Principal Cast : James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Lucas Till, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy, Lana Condor.
Synopsis: After the re-emergence of the world’s first mutant, world-destroyer Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.
It’s amazing to think that Fox’s X-Men franchise, bought from Marvel back when the comic book giant needed to stave off bankruptcy, has been going for 16 years at the time Apocalypse was released. The 9th official in-canon film (including 2016’s other entry, Deadpool), and a direct sequel to X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days Of Future Past (the latter directed by Bryan Singer after a significant absence from the saga), Apocalypse reunites the beloved mutant gang in the 1980’s, as Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), the future Cyclops, is introduced to Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his School For Gifted Children. The “apocalypse” of the title refers to a dual narrative; the character Apocalypse, played here by rising superstar Oscar Isaac, and the fact that the actions of the world’s first mutant (Patient Zero, if you will) will possibly bring about the extinction of humanity. With a staggering A-list cast and engorged action antics with which to play, Singer’s Apocalypse is exactly the tent-pole blockbuster deliverance fanboys and casual audiences will relish in years to come.
Having said that, Apocalypse is a film with more than a few problems. For once, the focus is removed from the Xavier/Magneto byplay which has been the staple of this franchise’s modus operandi since the very beginning, instead flapping about like an untrained seal onto the young ensemble of players now inhabiting the famous mutant identities. Hank McCoy, aka Beast, is again played by Nicholas Hoult, and once more comes off as Charles’ sidekick/butler, albeit a very smart one. Evan Peters reprises the role of Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, who happens to be Magneto’s son and a young man trying to find his place in the world. And of course, the over-hyped Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, the shape-shifting mutant who yearns for an equality between humans and mutants but is constantly forced into battle by events beyond her control.
New to the franchise are Sophie Turner, as psychic Jean Grey (a character closely associated with Famke Janssen), Tye Sheridan’s Scott Summers and his brother Alex (Lucas Till), and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler (previously essayed by Alan Cumming in the earlier films). Each actor is lumbered with prior history of the character in the older films, and although Singer works hard to redefine them by their current incumbents, it’s a steep slope to make them feel fresh or unique. Turner’s Jean Grey is perhaps key to the new X-Members (heh), with her growing power and fear of hurting people by accident a tantalising subplot that, sadly, isn’t fully realised in the way you’d hope it might. Sheridan’s Cyclops is, like his previous incarnation in James Marsden, fairly bland in personality, although Sheridan does try and give him a teenage arrogance of sorts, and it works better than it has previously.
Battling his way through a real quicksand of a character arc is Michael Fassbender as Magneto, the franchise’s anti-hero-sorta-villain-slash-misunderstood-mutant grappling with guilt, rage and a sense of vengeance. Fassbender is a better actor than this film deserves, really, as Magneto’s estrangement from Charles and the mutant/human battle features less prominently as is has on previous occasions; this in itself isn’t a bad thing, but the vacuum created by Magneto’s reduced involvement in the film isn’t filled with strong enough characters to mitigate the loss. A moment early in the film, in which the character loses something very precious to him, is a pivotal one in his arc, and utterly crystallises his association with Apocalypse throughout, but it’s a moment of strength above a fairly bland revocation of the previous films’ solid foundation.
Instead of the series’ pronounced analogous racial undertones, Apocalypse turns into a fairly straight-up superhero movie. Disparagement aside, this isn’t a bad decision but coupled with the overabundance of characters and fanservice Singer injects into the goings-on it leaves the movie feeling more cookie-cutter than it ought. Even a brief extended cameo to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (here, in-continuity with the new X-Men timeline) can’t brighten what is a flash-bang destructo-jumble of rote story points, surrounding Isaac’s growling performance as the title villain. Apocalypse, heralded by the film as the original mutant on Earth, awakes beneath his Egyptian pyramid tomb and walks the planet threatening to return civilisation to the stone age, recruiting others with a grudge to bear to his cause. They include a nascent Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Angel (Ben Hardy), alongside Magneto himself. Naturally, the young X-Men team up to stop them, but it’s not a battle easily won (of course).
In accommodating the old (Charles, Magneto) with the younger brigade, Singer can’t quite find the right balance between telling a good, cohesive story and servicing the franchise’s ballooning world-building requirements. Tips o’ the hat to previous instalments, recurring characters (Josh Helman’s Colonel Stryker makes another appearance, although to what end I’m still confused) and reestablishing the friendships and core X-Men grouping seem to restrict organic storytelling to the degree it’s a little by-the-numbers. You do get the feeling that, in echoing the Marvel and DC connected cinematic universe style, Apocalypse is trying to set up future events often in spite of figuring out the current events. It’s not obvious, but it is present, and – if you stick through the closing credits – clever enough in parts to bring a knowing smile to long-time fans.
At the end of the day, though, what audiences come to see are mutants doing mutant things, and that certainly happens here. Magneto’s dispatching of various people using his powers, not to mention his planetary ability to shift continents (yeah, true story), is a shock-and-awe CG festival of design and green-screen. Charles and Jean’s mental abilities are given the fantastic visual acuity Singer himself established back in the original X-Men. Scott’s eyebeams look cool again, Psylocke’s pink energy sword-thing is heaps cool, and Nightcrawler’s transporting effects are treated almost indifferently by the camera. Heck, even Apocalypse himself dispatches several unwitting victims in unique and clever ways, making him a truly formidable enemy. That’s the thing, I think: too often comic book films don’t treat their villains with the gravitas or power level heroes need to overcome with respect, but Apocalypse is indeed one for the ages, with an extinction-level power set and single-minded mission to build a new world order, and the raw hubris to back it up.
X-Men: Apocalypse is a big-budget slam-dunk franchise entry for everyone’s favourite mutant gang, but it’s far from being the best of the bunch thanks to bloated story requirements and a lack of focus on key elements of the ongoing saga. Utterly wasted are Fassbender and Lawrence, even though they’re key draws for the film, with the story instead reliant on the terrific chemistry between the younger players in Hoult, Turner, Smit-McPhee, Peters and Sheridan, all of whom feel “right” for the rapidly de-aging characters this franchise spends time with. Singer gets most of it right, a bit of it wrong, and all of it at least delivers the world-ending spectacle the franchise has long promised. Solid, entertaining and at times moving (mostly when Fassbender’s Magneto is on screen), Apocalypse is an engaging entry in the world of the X.