This movies has some mild spoilers, but I am not giving away anything of significance. Ocassional spoilers are tagged.
1983. Ten years after the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) are still on the run, alternately revered as heroes or damned as terrorist among the human and mutant population. Professor X (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are considering the inception of the X-Men team, although the relationship between humans and mutants is better than ever before. The situation is stirred up dramatically when an ancient, extremely powerful mutant from Egypt, En Sarab Nur aka “Apocalypse” (Oscar Isaac) is resurrected and strives to destroy mankind, an endeavour for which he needs to recruit four mutant “horsemen” as helpers.
The X-Men franchise has always been a bumpy ride. While the first X-Men from 2000, helmed by Bryan Singer, has frequently been credited with being the first superhero movie to integrate its heroes into the “real world”, including real world- politics, -problems etc., the film and its sequel from 2002 felt outdated quickly (especially after Batman Begins upped the ante for the genre) and they have honestly never been satisfying adaptations of the source material. A lot of it has to do with Singer, whose approach always felt small-scale, claustrophobic almost and who photographed them in a bland TV-movie look. Not exactly the right tone for a sprawling, complex and colourful saga as the X-Men. The rather heavy-handed socio-critical messages and the plodding, cumbersome writing did the rest. The excellent fight choreography in X2, orchestrated by Hong Kong- genius Yuen Woo Ping, only accentuated how sluggish and often shamelessly derivative the rest was. If it wasn’t for the great cast, those movies would be nigh unwatchable.
In my eyes, it’s unfair to solely blame Brett Ratner for the shortcomings of part three, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), as he had to rush it due to a mess that was caused by a troubled production history and rely on the writers. In the meantime, Singer went on to make the also very boring Superman Returns (2006). At least Ratner imbued the chaotic story with a good sense for pacing, something Singer never had.
But things changed drastically when Matthew Vaughn was brought on board to direct the prequel X-Men: First Class (2011) with a brand new cast. Finally an X-Men movie with style, visual pizazz and, most importantly, scope. The way First Class weaved real history into the mythology was equally masterful and effortless. Vaughn left the sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) during pre-production and Singer returned as director. Thankfully Singer, who had just received mixed to negative reactions for three movies in a row, was humbled and wise enough to base the movie on Vaughn’s groundwork, even imitating his visual style successfully. That’s why DOFP turned out to be a worthy and wholesome successor to First Class.
But Apocalypse marks the first time since X2 when Singer is completely on his own again and boy, does he confirm all my prejudices against his body of work (sadly). Ole Singer is back with a vengeance.
X gonna give it to ya (or not)
It starts out good. After a somewhat decent prelude in ancient Egypt that shows how Apocalypse was buried for thousands of years under the rubble of a collapsed pyramid, the plot flashes forward to East Berlin, 1983. Around the 20 minute mark though, I already noticed that one crucial element that made the two previous movies so enjoyable is missing: The period atmosphere is thick and authentic, with perfectly chosen wardrobe and set design, but it is soon obvious that it is reduced to staffage only. There are some allusions to Afghanistan and the Cold War, but it’s half-assed window dressing, at no point the spirit and politics of the decade are captured as beautifully as the 60s and 70s in First Class and DOFP respectively. Instead we get a pretty simplistic, yet all the more needlessly long-winded superheroes vs. villain plot whose script must have been hidden in a vault since 1997 (not unlike Apocalypse himself). This is unacceptable in times when the genre is constantly getting more complex and varied in terms of storytelling and subtexts. Its simplicity is not a refreshing alternative to the increasingly convoluted mythologies of the competing franchises either, as it still requires a lot of prior knowledge about the characters. Even worse though, everything is dragged down by a seriousness that mistakes drab soap melodrama for real gravitas.
For a movie that puts the name of its villain in the title, the respective character and his motivations are a joke. Apocalypse is practically a cross between Imhotep from the Mummy movies and Dracula from Blade: Trinity, wearing a costume that probably looked better on paper than on screen and his sole motivation is to destroy mankind based on some vague social-darwinist beliefs. All he needs to execute his plans are four mutant helpers, so they can wreak havoc together by joining forces. Yep, that’s it. This recruiting process needs a good chunk of the running time of the movie, just to culminate in a sudden, but overlong showdown that buries the screen in an avalanche of well-worn images of (mediocre) CGI- particle storms and clashing light beams. X-cess.
That’s why I cannot blame the otherwise brilliant Oscar Isaac for phoning it in. He isn’t the only one who is unable to elevate the poor material due to what little he has to work with. Jennifer Lawrence isn’t even pretending that her performance as Mystique is anything else but a listless Katniss-routine, while Nicolas Hoult as Beast and Tye Sheridan as Cyclops barely get the necessary screentime to shine. Traditionally, Storm (Alexandra Shipp) has to spout the worst lines, at least nothing about toads and lightnings. Only McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters and Fassbender show some enthusiasm for their parts. Particularly Fassbender puts more passion into his performance as Magneto than the character deserves, now that his character arc starts to resemble that of Paul Kersey. Peters as Quicksilver gets the probably best scene of the movie, using his super-speed powers in a lengthy sequence to the tune of “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurhythmics, although that’s also just a variation of a similar scene from DOFP.
Atop of that, the script is riddled with questionable character motivations which makes it a frustrating experience trying to identify with anyone. (Spoilers) How are we supposed to forgive Magneto again? Why does Quicksilver hold back with a certain information that could have saved the day in a second? (Spoilers End). Make your own mind up about a certain cameo, I thought it was ludicrous.
X-Men: Apocalypse is -if you needed another one- the ultimate proof that Singer has to leave the franchise for good. In comparison to the three preceding superhero- spectacles of 2016, it feels outdated and lacks any spark or vision. Thanks for your services Singer, it’s time to go now, before this affair can only be saved via reboot.
Symptomatic: There is a scene in the middle of the movie when three young mutants leave a theatre after seeing Return of the Jedi. They discuss if The Empire Strikes Back was the peak of the Star Wars saga and they conclude with “we can agree that the third part is always the weakest”. It’s a pretty obvious stab against Ratner’s The Last Stand, but Singer somehow missed that this can be also applied to Apocalypse, which is practically the third part in the “new” trilogy that started with the franchise makeover First Class. Oh the irony.