'X-Men: Apocalypse' review: Step back for series, but latest 'X-Men' movie 'works well enough'
There's a three-way brawl going on in the Marvel universe, but it doesn't involve Spider-Man, Captain America, or Deadpool. Instead, the combatants are the three major movie studios who've divvied up the film rights to Marvel characters in licensing deals, some of which go back decades.
In this corner we have Sony, makers of a Spider-Man series that has sunk so low since 2004's Spider-Man 2 that they punted the character back to our second combatant, Marvel Studios. In 2004, after years of seeing the majors compromise their intellectual property by making horrible film adaptations, they decided to finance and produce their own damn movies, in what would develop into an unprecedented winning streak. To this day, just when you think they're finally out of gas, Marvel releases a blockbuster like Guardians of the Galaxy or an energetic minor entry like Ant-Man.
Finally, there's 20th Century Fox, makers of the dreadful Fantastic Four movies but also the X-Men series, of which X-Men: Apocalypse is the latest. Though variable in quality, the X-films are the richest in character and thematic texture, unafraid to explore the concept's underlying message.
Giving credit to Bryan Singer
For this, we must recognize director Bryan Singer. He helmed the series' first two installments and while we have a strong inkling as to why Singer originally chose to tackle this subject matter, in polite company we'll just say that a story about outsiders struggling to integrate into society resonated with him. And it was fun while it lasted, until the series lost its way, defeated by tentpole cinema's most unstoppable supervillain, X-Men: The Last Stand director, Brett Ratner (the butt of Apocalypse's best one-liner).
Since then, X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) righted the ship by re-prioritizing character, with the latter film also cleverly incorporating historical events and giving weight to the relationship between its two lions in winter, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen).
In Apocalypse, Stewart, McKellen, and the character-first approach go a bit AWOL, victims of the excess that has too often rendered superhero epics repetitive and numbing. But with Singer again at the helm, Apocalypse still maintains enough visual elegance and emotional credibility to preserve its status as the superhero series made by, and for, adults.
'X-Men: Apocalypse' unfortunate choice: 'Standard cartoon supervillain'
The X-Men films are uniquely fascinating because their subtextual villain has always been the audience. Or, more specifically, audience members unaccepting of other races, religions, and sexual orientations, yet who've lined up for the past 16 years to enjoy a film series that argues against prejudice. So it's a shame Apocalypse jettisons much of that in favor of a standard cartoon supervillain with dreams of world domination.
More than 5,000 years after being buried under a collapsed Egyptian pyramid, an uber-mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, for some reason) has awakened in 1983 with a vague desire to “wipe clean this world.” That's odd logic considering that billions of enslaved human would be useful in building monuments to his greatness, preparing his victuals, and washing his car.
In an unwieldy, fast-moving first act, Apocalypse (great name for a puppy, by the way) crisscrosses the planet gathering four mutants to help his cause, including Psylocke (Olivia Munn), one of the only mutants in the entire series whose costume matches that of the comics, a nod to the monetary benefits of young boys seeing a beautiful woman in fetish gear.
Artists instead of fanboys at the helm
Apocalypse's other horsemen are Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and, most crucially, Lehnsherr (the younger version, played by series asset Michael Fassbender) the conflicted Holocaust survivor who has hung up his Magneto helmet for a quiet existence with his wife and daughter in a Polish forest.
It's here that Singer once again demonstrates the advantage of having artists – not fanboys – shoot and direct superhero films; in a tense and tragic showdown, metal-controlling Lehnsherr is surrounded by authorities armed with wooden bows and arrows. The disastrous result, heightened by DP Newton Thomas Sigel's slow motion images and the mournful strains of John Ottman's varied score, sends Magneto into the sway of Apocalypse.
Evan Peters' Quicksilver stands out
If the Spider-Man series had one advantage, it was not having to introduce other characters for launching in future movies. Sony made five Spider-Man movies where Spider-Man was the only superhero, which nowadays seems art-house austere. Today, scripters, directors, and editors double as Cirque du Soleil-level jugglers, making sure each Avenger has something noteworthy to do and that every Tom, Dick, and Aquaman in the DCU is properly introduced.
Days of Future Past took this one step further by having some characters played by two different actors, one older, one younger. Apocalypse prunes away some of the excess, leaving just the young cast, but there are still too many heroes which means too little investment in any one character.
Shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, underused and looking tired of the whole thing), the teleporting alien Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), laser-eyed Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, barely registering), and Professor X (James McAvoy, sensitive yet authoritative) all depend on screenwriter/traffic cop Simon Kinberg to deliver their big moment. And he obliges, mixing SOP fights sequences with more resonant scenes of ostracized and estranged youngsters, struggling to understand and incorporate their new powers.
Then there's Quicksilver, by far the film's most enjoyable character. As played by a silver-coiffed, leather-jacketed Evan Peters, the puckish Quicksilver looks like he Fonzie'd in off the street to remind the squares that being a superhero can still be cool beans. Neither Singer's failed attempt to replicate Quicksilver's show-stopping “Time in a Bottle” scene from Days of Future Past, nor the backstory bombshell that smacks of sequel seed-planting diminishes the impact of the character's offbeat presence.
Despite flaws, timeless and resilient theme 'manages to peek through'
X-Men: Apocalypse is a step back for a series that was already a couple steps ahead. Mostly because Bryan Singer's instincts feel off. The young Lehnsherr's scene in Auschwitz from 2000's X-Men worked. Bringing him back in Apocalypse is questionable at best. The excessive CGI climax only reminds us of the Brett Ratner sequel that Singer had previously ridiculed.
But unlike the flatulent bloviating of a dilettante like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse works well enough because it's struck through with a theme so timeless and resilient that even when ignored or backburnered, it still manages to peek through.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Dir.: Bryan Singer.
Scr.: Simon Kinberg.
Story: Bryan Singer. Simon Kinberg. Michael Dougherty. Dan Harris.
Cast: James McAvoy. Michael Fassbender. Oscar Isaac. Jennifer Lawrence. Olivia Munn. Evan Peters. Nicholas Hoult.
Rose Byrne. Josh Helman. Sophie Turner. Tye Sheridan. Lucas Till. Kodi Smit-McPhee. Ben Hardy. Lana Condor. Ally Sheedy.
Alexandra Shipp. Joanne Boland. Ryan Hollyman.
Cameos: Hugh Jackman. Zeljko Ivanek. Stan Lee.
Image of Oscar Isaac in costume as Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse: 20th Century Fox.
Image of Michael Fassbender as Magneto a.k.a. Erik Lehnsherr in X-Men: Apocalypse: 20th Century Fox.
X-Men: Apocalypse cast info via the IMDb.
X-Men: Apocalypse trailer: 20th Century Fox.