Film Review: X-Men – Apocalypse

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The Flashy but Empty '80s 

Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot.

In the third of the First Class trilogy begun with such verve and intelligence by Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman, the 1983 iterations of familiar characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey, discuss another trilogy closer, Return of the Jedi. They debate the virtues of the three movies and conclude, wryly, that no.3’s always the weakest. Well it was true of the original X-Men series and it’s true of this one.

Once Bryan Singer could claim an interloper (Brett Ratner) had burnt the edge and the intellect off his work and left spectacle. Now he’s the interloper, and fans of the series are left to lament what might have been, had Vaughn and Goldman been retained to take the likes of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender through the ‘70s and ‘80s instead of Singer and writer Simon Kinberg.

One feels the difference in the treatment of the series’ strongest character, Magneto. If First Class gave him a potent revenge arc that tied his fate to that of Kevin Bacon’s Nazi, endowing him with psychological depth and propelling the movie toward a conclusion that was both cathartic and tragic; a climax that tied the end to the beginning with great skill; Apocalypse does a half-hearted and underpowered job of pushing the character forward. We pick him up in communist Poland, an odd choice for an Auschwitz survivor, working in a steel factory and trying to live a low-key existence with his wife and young daughter. When he uses his powers to avert an industrial accident, ungrateful colleagues dob him into the state police, and his family, in a scene mirroring the one that opened both trilogies, pays the price.

This is the tantalising part of Apocalypse, a brief moment when Singer and Kinberg are interested in character building. Magneto’s a damaged victim driven by rage and a sense of persecution, who’s denied a happy life by fearful and oppressive humans. In a Vaughn and Goldman sequel, this would surely have formed the basis for the character’s further development in the next two acts. In Singer’s film, it’s a pretext for Magneto to join the eponymous Super-Mutant, a cross between Imhotep and Hitler, as a willing lieutenant and global architecture critic. His role for the remainder is to stand to one side and move a lot of metal while the big bad grandstands in simplistic, and you have to say, true ‘80s fashion. Hell, he even learns English from TV. How vintage is that?

In a climax that faintly echoes that of the aforementioned Return of the Jedi, Magneto sees sense, realises he’s shackled himself to a despot, and inadvertently saves his son, Quicksilver. But as Singer and Kinberg haven’t had the good sense to reveal the family connection to Magneto, there’s just half as much redemption and no emotional payoff for those moved by the first act destruction of the wife and daughter. The movie’s too busy with orgiastic scenes of pixelated destruction and balletic hand-to-hand combat to pick up character beats like these and turn them into big scenes. Perhaps that’s why the final act of Singer’s movie feels almost monotonous compared with the thrilling end to Vaughn’s.

And that, for the most part, is the story of the entire movie – sketchy character setups, built to a point, then abandoned for a long and exhausting conclusion. There’s not quite momentum in the first half to carry you through the second. Xavier at his “peak”, that Kinberg’s word not mine, amounts to lusting after Rosie Byrne, being controlled by Oscar Issac and encouraging a stronger mutant to save the day. If this trilogy demanded some kind of satisfying, if reluctant confrontation between McAvoy and Fassbender, then we have to settle for a battle by proxy. That’s the problem with choosing a villain more powerful but less interesting than either of the principle characters; he dominates in boorish, scene chewing fashion, replacing a battle of wills between people we care about with an attempt to defeat someone we don’t.

What began as a series with great promise, with a movie easily superior to those that preceded it, ends with an empty second sequel that can boast a few great moments, with Quicksliver once again stealing the show, but little in the way of grounded conflict between mutants and a probing of their psyche that sticks in the mind.

Jean Grey, the future Dark Phoenix, is the case in point. She’s a one dimensional teen with a pained face whose interest to us is attributed in dialogue rather than cultivated on-screen. What she represents is Singer’s flattening effect on this First Class series. He was gifted a terrific cast and layers of psychological intrigue that bested anything in his original series. From there he’s contrived, first in the cross-pollinating muddle that was Days of Future Past, then here, to make them junior versions of those originals – fun but shallow, setpiece props instead of fascinating people. He’s degenerated Vaughn’s original. Not the kind of mutation anyone expected or hoped for.

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Country: US

Year: 2016

Running Time: 144 mins

Certificate: 12A for setting up the desirable sequel "Magneto and Son", a well placed "fuck", and irritating X-Juniors.

10 Responses

  1. Tim Earnshaw says:

    Unlike Western, SF and many other genres, the superhero franchise is incapable of producing a movie that can break out to become a great movie in its own right. As you say, “fans of the series are left to lament what might have been”. But really, nobody else cares much, do they? Serious question.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      The serious answer is probably, no, but a supplementary question is, does that matter? You’re right that these movies aren’t particularly satisfying in their own right, because they’re conceived and plotted in episodic fashion rather than self-contained stories that link together, but that said First Class was a pretty satisfying movie overall. There have been great superhero movies I think – the original Superman, Burton’s Batman, but these pre-date cinematic universes, obviously. It’s not impossible that these movies can matter in their own right, but not with the televisual approach. It’s fine on TV, naturally, because you don’t have 2 years between installments and there’s more structural and narratological coherence. People who don’t like these flicks needn’t care. It should only concern general audiences in as much as these franchises make studios even more risk averse and crowd out the market. If this continues it’s possible you’ll never see an original blockbuster again. For people interested in smaller movies, namely all the others, it’ll matter as much as it ever did.

