Release Date: May 18th, 2016 (UK); May 27th, 2016 (US)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy
Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Oscar Isaac
It’s fitting that X-Men: Apocalypse should arrive on the heels of Captain America: Civil War, though not for the most flattering reason. Since Marvel Studios launched its Cinematic Universe back in 2008, the studio has carved out quite the mountainous niche for itself. From Iron Man onwards, the films under the MCU banner have followed a fairly compact narrative structure: stories with potentially world-ending consequences told atop a spine of levity. Civil War is the clearest, most effective representation of that structure we’ve had thus far, its serious themes of accountability and government distrust lightened via bouts of humour. While other outings have had some success, the Russo brothers’ tonal balancing act in Civil War is as close to faultless as the MCU might ever see.
Back, then, to X-Men: Apocalypse, a feature that strives to have more in common with this Marvel prerogative than its own pre-established mantra. Bryan Singer’s film, penned by Simon Kinberg (they last worked together on Days of Future Past), is probably the funniest X-Men instalment to date, bearing a commendable number of snappy one-liners and some less commendable instances of accidental amusement. But elements of its story are also deeply serious and the filmmakers struggle to marry this seriousness with the humour, at times to the movie’s downfall. The issue is not that Singer and Kinberg want to make us laugh, it’s that the filmmakers’ deployment of humour is grossly misplaced. More on that later.
It’s pretty much your bog-standard superhero showdown: a big bad (En Sabah Nur, played by an Oscar Isaac struggling valiantly against the character’s broad strokes) rises from the dust and ruin of a fallen ancient empire to wreak havoc upon the 1980s, and it’s up to the good mutants (led by Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy) to stop him. En route to worldwide recalibration — an odd sequence sees Nur decry the weakness of humankind and our technologies via television montage — the super-mutant recruits a handful of powerful followers, one of whom is Magneto (Michael Fassbender), plucked from a covert life in Poland with his wife and daughter. There are a bunch of others involved but that’s about the gist.
Unsurprisingly, most of the others are mutants and again we see a few treated unfairly, like freak attractions. We are introduced to Angel (Ben Hardy) in the midst of a one-sided cage fight and reintroduced to Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as his next opponent. Scott Summers’ (Tye Sheridan) unearthed Cyclops ability sets him apart in high school and primes him for bullying — lots of characters are either new or feel new because they haven’t had the chance to shine before, not that many get a chance to shine here. This demonisation of mutants, a class/race theme the X-Men series has sought to investigate more intensely in the past, is why Erik Lehnsherr wants to keep his true identity a secret from fellow co-workers and the authorities.
Lehnsherr is by far the most interesting character, not least because he’s the sort of intellectual powerhouse who can back up an Icarus and Daedalus reference (careful) with actual menace. While the excellent work carried out by the likes of Kinberg in previous outings has afforded Lehnsherr intrigue, it’s really Fassbender who has instilled authority and ethical contention into the character. A terrific moment in Apocalypse sees Lehnsherr have his peaceful family life unmasked through preventing the death of a co-worker, and Fassbender’s expression of subtle anguish as Lehnsherr realises his veiled existence is about to be torn apart is wonderfully judged. I won’t give anything else away about the catalyst that sends Lehnsherr over the edge other than noting its compelling moral dichotomy.
It’s fair to say this instalment is less concerned with class warfare undercurrents than before (Days of Future Past pitted human against mutant with more complex personal tension). Humour takes precedence in moments that otherwise would be weighty, most notably during a scene where Lehnsherr, Magneto tendencies in full flow, interrupts his own heartbreaking diatribe about loss and tragedy with a cheap made-for-laughs F-bomb. There are also unintentionally funny lines, such as Moira MacTaggert’s (Rose Byrne) revelation that Nur’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have fed religion and not vice versa (“The Bible got it from him”). Another hokily hilarious moment: an 80s hard rock guitar riff playing over a brooding shot of Nur.
Elsewhere we see a throughline about sacrificing oneself for the greater good, or bad. The film’s prologue — almost a National Treasure spin-off short — depicts the reinvigoration of an ageing Nur and those putting it all on the line to ensure his rebirth. Later, Charles offers himself up in a mental battle like any hero worth his or her weight in righteousness would do. Beneath these two opposing leaders are fractured souls: all four Horsemen are broken before teaming with Nur, for instance, while Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) feels the brunt of inner turmoil on the good side. Turner offers promise as the mind manipulator, a well-balanced mixture of Sansa Stark’s newfound steel and a teenager’s self-doubt, but the material doesn’t serve her well: “You’re not the biggest freak in the school now,” Grey laments to Summers as if reading from page one of How to Create School Stereotypes.
Summers fares little better, moping and angry in one scene then cockily orchestrating a mall trip the next. Their arc factors in burgeoning love, another trope explored under various guises with varying success. For Grey and Summers it’s about the immaturity of youth and finding common ground in how they are each unable to fully grasp their powers. Charles is whipped into an awkward frenzy when he reacquaints with Moira, she unaware of their previously held bond, he having erased it from her memory in First Class. The most effective relationship (or lack thereof), though, is also the most nuanced: shared by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), at least there is some historical clout behind it.
Newton Thomas Sigel delivers scintillating shots from above as nuclear rockets shoot skyward, images that brilliantly denote the scope of Nur’s plan. It’s a shame such scope falls by the wayside during a climactic battle scene that devolves into a disengaging CG stramash, something the MCU has also struggled with. It’s clear the filmmakers are visually better than their final act, especially when you factor in another superb Quicksilver (Evan Peters) sequence from earlier in the movie. Again it is one of the best scenes, vibrant and witty and full of style and flair. Peters’ version of the character is an alacritous gem, free of the cynicism incumbent upon other mutants who have spent so much time fighting wars. He really ought to be a banner act.
McAvoy’s hair is more glorious than ever in preparation for the balding we all know is coming, and that aesthetic prerequisite is indicative of the film in a general sense. There is a lot of surface promise going on, a bunch of mild chuckles and some solid acting endeavour, but when it comes down to thematic development there is a sense of inevitability. You can see how all the pieces are going to fit and that hasn’t always been the case with X-Men. I did find the two and a half hours enjoyable enough, but then this is a movie that had Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender standing next to one another reciting baloney, both limited by bad tone management. That’s almost unforgivable.
Images copyright: 20th Century Fox