Folks, this is Marvel’s world, we just live in it. From the perspective of one who has been immersed in geek culture since a very early age, of one who has collected 4-color pulp masterpieces since entering adolescence, comes a dejectedly discouraging testimony…, X-Men: Apocalypse is not the ultimate X-Men movie, nor is it a Marvel mutant saga actually worth watching; it’s not very exciting, it’s even less captivating, and it’s almost no fun, at all.
Taking place in the same timeline continuum as X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse — directed with workmanlike competence by X-Men movie maven, Bryan Singer — takes place in the early 1980s, approximately ten years after the events of Days of Future Past.
An ancient, powerful mutant with near godlike powers by the name of En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) — betrayed thousands of years ago and entombed in a state of suspended animation beneath what is now Cairo — is accidentally resurrected when CIA operative Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) investigates the cult that has arisen around the legend of his existence.
Freed finally upon the world that deceived him, En Sabah Nur, now Apocalypse, gathers four powerful mutants to him to serve as his Four Horsemen as he seeks to remake the world in his image…, which, no surprise, means cleansing the world of its vanilla humanity, and elevating instantly all mutants to the inheritors of the Earth. In short order, we see Apocalypse recruit Ororo Munroe/ Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a grieving Erik Lehnsherr/ Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to his side, to serve him as his lieutenants in his quest for world domination and human subjugation.
Meanwhile, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), fresh off her own worldwide mutant recruitment tour, returns (albeit reluctantly) with a young Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the school Professor Xavier opened for mutants grappling with their emerging powers. She reunites briefly with Beast (Nicholas Hoult), but rekindling their relationship is clearly not on her agenda. At the same time, an undeveloped, pre-Cyclops Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), who leans heavily on his brother, Alex Summers, a.k.a. Havok (Lucas Till), to help guide him through the awakening of his own mutant powers, meets an equally fledgling Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) who, while one of the most powerful and talented telepaths in the world, has yet to confront the Phoenix power within her. Quickly, Apocalypse and his Four Horsemen force Professor X (James McAvoy) and the nascent X-Men to a face-off, with the world and all of humanity as the stakes.
This is the type of film that (were it anthropomorphized) would be that hyper-needy acquaintance who wants so desperately for you to like them that, as a consequence, they try way too hard to curry your favor, and end up alienating you, rather than ingratiating themselves to you.
The most glaring issue with X-Men: Apocalypse is in its premise…, if you’ve already jeopardized all of humanity’s existence twice (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: First Class), how do you raise the stakes? If the only way to escalate the looming danger is to then threaten the permanence, the apparent eternalness of Earth itself, does such a razor-thin distinction in the danger make any material difference to the lives of those people threatened once again with nonexistence? Because such largely immaterial variations are of no significant difference whatsoever to a moviegoing audience already jaded by witnessing world-ending peril after world-ending peril.
As much as the suits at 20th Century Fox may wish it weren’t so, they must acknowledge that they do not create Marvel mutant movies in a vacuum; their films coexist with a virtual flood of Marvel Studios filmed product, both on the silver screen, as well as the small (4K Ultra HD 3D television) screen. The general public has witnessed the potential unmaking of the world and its civilizations several times over, already, just in Marvel films alone (The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Dr. Strange), not to mention all of the extinction-level event meteor impacts, alien invader macro-aggressions, ancient “end of the world” prophecies, and mutually-assured self-destructions that other film studios have churned out on the regular for decades.
DC is not immune to this fevered delirium, either; they’re just as guilty as Fox of upping to the stakes to an unsustainable level more than once by foisting off on a superhero-loving public invincible, invulnerable super-beings trying to punch each other to death while someone or something attempts to reshape or destroy the Earth. Even 20th Century Fox’s has raised the ultimate stakes no less than three times in each of their theatrical outings with one of their other Marvel properties, The Fantastic Four. Eventually, inevitably, a “Doomsday” fatigue sets in with the movie going audience, and any potential jeopardy no longer makes an emotional impact. Such is the case with X-Men: Apocalypse.
Despite the weakness of the story, there are several standout performances and moments that just hint at the movie that might have been, had the screenplay rested in more gifted hands. Smit-McPhee sticks the landing as a young Kurt Wagner, and one wonders at the delights and pleasures that an X-Men film centered on Smit-McPhee’s subtle, nuanced performance as Nightcrawler might have yielded. Evan Peters makes a hugely confident impact as Peter Maximoff. Once again — as was true of Quicksilver’s self-assured rescue of Magneto in First Class — the visual realization of Quicksilver moving effortlessly at ultra-high velocity through a world that is, for him, essentially standing still, is to watch pure cinema crafted from the headiest joy imaginable, a thing of beauty and wonder to behold.
Sadly, geek fan favorite Olivia Munn makes virtually no impression as Psylocke. Munn is a solid actress and, given the right material (i.e., well-written), she is fully capable of knocking a performance out of the park. Munn possesses a keen intelligence, a quick wit, and an intuitive understanding of comedy — both in physical execution as well as verbal delivery — that rivals that of the old masters (Munn very nearly single-handedly snatches Office Christmas Party out from underneath battle-seasoned comedy pro, Jason Bateman). Regrettably, she’s given nothing of any significance to do in Apocalypse, and even less to say.
What’s most disturbing is that it’s not just the film’s ready, willing, and able young stars — Shipp, Hardy, Sheridan, Turner, and Till — that leave no impression beyond that of an empty slot duly filled. The film’s heavy hitters — McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Hoult, Byrne, and the criminally underused Isaac — similarly have so little of impact to say, and so little of significance to do…, beyond that of glowering ominously, gritting their teeth in resolute determination, or metaphorically wringing their hands in existential misgiving, of course.
Oh, yes, there is an avalanche of words spoken, and a surfeit of stupendous action, but a terrible paucity of either that actually means anything beyond that of providing spectacle to a ticket-buying audience laying down upwards of $15 apiece to be “entertained.” So much amazing potential, so much completely wasted.
Add to the list of problems with this film is that of this series’ “been there, done that” imagery. There are only so many way to render into a reasonably interesting visual a scene of Magneto invisibly manipulating metal while floating threateningly in mid-air. Likewise, how many times can Professor Xavier’s school be destroyed, and then rebuilt? How many anonymous soldiers can fall beneath Wolverine’s claws?
Of course, the answers to all of these Apocalypse conundrums lies, as always, in the single most difficult element absolutely necessary to the production of a successful motion picture with the greatest emotional effect on the viewer…, the script. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg (laboring undoubtedly under the unbearable weight of no less than three other story contributors; Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris) fumbles every opportunity to craft a storyline both timeless and elegant, its emotions subtle, and its impact lasting.
Movies are somewhat akin to computers, in that the adage “garbage in, garbage out” is, at all times, an absolute truth. If the X-Men: Apocalypse filmmakers had invested as much time, effort and energy into a screenwriter capable of crafting a worthy script, as they had investing money into its production design and special effects, the audience might have been gifted with an ultimate X-Men movie, a Marvel mutant saga actually worth watching.
BOTTOM LINE: Worth watching only if you can catch it for free, and purchase-worthy on DVD or Blu-ray only for the hardest of the hardcore Marvel Zombie completists. Otherwise, don’t feel bad if you decide to give X-Men: Apocalypse a miss; there’s little here that you haven’t seen before, and better, somewhere else.