Bryan Singer fumbles the ball in a messy, cartoony sequel
Notwithstanding X-Men First Class -Matthew Vaughan’s better-than-Xpected (sorry) 'preboot' TM LUCASISKING -the X-Men franchise essentially belonged to Bryan Singer. The talented director arguably kick-started the current superhero film renaissance with X-Men (opening the cinematic door for Sam Raimi’s Spiderman in the process), and showed it was possible to realise an ensemble superhero epic over a decade before the Avengers ever assembled. He followed with the fantastic, superior sequel X2 (arguably the Empire Strikes Back of superhero films); and after abandoning the ship for Superman (leaving rather less secure hands at the wheel) he returned with a vengeance for the superb X Men Days of Future Past, which for me ties with X2 as the pinnacle of the series.
It’s doubly disappointing then that under the auspices of someone who appeared invested in the X Men universe, this latest X adventure is a colossal disappointment. Dubious casting, lacklustre performances, a retread of old ground, messy continuity, speech-bubble dialogue, CGI overload, a return to consequence-free destruction (has Singer been asleep for the past 3 years??), choppy editing, and an uneven tone are just some of the legion of problems that plague the film, and that’s even before we get to some of the huge storytelling problems that (for me) undermine the X-Men mythology he created. If Captain America Civil War showed us how to get a thematically complex superhero epic right, Apocalypse shows us to get it spectacularly wrong.
It’s not all bad news though. Like Batman vs. Superman (also a mess) there are undeniably good things to take away from the film. There are emotional moments (courtesy of Fassbender’s early scenes as Erik Lehnsherr), some cool action scenes, and one or two decent characters that shine brighter than others. Kodi Smit McPhee’s ‘Nightcrawler’ and Evan Peter’s ‘Quicksilver’ are standouts; and in addition to those (rather like Gal Gadot’s scene-stealing Wonder Woman) Olivia Munn’s gorgeously badass ‘Psylocke’ will get male pulses racing. James McAvoy (surprisingly) gets the most amount of humour although his performance as Xavier still doesn’t feel as natural as Patrick Stewart’s. And Michael Fassbender proves he is incapable of delivering a poor performance even when his character is dreadfully short-changed (more on that later). There is also a scene featuring the aforementioned Quicksilver that is pure comic book delight. Rather like Deadpool’s highway set piece and Civil War’s airport extravaganza; this is another example of how to really have fun with comic book material on the big screen. It’s an absolute delight.
Unfortunately there are character casualties. Sophie Turner gives it her best, but she just feels miscast and uncomfortable as Jean (her accent is also a bit unpolished) and lacks the presence of Fanke Janssen. Jennifer Lawrence also seems bored and humourless as Raven/ Mystique; and while she was great in Days of Future Past she now seems like she’d rather be elsewhere. Her character also lacks the seductive, feline grace of Rebecca Romijn’s version. Tye Sheridan (also miscast) is also punchable as Scott, in a rebellious role ironically designed to invoke thoughts of Wolverine. Nicholas Hoult and Rose Byrne have little or nothing to do, and Alexandra Shipp fails to make much of an impression as Storm. There is a cameo from a familiar character, and its a great scene but it feels grossly out of place and marks a hideously jarring tonal shift. Magneto’s character is the most explored of the regulars, but I found his willingness to follow Apocalypse to be bizarre; he becomes a power-drunk genocidal maniac; making his lofty disdain for humanity later in the film a bit rich. And there’s the rub: In previous X-men films, humans were always the real antagonists: Senator Kelly, William Stryker, Bolivar Trask. People with agendas forcing the hand of mutantkind. Without that element, the justification for mutant mayhem evaporates.
And what of Apocalypse, the titular big bad? The X Men films have always fared well with their villainry, until now that is. Caked in rubbery make-up, a hokey voice and some silly powers, Apocalypse comes across as something out of 1980s Doctor Who episode. No offence to the fantastic Oscar Isaac (who made such a great impression as Nathan in Ex Machina) but Apocalypse is a corny, thoroughly unimpressive antagonist more likely to inspire laughter than dread. His motivations are dull; a vague desire to ‘cleanse’ the Earth, and there’s no reason for any mutants to follow him other than fear or self-interest (which are the very traits they supposedly despise in humanity). Apocalypse tempts mutants with the promise of enhanced powers; and like greedy children they all lap it up and feel no compunction about visiting cataclysmic damage (not to mention incalculable loss of life) on the world at his behest. One begins to feel that the anti-mutant lobby had a point all along...
In conclusion then, Apocalypse is a redundant, overstuffed film with an uncertain narrative and sloppy filmmaking that seems unfathomable from the director who made it such a hit in the first place. And that makes this even harder to swallow than Brett Ratner’s effort. The series hasn’t moved forward in its 16 years of storytelling- we’re essentially still on square one. The film teases further adventures, but it’s hard to get excited by a franchise that doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go. There’s an end credits scene that will be meaningless to all but the most well read X-Men comic fans; and it’s doubtful at this point if whatever it teases will see the light of day.
Surely it’s only a matter of time before the more interesting X-men & women (of which there are surprisingly few) are seconded to Deadpool, or assimilated into the MCU. Something tells me they’d have a lot more fun there (and so would we).