X-Men: Apocalypse is the sixth main title in the X-Men movie franchise (ninth if you include spin-offs), it’s also a direct sequel to a movie that was both a prequel and sequel to what had come before it. With all that baggage you might think that Apocalypse would be one of the messiest and most incomprehensible movies to date, in fact it’s actually the most straightforward X-Men movie in years.
While Days of Future Past was a film which wove in historical figures and events, while pulling from both sides of the film franchise, Apocalypse is more akin to the classic X-Men movies, with a simpler scope and a focus on a few plucky X-Men vs. an intimidating physical threat. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but it does suffer for losing that weightier context. You won’t find anything beyond the vaguest whiff of social commentary. Gone are the thoughtful discussions of hope and responsibility, likewise the use of mutants as metaphors. What’s gained by this switch is a heavier focus on mutant vs. mutant action and elaborate set pieces. As someone who greatly enjoyed Days of Future Past’s more thoughtful moments, I don’t believe it’s exactly a fair trade-off, but it’s not all bad either.
After an elaborate introduction set in ancient Egypt, we jump forward to 1983. Mutants are well recognised but not well liked. Most are living quiet lives out of the public eye. Professor X’s school is now fully up and running with classes full of gifted youngsters. Basically, things are going fairly okay for the mutants all things considered, until Apocalypse, an ancient and immeasurably powerful mutant, returns and decides that he’s not very pleased with modern life. Cue 2.5 hours or so of tension, flashy fighting and plenty of special effects, as the X-Men do what they can to stop the planet from being razed.
At times the film feels like director Bryan Singer‘s attempt to tonally remake X2, even to the extent of setting up his original X-Men 3 vision, again. Furthermore the story even unravels a little of the work done in Days of Future Past, loosening what were some pretty satisfying endings to give room for present and future stories. Still, all that said, it never loses focuses too much and although there are lots of little nods and cameos for comic book fans, these references are either background fluff or used as fuel to keep the plot moving.
It would have been easy for Apocalypse to go overboard on the 1980s theme, but it manages to restrain itself to just some garishly retro fashion choices and particularly fitting placements of music. But in doing so Apocalypse lacks a strong sense of time and place, meaning the era is almost entirely inconsequential.
The visual effects flip-flop from being the usual familiar fare to the impressive and imaginative. We’re all used to the big flashy explosions and CG fight scenes in superhero movies by now, but Apocalypse pushes to show off its cast’s powerset in less conventional ways. Quicksilver’s segments in particular are brilliant, and just like last time, he’s a standout character despite only having a supporting role.
Speaking of the cast, the film adds in a handful of characters from the original trilogy, although re-cast as their younger early-80s selves. The balance is struck pretty well on letting these “new” characters run around alongside First Class’ original X-Men. Overall it finishes the bridge to the original franchise which the last film began.
One thing I’m glad they didn’t bother to do is artificially age the cast. There’s a little bit of suspension of disbelief going on in that the characters from First Class, such as James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, are 20 years older than their original appearances set in 1962. Yet of course they don’t look 10 years older never mind 20. But as an audience it’s easy to overlook, there’s no need for Looper-esque CG faces or Benjamin Button makeup. The fact that Magneto is a strangely youthful looking 50-something-year-old is a simply an amusing footnote. This becomes a harder sell for returning younger characters however, Quicksilver for instance is shown to be still sat around playing video games and watching TV in the exact same room he was a decade earlier. Elsewhere, Havok now has a teenaged sibling in Cyclops, despite the fact he was a rebellious older teenager himself back in the early sixties. This means the two brothers have a 20-year age gap between them. It’s not impossible no, but it’s a little bit peculiar in context.
Meanwhile, Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse himself is fantastic. There were apprehensions in the fan community about how they might handle him, but they’ve proven to have created a worthy interpretation of such a powerful and popular villain. Apocalypse dominates every scene he’s in, at times he’s calm and commanding while at others he’s downright frightening. He comes across as otherworldly and utterly certain that he’s going to succeed. This helps the overall film immeasurably as it’s believable that he’s a credible and deadly threat to the world. The film never bothers to spell out exactly what his full potential and power set even is, only lightly touching on what and how he can do what he does, this works well in execution as he continuously feels like a dangerous and unpredictable enemy.
For better or worse, depending on your tastes, Apocalypse feels the closest to a classic comic book that the franchise ever has; the action is central, the cast is busy, the characters are over-the-top and there’s repeated nods to earlier events. In practice there are mixed results from these callbacks. Moira MacTaggert, played by Rose Byrne, was a great addition to First Class but here does little more than act wide-eyed and naïve at the world of the super heroics around her. Her return is a waste of potential, I literally forgot about her altogether in one scene, until she spoke up and I was reminded that she was still accompanying the cast. Meanwhile Jean speaks with a character mid-way through the film and with barely any dialogue delivers a powerful moment only possible because of the groundwork laid in the earlier movies. The more invested you are in the franchise, the more you’ll get from Apocalypse. Without understanding the fan service and the progression, Apocalypse is a fairly hollow experience and difficult to recommend to newcomers. If you’ve been here all along, or dipped in and out over the years, then your knowledge will pay off from the investment.
As a big fan of both the source material and the film franchise, I actually had a lot of fun with Apocalypse. On the surface it seems like a disappointingly plain film and missing its potential, but in actuality it’s temptingly easy to overlook its mistakes. Yes there’s not much going on and the dialogue is a little more forced and melodramatic, but it remains good fun. Despite the bleak premise the film still lets itself crack some jokes, humour is sprinkled in to break up the impending doom of Apocalypse’s plan and the film bounces the cast to a new setting before things can start to drag. I was never bored and even when the film is at its slowest the characters are appealing enough to carry things on their own.
Altogether X-Men: Apocalypse is not the best film in the franchise, nor is it a particularly deep or interesting film, but it’s still an undeniably enjoyable one. The main story is an excuse to watch the X-Men scramble around and take on one of the strongest individual villains we’ve seen in a comic book movie, something visually pleasing if nothing else. Ultimately it’s a simple and satisfying action film, one that’s worth seeing for anyone with an interest in the franchise.