‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ Review: A Familiar and Confusing Journey to Days of Past Present
When Nightcrawler broke into the White House at the start of 2003’s X2, it was a watershed moment in the history of comic book movies. Here was one of comics’ most fantastical characters — a blue-skinned, three-fingered German demon with a pointy, prehensile tail and teleportation powers — brought to life with all of his outlandish quirks and powers intact, showcased in a sequence that was thrilling and utterly convincing. It was something no one had ever seen before. It was truly uncanny.
It is telling of the state of superhero movies in 2016 that when Nightcrawler returns in the new X-Men: Apocalypse, he’s treated basically as a throw-in background character and his powers are used with little fanfare, mostly as a plot device to move other people around the story. 13 years later, the X-Men are bigger, and the effects used to bring their powers to life are even more convincing. But what’s missing at this point is that sense of awe and wonder from those early days. For all the fighting and blasting and bamfing, we’ve seen it all before — sometimes literally.
Apocalypse reconnects with Marvel’s merry mutants ten years after the events of 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (at least the ones set in 1973 with the cast from X-Men: First Class, the prequel that rebooted the franchise in 2011). Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has established his school for “gifted youngsters,” while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) lives a quiet life under an assumed identity in Poland. Their destinies intertwine again with the arrival of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ageless mutant of seemingly limitless power. Worshiped as a god in ancient times, he awakens in 1983 to a society he despises. In order to destroy humanity and start over from scratch, he collects and empowers other mutants as his four Horsemen. Besides Magneto, there’s a young version of Storm (Alexandra Shipp), played in four previous films by Halle Berry, a sword-wielding psychic named Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Angel (Ben Hardy), whose feathery wings get a metallic upgrade.
Angel previously appeared in X-Men: The Last Stand, which was set more than 20 years after the events of Apocalypse. The two versions of the characters don’t jive whatsoever, something that’s sadly a recurring theme in the film. The continuity in X-Men: Apocalypse is even more of a nightmare than the continuity in X-Men comics. Apocalypse takes place a decade after Days of Future Past, but if not for the outlandish ’80s fashions, you’d swear it was set about six months later. Slacker speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters) still lives in his mom’s basement playing video games, and none of the other actors look older at all, even though they’ve been fighting one another for two decades.
Apocalypse tries to preempt any complaints on this subject by having one character remark that Rose Byrne’s Moira McTaggart “doesn’t look like she’s aged a day” since the events of X-Men: First Class. If this is director Bryan Singer’s sly nod to the way the X-Men never seem to age in the pages of Marvel Comics, where they’ve remained perpetually youthful for more than 50 years, kudos. But even if this decision was purposeful, it still creates endless confusion and headaches for the attentive viewer. (Don’t even try to figure out how middle-aged former X-Man Havok (Lucas Till) has a teenage brother.)
That brother would be the young version of Scott Summers, aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, taking over for James Marsden). There’s also a teenage Jean Grey, formerly Famke Janssen, now Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones. Eventually these and other new students must band together, along with sometime X-Men ally (and sometime mutant terrorist) Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to take down Apocalypse and save the world.
No character has benefited more from these X-Men prequels than Mystique. When she was cast as the villainous shapeshifter in X-Men: First Class, Jennifer Lawrence was still a relative unknown, and Mystique, whose costume when she was played as an adult by Rebecca Romijn consisted of naked skin covered in scales, was mostly used as eye candy. Five years, four Hunger Games, and one Oscar later, Lawrence is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and certainly the biggest name in Apocalypse, which beefs up Mystique’s role to accommodate the actor’s increased stature.
Unsure where she fits between Xavier’s pacifism and Magneto’s aggression, this Mystique gets to carve out a unique space in the mutant landscape, and Lawrence brings depths to the character that she’s rarely had in the pages of X-Men comics. (Meanwhile, the franchise eye candy role now passes to Munn, who dutifully marches through X-Men: Apocalypse in her character’s comic-accurate bathing suit costume. She even wears it, quite inappropriately, on a field trip to Auschwitz!)
On the other end of the spectrum from Mystique is Apocalypse; it’s quite possible no actor has benefited less from his involvement in these X-Men prequels than Oscar Isaac. As a general rule of thumb: When you cast one of the most handsome and charismatic actors on the planet, don’t put him beneath 50 pounds of latex and blue paint and have him give a one-dimensional performance of hissing and screaming and arm waving. Completely unrecognizable in his makeup and armor, Isaac never gets a chance to use any of his many gifts as a performer; almost anyone could have played this part. Apocalypse can look cool on the page, but in live-action he seems kind of silly. His mutant abilities are vague and the way he sets out accomplishing his goals don’t make a whole lot of sense. (With all that power, what’s he need with the Horsemen? Just destroy everyone already!)
Fassbender brings impressive dramatic weight to Magneto’s transformation back into a super-villain, at least until the movie abandons any interest in its protagonists’ mental states to make room for an extended but underwhelming action finale set against yet another montage of the world’s great cities getting demolished by big swarms of CGI junk from the skies. The balance between emotion and action is not as precise as Captain America: Civil War or X-Men: Days of Future Past, and some of the best moments are lifted, occasionally word for word, from previous X-Men films. (A key exchange between Xavier and Magneto, for example, comes from Singer’s original X-Men all the way back in 2000.) For the second straight movie, the best setpiece belongs to Peters’ Quicksilver, who steals the show with an exciting and funny showcase for his powers. If we’re being totally honest, though, it’s not all that different than his showcase scene in the last movie.