MOVIE REVIEW – The struggle to accept oneself, the need for family, the trial of letting go of the past: these have been the central themes of the X-Men franchise since the very first 2000 film, but they’ve rarely echoed as intensely as they do in X-Men: Apocalypse.
In that era of the supersized superhero flicks, the standard problems present themselves — there are way too many characters, and a lack of time to balance an emotional nuance with the-world-hangs-in-the-balance stakes. Still – even when this sixth instalment staggers under the weight of its grandeur, director Bryan Singer invests the measures with real feeling, always giving a purpose, and a real psychological background to the exploits of his noble, flawed mutants.
We marvel at it the third time
Apocalypse is the third huge Marvel film of the year after the surprise smash Deadpool (from Fox, too) and Disney’s Captain America: Civil War. 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past pulled in nearly $750 million worldwide — which is a realistic target for this new film, which adds Oscar Isaac to its already impressive cast.
The story takes place ten years after the main events of Days Of Future Past. Apocalypse brings us to 1983 as the X-Men face a new threat in the form of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an antique, seemingly invincible god-like figure who wants to eradicate humanity and rule the planet, drawing on the powers of the mutants around him.
Once again, the wise, compassionate Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) must square off with his friend-turned-nemesis Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as they take sides in this battle. The furious and hateful Magneto wants to help Apocalypse destroy the human race, whom he’s always despised for what they did to his parents in the concentration camps years ago.
It’s still much more
That plot depiction summarises Apocalypse’s narrative, but same as with Days Of Future Past, it doesn’t come close to detailing the different characters on both sides of the conflict besides the maturing interpersonal dynamics between some of them. (For instance, you’ll need to remember what transpired in previous films between Nicholas Hoult’s Beast and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, or between Xavier and Rose Byrne’s CIA operative Moira Mactaggert.)
The movie has still room for a Wolverine cameo while also laying the groundwork for the future relationship between Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Apocalypse is chock-a-block with protagonists, and it’s a credit to Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg that they keep this potentially unwieldy story hurtling forward.
Brian Singer helmed four of the six X-Men films — he didn’t direct 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which are alleged to be the weakest instalments in the franchise. From the very start, he has connected strongly with the characters’ feelings of being misfits and outsiders, their mutant powers making them extraordinary but also filling them with a sense that they’re abnormal.
The fact that Apocalypse continues to explore this terrain can lead to rehashed character beats — in any X-Men movie, one mutant will inevitably assure another mutant that their mutation is what makes them unique — and so a certain amount of thematic familiarity is, unfortunately, unavoidable.
And yet, Singer’s resolute emphasis on his heroes’ damaged psyches and the ways they try to find solace remains moving, immersing the spectacle with heart. We sympathize with Xavier and his team to defeat this scary evil, but we also understand the internal motivations that are driving them, too.
Too many characters for one movie?
That said, Apocalypse works on such a broad canvas, arguably even grander than Days Of Future Past’s, that the individual performances aren’t as strong as one might expect from such an impressive ensemble. Fassbender, who play the same role as the one played by Ian McKellen in the original trilogy, continues to be the new series’ strongest actor, playing Magneto as a profoundly sensitive man who has turned to evil in reaction to the cruelty he has experienced. (Much more heartbreak awaits him in Apocalypse, and while what happens to him, is pretty familiar to superhero movie fans, Fassbender still makes the pain ache.)
On the other hand, Jennifer Lawrence stays oddly low-key and… a bit boring as Mystique, a mutant we’re meant to recognize is a natural born leader, except that the Oscar-winning actress isn’t particularly captivating in the role.
Likewise, Oscar Isaac, who was excellent, as Llewyn Davis in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, isn’t just buried in his mask and makeup as Apocalypse — his voice has been digitally transformed as well, so he’s left with little room to bring this incredibly fearsome villain alive. While Apocalypse is impressive and stoic, but it nevertheless feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to rob such an influential actor of the chance to imbue this galvanic figure with wit or menace.
Evan Peters, as the young, impulsive Quicksilver, is one of Apocalypse’s highlights, as he was in Days Of Future Past. For a second straight X-Men film, Singer provides him with a signature sequence that shows off the kid’s super-speed with good humour and bravura craftsmanship. And Sheridan exudes some of the square-jawed same heroism that James Marsden brought to Scott Summers in the original trilogy, although Turner doesn’t possess Famke Janssen’s allure or complexity in the role of the tortured Jean Grey.
Despite those drawbacks, Apocalypse is still pretty entertaining, the filmmakers not always able to correctly execute their ambitions but always striving for a richer emotional tenor than is usually achieved in superhero movies. With top-notch effects and driving, sweeping score from composer John Ottman, Apocalypse feels legitimately epic. (And costume designer Louise Mingenbach and production designer Grant Major have a ball outfitting the characters and their backgrounds with period-specific, early-‘80s décor.) The X-Men adventures keep getting bigger, but Singer works extremely hard to ensure that, even when they’re not always better, they continue to thrill sufficiently.