Directed By: Bryan Singer
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Hugh Jackman, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Olivia Munn, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy, Lana Condor, Carolina Bartczak, Tómas Lemarquis
2016 is undoubtedly the year of the comic book movie. So as the credits rolled on X-Men: Apocalypse I found myself wondering where it sat on the scale in comparison to the previous offerings we’ve had this year. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War, but it’s also far from the dismal offering that was Batman VS Superman. Basically, while it’s not perfect, it’s still great! So you can imagine my bewilderment when I found out that the film currently sits at a paltry 49% on film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (at the time of writing), following a savaging by critics. Many of the reviews that I’ve read have all left me with the same impression-that their writers had made up their minds before even seeing the movie, determined to hate a film they proclaim to be part of a “tired series”, rather than judging it on it’s own merits. But far from being a lacklustre entry in a dead series, Apocalypse builds on the franchise changing events of 2014’s Days of Future Past (but, admittedly, isn’t as good), simultaneously delivering a thrilling closure to the trilogy started in 2011, and laying the groundwork for the future.
The film opens in ancient Egypt, where En Sabah Nur/ Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is preparing to transfer his consciousness into the body of a young mutant with the ability to heal, aided by his four horsemen. When his worshipers betray him, a battle ensues between them and the horsemen which results in their deaths and the body of Apocalypse becoming entombed for thousands of years. Upon waking from his slumber, feeling that his absence has allowed blind leaders to take control of the world, he sets out to recruit four new horsemen and “cleanse the earth for the strongest”. This leads him to recruit weather manipulator Storm (Alexandra Shipp), psychic energy wielding Psylocke (Olivia Munn), winged playboy Angel (Ben Hardy) and master of magnetism Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to his cause, and his powers allow him to amplify their individual abilities, making them a formidable force to be reckoned with. When Apocalypse kidnaps Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) with the intention of transferring his consciousness into his body in order to claim his telepathic abilities, it’s up to Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to rally a band of students from the Xavier Institute to rescue him and save the world from the impending apocalypse.
I find it hard to connect the movie I saw with the image that many of the reviews are trying to paint; one of boredom and an underwhelming plot. Many have pointed the finger at Bryan Singer, accusing him of playing it safe, failing to adequately service the large cast of characters or drive the story along. They seem to forget that Singer is the longest serving director with the series – this being his 4th film- and the 3 previous films he helmed were critical and commercial successes. X-Men as mentioned birthed the superhero phenomenon, X-Men 2 is widely regarded as the best superhero movie of all time (although debate will no doubt rage over whether Captain America: Civil War is now worthy of that title), and Singer’s directorial return, Days of Future Past, managed to tidy up some of the continuity errors that have plagued the series since he departed after X-Men 2. Across all 3 he has never played it safe, choosing to forego the costumes and spectacle associated with the comics in favour of character development and action set pieces that had their place but didn’t dominate, and while many fans may not have been on board with this approach, the series was the better for it, grounding it more in reality and making it more relatable. I’m by no means saying that Apocalypse is without its faults; there are some plot holes (the Stryker/Mystique/Wolverine tease at the end of Days of Future Past is infuriatingly not addressed for one) and some characters are underused or unnecessary. But to say it is closer to some of the series’ failures than it’s successes is ludicrous, and frankly the venom thrown at the film and Singer’s direction is undeserved.
Oscar Isaac hasn’t come out of the reviews favourably either, with many deriding the characters design and appearing to make the final summation that placing a talented actor under heavy make up will somehow affect his ability to perform. Was the same said about the likes of Ralph Fiennes in the Harry Potter series, for example? Fiennes is unrecognisable when made up in the guise of Lord Voldemort, yet that didn’t hamper his ability to deliver a character dripping with menace. The same is true here for Isaac. After waking in 1983, Apocalypse is disgusted by what has happened to the world, and sets about destroying it. Issac plays him as cold, ruthless and driven to reclaim his position as a god amongst men, which is exactly as the character should be. Make up or no make up, he brings genuine tension to the scene where Apocalypse renders the worlds nuclear weapons obsolete with just a thought, showing how powerful a villain he truly is. Some have argued that Apocalypse just arises from his slumber and endeavours to wipe the world clean without any context. But the opening to the film gives you all the context you need; in his past life he was worshipped, and in the thousands of years since he was entombed, he has become irrelevant and mutants now live in hiding rather than embracing their powers and rising above mere humans. He’s not happy about it, so is motivated to change it. Really it boils down to this: the savaging of the characters design is just searching for problems where there are none, and saying that covering an actor of Isaac’s caliber in make up affects our ability to perceive him as a legitimate world ending threat is an insult to his talent and our perception.
