fully in. There are plenty of good moments though. All the super powers look fantastic on the big screen. Kodi-Smit McPhee is great as Nightcrawler, bringing a fragility and pathos that tops Alan Cummings’ X2 performance (and I really like Cummings’ performance in that film).
In fact most of the new X-Men characters are well done, which was something I worry about when adding characters to an ensemble piece like this, although their Four Horsemen counterparts are barely in the film until the climax. Also, if you are worried about Olivia Munn as Psylocke, don’t be, she’s mostly forgettable and has very little impact on most of the movie. This isn’t a Wade Wilson in X-Men: Origins situation. If you are a fan of Psylocke though and have been waiting for her to get a good amount of time on screen, I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.
You’ll notice that I didn’t assign the Four Horsemen their names of Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death – that’s because there’s no time spent with them to establish what they can do, apart from Magneto, who is immensely more powerful than the other three. There’s a laughable moment when Xavier manages to contact Erik telepathically, while Apocalypse is distracted. What is the mighty En Sabah Nur – the world’s most powerful mutant, who can seemingly control matter and has amassed a legion of other mutant’s gift through his many lifetimes – doing that causes just a loss of concentration? He’s putting the finishing touches on Angel’s armour and facial tattoo, like one of those people who spend far too long designing a character when you just want to get on with the game.
And so onto the biggest problem – Apocalypse. As I said at the very beginning of this review, like the vast majority of people who will see this film, this is the first time I have met this character. He has lived for millenia, collecting powers from the mutants as he takes over their bodies. He has destroyed civilisations. But what are these powers? At one point he seems to have the ability to control sand, and it’s never explained if this is accurate. Was the ability to manipulate concrete, cement, and sand castles really enough to become that powerful? The horsemen he recruits – does he give them extra powers? Super charge their existing powers? Allow them to reach their potential? It’s never really clear if he is mean to be an all-powerful destroyer, or someone who facilitates the end of the world. We are meant to assume the former – but then why does he need help? Or just do it? My thoughts on Apocalypse are muddled, so my thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse are muddled.
I feel like I’ve been overly critical of this film. However, it takes itself very seriously and so lots of the moments of levity feel inappropriate (one in particular will raise a smile at a very inopportune moment), but there is quite a bit of witty banter. There is one film joke which might be too on the nose however. James McAvoy is very good – he deserves to top the bill here, it’s not just because his character runs the school. There are also two absolutely outstanding scenes in this film: Quicksilver gets a repeat performance to show off his high speed skills, and in the midst of a totally unnecessary diversion in the middle of the film, there is one brutal, exciting, thrilling scene that I won’t spoil but other already have.
So, to sum up because we’ll run out of internet soon – your mileage will vary with this film. It is fairly decent, and maybe on multiple viewings some character points will become clearer, but it’s far too serious in tone. Maybe I should watch it again, but this feels like a bad misstep.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our X-Men output this week. Although I was disappointed with this film, this week has just reminded me that I really am a huge fan of the franchise. We will hopefully have one more article looking at the future of the X-Men franchise, with Dan and Welshy pondering which mutants they would like to see, and maybe we will have a spoiler-filled follow up to his review.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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