REVIEW: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

The mutants are back in another adventure from director Bryan Singer. Oscar tells us why you should ignore the mainstream press. 

X-Men: Apocalypse has been receiving some decidedly mixed reviews, and I cannot fully agree with them. I did go in with lowered expectations, but was pleasantly surprised in the process. I have said in the past that third films in any trilogy are incredibly difficult to get right, and that may be the case here, but the result doesn’t warrant such a slating or surface-level comparisons to other superhero juggernauts from Marvel Studios. As before, judging a movie on its own terms is the way forward.

The immortal psychic mutant En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaacs) rules Ancient Egypt until he is betrayed by his worshippers, who entomb him alive. En Sabah Nur’s lieutenants, the Four Horsemen, die protecting and preserving him. In 1983, Agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is on the trail of a shady Egyptian cult and discovers the burial place of En Sabah Nur. The ancient mutant is awakened by the sunlight upon his tomb, killing his worshippers in the process, and McTaggert barely escaping with her life. Believing that without his presence humanity has lost its way, En Sabah Nur begins recruiting new Horsemen to reshape the world in his image, beginning with Cairo pickpocket Ororo Munroe (Alexandra Shipp).

In Berlin, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers an underground fight club with combatants Angel (Ben Hardy), who possesses a pair of large feathered wings on his back, and the Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can teleport. Raven rescues Nightcrawler and employs the services of black market dealer Caliban to safely transport him to the US. Meanwhile, Alex Summers (Lucas Till) takes his younger brother Scott (Tye Sheridan) to Professor Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) educational institute where he can learn to control his powers, which manifest in the form of high-energy optic beams. Scott meets Xavier’s protege, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and the two develop an attraction over their powers. En Sabah Nur recruits Caliban’s enforcer Psylocke (Olivia Munn) who sides with him and leads him to Angel, whose injured wings are replaced with metallic ones. Raven brings Nightcrawler to the institute, and informs Xavier about the threat of En Sabah Nur, leading Xavier and Alex to consult with MacTaggert. She warns Xavier that, whenever En Sabah Nur decrees that civilisation is too decadent, the apocalypse follows. In Poland, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) lives with his new wife and daughter, Nina, but when authorities attempt to capture him for the incident at the White House, his family is killed in the crossfire. En Sabah Nur later approaches the disheartened Erik and feeds his lust for revenge and takes him to Auschwitz, where Erik destroys the camp and joins Sabah Nur, completing his new Four Horsemen.

The acting in this vast ensemble varies from absolutely excellent to, frankly, a tad disappointing. McAvoy and Fassbender deliver 150% in the quality of their performances, and bring their arcs to a satisfying conclusion. Their chemistry has always been a prominent feature of the previous films, and this one is no exception. Despite being a subject of mixed opinion, I actually liked Isaacs as En Sabah Nur a.k.a. Apocalypse; he was able to act through mountains of makeup and convey a menacing, unsettling presence. Nicholas Hoult is back as Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast, and as usual, he is as commendably invested in the role. Byrne doesn’t have a lot to work with as McTaggert, but she does have good chemistry with McAvoy. Alas, Lawrence has deteriorated and now officially feels phoned-in, lacking any care or emotion in stark contrast to the previous films. I also didn’t really see Turner as a bona fide successor to Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey; her accent felt very staged and jarring at first, but she did deliver on the emotions and improved as time went on (she was still better than Lawrence by a sizeable margin). Shipp was a much more convincing Storm than Halle Berry has ever been despite very limited appearances, and Hardy does okay as Archangel, but Munn has very little to work with as Psylocke; she was just there to look cool. Evan Peters delivers some welcome comedy and a nuanced performance as fan-favourite Quicksilver. Till invokes his sarcastic wit from First Class for what time he has onscreen, and he works well off Sheridan’s more vulnerable turn as the younger Cyclops. Smit-McPhee gives a heartfelt and earnest turn as Nightcrawler, comparable to Alan Cumming’s warm and witty take on the character.