Of course, Oscar Isaac isn’t the only big name associated with this film. Apocalypse sees series regulars Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman (in a cameo, but still) Nicholas Hoult and Evan Peters reprise their roles as Magneto, Charles Xavier, Mystique, Wolverine, Beast and Quicksilver respectively, while Rose Byrne also returns to the series as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, last seen in X-Men: First Class. Of this group some come off better than others. Jackman of course is only a small cameo, but it’s a memorable one. Freed from his prison at Alkali Lake, where experiments have resulted in adamantium being bonded to his skeleton, we witness a trilling escape scene, in which Wolverine bloodies up the hallways dispatching soldiers with ease. Many might argue that you can’t have an X-Men film that doesn’t prominently feature Wolverine, but this proves you can (as did First Class for that matter), with less being more in this case. They could have easily gone down the road of having Wolverine become one of Apocalypse’s horsemen, but portraying him like they did gave fans of the character a bit of their hero, provided context to events from the original trilogy and most importantly allowed the film to focus on it’s other cast members; after all Jackman is great in the role, but the character has had a good run to be fair. If it’s to be the last appearance of Jackman as Wolverine in a main series X-Men film, it’s a fitting one.
Elsewhere, McAvoy is solid once again as Xavier, despite the fact that he really doesn’t have much to work with bar flirting with Moira, being kidnapped and facing Apocalypse in a psychic battle in the films third act. But by the close of the film he resembles Patrick Stewart’s iteration of the character now more than ever, and it’s almost hard to imagine anyone else leading the X-Men in future installments. You might also be surprised to discover that the movie is not essentially ‘Jennifer Lawrence and Friends’ like the trailers appeared to suggest, but her role does have context, not just being elevated because Mystique is being played by the hugely popular actress. They also find a way to work the story around Lawrence’s alleged reluctance to don the characters iconic blue makeup. Following the events of Days of Future Past, in which she saved the President from Magneto, Mystique is seen as a hero by the mutant community, a role she is not comfortable having, and as such resorts to hiding her true identity. But by the finale she sees the importance of embracing her true self and is blue for a good chunk of time. It could be the case that this was always the plan for the characters ark in the movie, but if the story had to be adapted because of Lawrence not wanting to be blue, it’s easy to see why fans would be frustrated. And it results in a painfully obvious plot hole in the scenes at Alkali Lake, where some of the mutants are held in a containment unit which renders them unable to use their powers, yet Mystique is somehow able to transform herself. Don’t get me wrong, I think Jennifer Lawrence is great, and an extremely talented actress. But don’t sign up for a part that involves a heavy make up process if you’re not prepared to put your all in portraying the character. After all Rebecca Romijn, the original Mystique, had to go through a much longer process for the role, and Nicholas Hoult also has to get blued up for the role of Beast.
Hoult has even less than McAvoy to do here. He essentially teaches at the school and designs equipment for the future X-Men that never gets to be used as Havok (Lucas Till) ends up destroying the mansion when trying to stop Apocalypse kidnapping Charles. Apart from that he has a couple of cool fight scenes with Psylocke (Olivia Munn, more on her later) in the final battle, but overall his character doesn’t develop much. He is essential though to convincing Mystique to embrace her role as leader to X-Men, but that’s it really. Also, Hoult can’t seem to decide which side of the Atlantic he is on, with his accent flip-flopping between American and British faster than Quicksilver runs. You could over look it, but the fact that Sophie Turner (the new Jean Grey, more on her in a bit to) is getting critically mauled for her American accent, while no mention is made of Hoult, is jarring. Speaking of Quicksilver, there can be no debate on who was the better portrayal of the speedster; sorry Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Evan Peters has pipped you to the post. Evans reprises his role from Days of Future Past, this time in more of a cameo and he is at his comedic best while also adding to the emotional core of the movie. He joins with the X-Men upon hearing of the tragedy that befalls Fassbender’s Magneto, in the hopes of developing his connection with his father. There is a new Quicksilver scene that is sure to be a hit with fans. Comedic, clever and set to the sound of Eurythmics’ hit song Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) it steals the show once again.