      • Tim Earnshaw says:

        “For people interested in smaller movies, namely all the others …”

        “Real” movies have effectively been made smaller by the market domination of superhero franchise movies. There’s always been a gulf between the blockbuster and the art film (whatever – terminolgy flexible here), but that gulf has always been crossable; great movies could be ticket-sellers too. Not only is it very unlikely that the rubberhead-n’-cape genre will throw up a proper movie, they’ve made it harder for smaller movies (“all the others”, as you say) to get bankrolled.

        There’s another thing – pre-superhero franchise movies, the blockbusters were varied, often adult, and frequently showed a version of the real world out there; real locations, real situations, real drama. Superhero franchise movies take place in a CGI universe, a closed, claustrophobic and headachey place that doesn’t reflect the earth we all live on at all. Do I want to enter the interior world of the comics fan? Rhetorical question.

        Virtual reality, which is where mass entertainment is headed, may help to clear the way for good movies*, because superhero fans will be in their basements wearing virtual capes, connected in some hellish universe that Marvel only gives us a glimpse of.

        (*yeah, right …)

        • Say whut? What’s so “not real” about the X-verse (aside from the obvious)? We get REAL government attitudes to war, greed and power (Colonel Stryker and the alarm of the governments of the world over having their nuclear “night comfort” toys stolen), we get REAL attitudes to ‘The Other’ (the Polish soldiers who come for Magneto, despite the fact he’d saved a co-worker and had been living in peaceful self-exile as “family-man-era” John Lennon for enough years to father a 7 or 8 year old daughter), etc etc.

          In fact, I contend the X-Men film franchise is probably THE most “real” of ALL of the Stuporhero* flix.

          And at the risk of annoying you further by answering your “rhetorical question”, it reeks of abject snobbery, sir. Bah!

          *I use this term purely so you cannot simply write me off as “Oh, he’s just another undiscerning comics-obsessed fanboy” and swan off to your Fortress Of Superiority (you know, the one right next door to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude).

  2. Jim says:

    I have issues with this reviewer holding Vaughn to such a high regard. First Class was fun and had psychological complexity for Xavier and Magneto yes, but it also betrayed the core themes of this series by killing off an African-American character halfway through the movie AND reduced women to either pointless eye candy (Moira McTaggart in the strip club scene, Emma Frost) or gave them very rushed ‘turn to the dark side’ arcs (Angel Salvadore, Mystique). It is striking that by the end, the only X-Men left were white guys. Singer is not much better yes, but it is far more blatant in Vaughn’s work (see the crass joke at the end of Kingsman).

  3. Kevin Johnson says:

    Not that it matters much, and it doesn’t exactly damn the review (I haven’t seen the movie, and the reviewer could be spot on), but the review makes it sound like–though it doesn’t explicitly say so–Vaughan directed Days of Futures Past, when in fact Singer directed it. Whether this is Singer’s worst X-Men movie or not, I don’t know yet (the trailers haven’t quite sold me on it, to be honest), but Vaughan only directed one X-Men movie, and I feel that, like most unnecessary prequels, it mostly retreaded already established elements, save for changing Mystique’s backstory in ways that frankly seem more juvenile than anything in Days of Future’s Past (did we learn nothing from the Star Wars prequels? We don’t need or want to see our heroes and villains as children or teenagers). Still, it was far better than Ratner’s version, where Magneto scorned her after she was forcibly turned “normal.”

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Hi Kevin,

      I was not my intention to imply as much, but that’s my fault. I’ve amended the review with a clause that clarifies the argument that Apocalypse represents the culmination of a trend, begun with Days of Future Past, in which Singer has devolved Vaughn’s movie – in my view, the best of either series.

  4. A fair and balanced review, and one that I mostly agree with. So much potential pissed down the Lowest Common Denominator drain of Blockbuster .

    The only thing I take issue with is the general assertion here by other commentators that the superhero genre is inherently incapable of delivering a pop culture classic to rival, say, “A Fistful Of Dollars”, “Dirty Harry”, and “The Terminator” (MY choices, er – obviously!). Perhaps their crystal balls are better polished than mine, but there’s absolutely NO reason that ‘men in tights’ flix cannot one day “deliver the goods”. I think ‘Watchmen’ came 65.8% close, but was hamstrung (ironically) by an over-slavish fidelity to its source material, probably brought on by the belief that ‘Watchmen’ is THE most important superhero comicbook ever written (it’s not). Therfore, it simply forgot that comics and cinema are two VERY different mediums. But I digress! LoL

    The biggest tragedy (for me) with ‘X-Men: Puckerylips’ was that one could see how good it could have been in different hands. I have NO IDEA who played that bellicose villain bloke, nor do I care to, but whoever it was, I hope I never see him in a similar role again. The dialogue in this outing was also painfully bad, and whoever chose “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of These” for the fun Quicksilver rescue scene needs to be tied to a tree and have the entire Eurythmics catalogue on vinyl hurled at them a la ‘Shaun of The Dead’ (perhaps a few CDs and the odd cassette tape as well, in fact). The song bore absolutely NO relation to the scene, so that same person should also go back to ‘Tarantino Song Scoring School’ once they’re out of traction as well.

    Um…that’ll do! Cheers 🙂

    • Oops – I meant “pissed down the Lowest Common Denominator Drain of Blockbuster Video Urinals.” That’ll teach me for letting a ‘bon mot’ sit and percolate! LoL

      • Aargh! “I have NO IDEA who played that bellicose villain bloke, nor do I care to FIND OUT…” *Sigh*

        Um, perhaps a “Preview your comment before posting and severely embarrassing yourself” widget thingy might be in order on your page? I’m sure dunderheads like myself who rattle off these missives faster than The Flash undressing for a HOT SEX 3SUM would VERY MUCH appreciate it :-). Just a thort (stet)!