The relationship between McAvoy and Fassbender has grown and developed over the course of the last three films, combining the bittersweet quality and genuine friendship between the two mutants. The series has also continued to embrace the spirit of the comics and cartoon, as the X-Mansion feels very much like a unique school full of life and character. Compared to previous antagonists like Magneto and William Stryker who have a more human side to their characters and reasons for their villainy, Apocalypse simply doesn’t have time for any of that. He is a villain in the same way that perhaps Sauron or Voldemort are – the kind of antagonist with a god complex who desires absolute control and has the overwhelming power to seize it. His menace comes from him preying upon the anger and grief of other mutants and fashioning them into the tools of his conquest. I accepted the reasoning for why three of the four Horsemen joined with Apocalypse; Storm due to her poverty, Magneto due to his grief and anger, and Angel due to having put up with the worst side of humanity as a cage fighter. The one exception is Psylocke who was just too flat of a character to care for either way.

Magneto’s motivation is very clear in that he wants revenge on a world that has constantly let him down, and upon God, whom he feels has abandoned him. We feel his pain over dead loved ones and understand why he feels the world must end. By contrast, Xavier’s desire to remain hopeful and reconnect his family is the main emotional thrust of the film. In terms of thematic content, this third film in the new trilogy is the story of how Magneto must cope with losing everything he holds dear once again, and now that his anger and grief consumes him, there is a definite sense that his mission to protect and unite all mutants has been lost. It is up to Magneto to ultimately act upon his better nature.

From a visual standpoint, it simultaneously boasts some of the strongest design aspects of the X-Men series and some of the weakest. There were a few creations which bothered me such as Angel’s very awkward hairdo and overly-designed armour, and Lawrence’s make-up for Mystique which just looked like blue skin rather than scales and very poor compared to the looks for Beast and Nightcrawler. The opening in Ancient Egypt has a lot of style and atmosphere, and invokes the feel of an Indiana Jones or The Mummy with a rich sense of history and a reasonable fidelity to reality. The score by John Ottman, while competently composed, only has a few memorable flourishes such as the opening prologue in Egypt or the few appearances of the famous X-Men theme. The photography is nowhere near as desaturated as it has been in previous films, and visually you can see it transform more and more into the popular 90s cartoon and the comic book aesthetic.

The action is simultaneously impressive and grandiose and very been-there-done-that with its wide-scale city destruction. It just isn’t new anymore. What keeps my investment going is the emotional content in these action scenes, and the film delivers on that successfully. One of the best set-pieces is the rescue Jean, Kurt and Scott stage to free Mystique and other mutants in Colonel Stryker’s (Josh Helman) Weapon X base, and we get the cameo of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in a tough-as-nails, intense and bloody escape, invoking the third act of X2. My one critique of the climax is the execution of the destruction scenes and that we don’t see much of the human suffering that’s being wrought, which would have ratcheted up the stakes and the tension. The majority of effects were up to today’s high standards and creatively shot and staged, but during many parts of the climax, the effects did lean far below the standard this series has established. Fortunately, the emotion is never compromised, and I can overlook less-than-impressive CGI if the characters and emotions are at the forefront.

The humour was surprisingly good, with a lot of the best visual comedy coming from Quicksilver in another death-defying stunt that would make The Flash jealous, easily topping the previous speedy rescue from X-Men: Days of Future Past. As a bonus, the choice of music in that scene is “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics, a splendid choice. McAvoy provides some excellent dry wit as well. The movie takes a little stab at The Last Stand, and possibly their position as being the third in a successful trilogy, by showing Jean, Scott and Jubilee walk out of Return of the Jedi with mixed opinions. While many would say it was too on-the-nose, it got a chuckle out of me. They recreate the 80s a bit too well, with a little too much indulgence in that period, with Alex Summers and Xavier sporting big mullets, but that’s a minor gripe. I will confess, the romance between Cyclops and Jean is rather lukewarm; the film doesn’t dedicate a lot of time to developing the relationship.

Admittedly, Apocalypse is not as good as Days of Future Past and First Class because it doesn’t have the gravity and emotional weight of the previous films. After such an impressive “second” outing, the chances of exceeding it were on the slim side. Despite the world-shattering events that occurred, it does feel as though life just goes on without much sense of a world that has changed. With all that said, thanks to a mostly engaged and passionate cast, it was very entertaining and full of exuberance and fun whilst still holding true to what we’ve come to appreciate in this reinvigorated franchise. There were a lot of characters and the majority of them have their chances to shine, and the spectacle was delivered along with the more cerebral and heartfelt components of the series. I call it a solid entry in the X-Men movie saga.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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