The standout of the returning characters has to be Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. After Mystique shot him and saved the President in the previous film, Erik has dropped the mantle of Magneto and is laying low with a wife and child. Said wife and child eventually become casualties when Erik’s true identity is revealed and the authorities arrive to take him away. The scene of their death is heartbreaking, and Fassbender is excellent in showing the power of grief and how it can compel a person to commit devastating acts they might not have done under different circumstances. Despite often being portrayed as the villain, it is impossible not to feel desperately sorry for Magneto; his parents taken from him by the Nazis in the forties and then his own wife and child accidentally killed as a result of mutant nonacceptance. It’s easy to see why he would assist Apocalypse in destroying the world, after all it essentially destroyed him. But it can’t be denied that the filmmakers missed a trick by having Mystique be the one that talks Magneto down in the final act by assuring him he still has family. While it still carries weight due to the relationship seen between the two over the decades in the films, it would have had more emotional resonance for Quicksilver to reveal his identity to him.
Of all the returning characters, Rose Byrne’s Moira is completely unnecessary. That’s not to say that Byrne gives a bad performance, she doesn’t. But she is shoehorned in by having her investigating a cult that worships Apocalypse and plans to revive him, which could have been filled by any throwaway character. While it’s a valiant attempt at adding a strong female character that doesn’t have to rely on superpowers, Moira essentially is there for two reasons: to bring back a love interest for Charles and also to sow the seed of a potential villain later down the line. When Charles and Havok go to visit her in her office at the CIA, they learn that she has had a son in the time since we saw her last in 1963. In the comics, Moira’s son was Kevin MacTaggert, a mutant known as Proteus, possessing reality warping and possession powers who lives most of his life in forced seclusion in a research facility, after his abilities gave him an uncontrollable hunger for energy. Proteus uses human host bodies to contain his energy form, but they are unable to sustain it indefinitely and eventually burn out and die. Don’t be surprised if he pops up in the next film or the one after that, as it’s antagonist.
Along with the returning characters, we also see the introduction of some new ones (or reintroduction in some cases). As we know, Apocalypse has four horsemen, the most prominent of which is Magneto. But while not as fleshed out, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke have presence in the film, despite what some reviews would have you believe. Storm is the first mutant recruited by Apocalypse when he awakens in Cairo. The majority of fans appeared to hate Halle Berry’s previous take on the character so Shipp didn’t exactly have to do much to win their praise. But she’s a competent Storm, and handles the accent quite well. The only negative really is that of all the horsemen, we know that she will be in no real peril, as she is synonymous with the X-Men and is destined to join them, no matter the outcome of the final battle. Living on the streets and resorting to stealing to survive, Storm immediately sees a father figure in Apocalypse, who senses the power in her and amplifies it, recruiting her to his cause. They seek out Caliban (Tómas Lemarquis), a mutant broker, with the intention of finding powerful mutants. It is here that they first meet Psylocke, and when she threatens them, Apocalypse shows her the levels her powers can reach if she joins him. It’s extremely obvious from this scene that Psylocke was indeed a last minute addition to the roster of characters. Not that that’s a problem; Olivia Munn was inspired casting and she completely embodies the character (although it has to be said that while she has the most comic accurate costume, it looks ridiculous, in that it’s essentially a sexy bathing costume next to the armoured costumes of her fellow horsemen). Though not exactly fleshed out, she has a memorable role in the final battle which shows her hand to hand combat skills and resourcefulness as well as her powers, and her last scene in the movie gives the potential to take the character in a number of directions, whether it be future X-Men films, an appearance in Deadpool 2, or in the long talked about X-Force Movie. Whatever the case may be, Munn certainly made the right choice turning down the part of Vanessa in Deadpool-which amounted to nothing more than a love interest- for the far meatier part of Psylocke.
