I meant to write about X-Men: Apocalypse when I saw it the week it came out, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think it was mostly because I didn’t have anything to say about it – the film was the cinematic equivalent of the ‘meh’ shrug, just existing as a thing that wasn’t truly awful but wasn’t very good either. The fact that it was the follow-up to X-Men: Days of Future Past, a really good film (which I really enjoyed) that was entertaining and had a point for its 1970s setting and had something to say about the character, made this film feel even more inessential. The build-up of the film and the villain – Apocalypse sounds like a clear statement of intent – couldn’t live up to the reality: a dull villain with a bland world-ending agenda, set in the 1980s so that it could be a period piece without the X-Men at full power.
I include a vague plot summary but it’s barely worth it: Apocalypse is a bad guy who gets woken up in 1983 (primarily because it is 10 years since Days of Future Past, which is mostly ignored after a few period touches, because someone thought that the 10-year gap would be good for the prequels/sequels) and decides to get on with the day job – collecting four Horsemen (mutants he gives a level-up to, despite the fact that he has loads of powers himself) in order to destroy the world and start it again. Because reasons. The X-Men try to stop him because Apocalypse is thematically attuned to the concept of the genetic aspect of the X-Men, erm, I mean because he wants to destroy the world and he’s using Magneto to do it. That’s about it – not particularly complicated. There is a lot of altering of the world and massive destruction (the world-ending stuff in the climax is staggering – the global economy afterwards would be in tatters and the state of the history of this world changed for ever) but, spoiler alert, the good guys win.
I wish that I had enjoyed this film more. I’ve been a big fan of the X-Men since the 1980s (yes, I’m that old – I was buying the comic book that Apocalypse first appeared in from the stands as it came out, back in 1986), so it’s great to see the large roster of characters appearing on screen. Look, there’s Caliban for no reason (and not really looking like the comic book version)! But I didn’t really feel anything about it. It’s perfectly competent if unengaging superhero action. As I tweeted, the best bits were the return of the Quicksilver scene (Evan Peters with increased screen time, rescuing the children in the X-mansion when it’s blowing up) and the appearance onscreen of the Barry Windsor-Smith Weapon X outfit – part of the Wolverine cameo from Hugh Jackman – that is the cinematic realisation of the helmet and wires visual from Marvel Comics Presents in which that storyline was serialised (yes, I was buying that book as it came out as well, back in 1988). Bits I liked included having the X-Men as teenagers, further evidence that The New Mutants would be a winner on-screen, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp as young Storm, and Sophie Grey as Jean Grey. But that’s not a lot of positivity, is it?
There were, however, plenty of things that stood out for the wrong reasons. The decision to make Apocalypse look human at the same time as trying to recreate the look of Apocalypse from the comic made the talented Oscar Isaac look untalented and blunted the impact of the character. Perhaps a full CGI creation would have captured the over-the-top dynamics of the comic book version. Trying to make Mystique an important part of the X-Men canon, not for story reasons but because she is played by the Oscar-winning, talented, biggest star of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence, seemed clunky at best and desperate at worst, leaving Lawrence stuck in the middle, neither the Mystique of the original films or the character from X-Men: First Class. Using a Women In Refrigerators plot development to turn Magneto (Michael Fassbender, still good in a repetitive role) from peaceful family man to psychotic killer and potential world destroyer was particularly depressing. And how many times are we going to see Magneto turn good because Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy in good form, if underserved) believes there is good in him? (Despite being the world’s most powerful telepath, Charles is incredibly stupid – how many times does he need to see Eric kill people before he gets the point?) The Psylocke costume – why, oh why, oh why was that kept? I felt so embarrassed for Olivia Munn having to wear that ridiculous leather leotard – everybody else gets decent costumes, so why not her? It was bad enough that her character was a non-character – it’s like they made her wear the costume just to distinguish her from everyone else …
I think that disappointment was my overriding response. Disappointment that Bryan Singer, the man responsible for the three best X-men films, made such an uninteresting instalment (although, if you’ve seen Jack The Giant Slayer, you’ll know that Singer can make duff films). Disappointment in the bland villain with bland motivation and a bland plan. Disappointment in the resulting telepathic battle that ensued between Xavier and Apocalypse, hoping we would get something akin to Xavier’s battles with the Shadow King in the comic books, instead resorting to fisticuffs. Disappointment that this wasn’t as good as X-Men: Days of Future Past.
During the time where I haven’t been writing about the film but it was percolating in the back of my head, the only explanation for the film I can come up with is that it’s a movie for fans of the X-Men cartoon from 1992–1997, and because of its popularity, the X-Men comics of the 1990s. I’ve been looking into the timeframe. Despite Apocalypse first appearing in X-Factor in the late 1980s, written by Louise Simonson and drawn so well by Walter Simonson (his cool design is one of the reasons that the character is so popular), it wasn’t until the 1990s that the character became what he is known for: the En Sabar Nuh name came about in 1993; the origin in Egypt and the technology was in 1994; the Age of Apocalypse storyline in 1995 (I had stopped buying X-Men comics after Chris Claremont was edged out by Bob Harras favouring the artists over the writer, so I wasn’t buying these comics as they came out; I recently tried to read the AoA storyline in trades from the library – I say ‘tried’ because it was unreadable rubbish, all three volumes of it). The shoehorning in of Jubilee (first appearance in 1989 but only a regular from 1991) comes from her popularity in the cartoon, where she was given the Kitty Pryde role in the team as the ‘young sister’ to everybody. It all points to a film that derives from a love of the X-Men cartoon/comics of the 1990s, which were not good, I’m afraid. Even the post-credit scene, which is a teaser for the next Wolverine film, is a reference to Mr Sinister, a villain from the comic books but who gained traction in the X-Men cartoon.
In summary: an uninspired superhero action film, which you may find more enjoyable if you were a big fan of the X-Men: Animated Series. Otherwise, a bit disappointing.