Rounding out the horsemen is Angel, played by Eastenders actor Ben Hardy, making the huge jump from soap star to Hollywood blockbuster star. Here is the first example of an underused character. We get a cage fight scene between his and Nightcrawler, which is pretty cool and pays homage to the Wolverine cage fight scene from X-Men. Then we get the harrowing scene where Apocalypse rips Angel’s damaged wings from his back and replaces them with bio-metallic ones; it’s unpleasant and enthralling all at once. Then apart from that, he has a few scenes in the final battle before being unceremoniously killed off. A waste really, as he’s not enough of a major character to warrant much of a response from the audience, and as he has featured in a previous film played by Ben Foster, what was the point in reintroducing him just to kill him off? I suspect the reason was two-fold; firstly, Apocalypse giving Angel his metal wings is iconic amongst X-Men fans, so it serves as a nice bit of fan service. And killing him off helps to hit home that Days of Future Past changed the timeline, and not all characters in the future will make it out alive now. All well and good, but it’s a waste of a character that could have gone on to join the X-Force, of which he was a prominent member in the source material, if not another X-Men movie. The second example of a wasted character comes in the form of one of the new younger students introduced at the Xavier Mansion. That character is Jubilee (Lana Condor). She isn’t called by name, doesn’t use her powers, is relegated to just a friend of the main three students, and if your unfamiliar with the character you probably won’t even have known who she was. The only reason her introduction is slightly better than Angel’s is that she survives to the end of the film, giving the filmmakers a chance to develop her down the line. It’s just a shame she wasn’t utilised more as she was used heavily in the promotional campaign and Lana Condor was spot on casting.
The younger versions of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) fair much better. Sheridan’s Cyclops is more rough around the edges than the Cyclops we saw with James Marsden in the original trilogy. He’s brought to the mansion by his older brother Havok when his optic blast ability manifests and he struggles to control it. Cyclops is traditionally seen in the role of leader of the X-Men, and while we only get subtle hints to that here, the death of his older brother is sure to affect his way of thinking going forward, and will most likely lead him to grow into the role. Likewise, his relationship with Jean Grey is only hinted at here, but is sure to blossom in later installments, bolstered by a strong chemistry between Sheridan and Turner. Kodi Smit-McPhee does a great job as Nightcrawler. We meet him in Berlin, where he is rescued from the cage fight by Mystique, and she brings him to the institute. Nightcrawler of course appeared in X-Men 2 played by Alan Cumming and fans have been hoping to see the character again as he was such a hit in that film. They will be pleased. It’s clear from his performance that Smit-McPhee studied Cummings portrayal of the character; not only do we get a couple of glimpses of his catholic devotion, but the character also serves as some comic relief through-out the movie, and it’s just enough to avoid becoming cheesy or annoying. Fans hoping for a mother-son revelation between Nightcrawler and Mystique will no doubt be disappointed again however as though some of the trailers appeared to hit it would happen, it never bears fruit. Perhaps in a future installment? The stand out of the three new Xavier students is Sophie Turner as Jean Grey. Turner has been lambasted by many critics for her American accent, which, sure, is not perfect, but it is nowhere near the disaster some would have you believe it is, and it doesn’t affect her portrayal of the character or our ability to empathise with her. Turner brings some of the great work she has done bringing Sansa Stark to life on Game of Thrones to Jean, showing her more vulnerable side while giving glimpses of the strong, powerful character underneath. Of course we already know from the original trilogy, that something immensely powerful resides in Jean Grey and from the early scenes in this film we see that power. We see a change in the dynamic between Jean and the Professor from the original trilogy and this one to. He once believed that Jean’s powers were to much for her to bare and needed to be contained. But, through Mystique he has learned what can happen by trying to control a person to much, so he encourages Jean to embrace her powers in the final battle with Apocalypse resulting in her obliterating a villain that four mutants put together couldn’t even bring down. It’s a staggering portrayal of power and one that fans of the character are sure to be happy with, and with rumours flying around that the next film will deal once again with the iconic Dark Phoenix storyline (though hopefully handled much better) excitement is sure to grow at the thought of the X-Men trying to stop such an immensely powerful foe.
My advice, ignore the negative reviews. Apocalypse does have some plot holes and some characters are unnecessary or underused, so it’s not perfect, but neither are they deal breakers. The film is a lot of fun, with some strong performances and it sets up the future of the franchise from here quiet well. Just ignore the critics, suspend that disbelief, and enjoy some escapism. And of course let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. 🙂
If you’re interested, check out my previous article about the characters I think FOX should consider introducing in the next X-Men film right here.