X-Men: Apocalypse Revew

Posted: June 2, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpsonxmen apocalypse

My friend and I were having a discussion the other day which basically boiled down to asking why it is the X-Men film franchise doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The first film of the series helped launch the modern wave of comic book films and its first sequel still stands as one of the genre’s best. Yet the actual first film is rarely discussed in and of itself and X2 tends to be overlooked by the other critically acclaimed superhero movies of the time; Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins. From there the series went through some rough patches in the form of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but the series did get back in its feet thanks to the prequel film X-Men: First Class and the film that bridged the young and old X-Men: Days of Future Past. While these films didn’t quite have the pop-cultural impact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had, they were known the less very well-received films which continued the quality output of the franchise. However that enthusiasm seems to have crashed and burned with X-Men: Apocalypse, which has received some of the worst reviews of the series and genuine hatred from fans. Well, the film certainly has its problems, but it does not deserve such levels of scorn.

The film is set in 1983, ten years after the Paris Peace Accords and the attempted assassination of Bolivar Trask. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has formally opened his school for young mutants attempting to control their powers. Among these mutants are a crop of new students like Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), and Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smitt-McPhee). Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has gone underground, disillusioned that Mutants are still treated as second class citizens. Finally, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has retreated to a low-key life in Poland with a wife and daughter. However all of these characters are about to be brought back together with the emergence of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaacs), an ancient Mutant with god-like powers who has returned to conquer civilization through mass destruction.

The superhero movies this year have broadly been overstuffed and busy movies with lots of characters and a jumbled plot line. This is also true of X-Men: Apocalypse, which is attempting to continue the story of the three leads of the First Class era (Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique), introduce younger versions of the classic X-Men (Cyclops, Jean, Storm, etc.), bring back fan favourite characters (Quicksilver, Wolverine), and introduce a new, all powerful villain in the titular Apocalypse. While the best X-Men films have been able to navigate through the large casts and still tell a complete story, Apocalypse has more trouble. Much of the film feels as if it’s just build-up to the big action climax while the story itself feels empty. The sheer plethora of content also leads to many aspects being underdeveloped and as a result certain character actions are not fully felt or understood. Additionally, the script is so concerned with the big picture that a lot of the smaller details feel underdeveloped or not fully thought out. There’s a moment near the end between Xavier and Magneto that makes sense emotionally but doesn’t really make sense given what has transpired. Apocalypse also furthers the confounding nature of the series timeline. While Days of Future Past seemed to suggest a course reset, Apocalypse further complicates things by contradicting elements from Days.

I think what is most disappointing about the script though is that beneath the convolution or script weaknesses is a fairly uninspired and almost bland superhero story. While the bulk of the X-Men movies have centered on a sort of civil rights struggle and ethical debate between characters with different viewpoints, X-Men: Apocalypse is a much more simplistic story about an all-powerful villain who wants to destroy/conquer the world. This is a lot closer to the boring plotlines I’ve complained about in films like Thor: The Dark World and that’s all the more disappointing coming from a series which has largely avoided villain of the week stories for more than a decade. Granted, I don’t want to give the impression that the film is totally devoid of the social relevance and bigger questions that have typically defined the series because they are there in parts. Xavier and Mystique have an interesting debate regarding whether or not things have actually improved for Mutants, or if there is just a greater political correctness and a hollow presentation of equality in certain circles. Magneto’s internal struggle between wanting to live in peace while constantly being pulled toward violent solutions. Finally, the fact that Apocalypse is a mutant who seeks to control others into following his will juxtaposes nicely with Xavier, a character who could conceivably use his powers to dominate others but chooses not to is significant. So those deeper elements are still there, they just feel secondary and are not integrated as seamlessly.

I’ve talked a lot about the ways in which this movie doesn’t work, but I also opened this review by saying that I think this movie is getting more hate than it deserves. For all its flaws, X-Men: Apocalypse still mostly works. There are a few reason for this but at the center of it all is Bryan Singer, whose direction really elevates the script. Simply on visual terms, the film is shot with an ambitious and cinematic eye. Singer’s use of blocking, camera placement and movement, and lighting goes beyond merely filming scenes as efficiently as possible. There is a richness to the visual style employed and added layer of care which creates greater emotional investment. Singer also makes smaller creative choices which gives scenes a greater edge. One of the clearest examples is a scene where Apocalypse recruits the Mutant Angel to his cause. Rather than simply show Apocalypse and Angel talking, the scene is filmed primarily in darkness and set (and edited) to Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen”. The lack of colour shows the dark metaphorical place Angel is in and the aggression of the music matches his own seething anger. Additionally, both elements are pleasing in and of themselves, giving the scene greater resonance and energy. As a result, the scene is way more interesting and creative that it might have been otherwise. These are the types of small but crucial choices that Singer makes which elevate X-Men: Apocalypse.

Another crucial skill Singer brings to these films is his ability to work with actors. At its core the X-Men films are all about Xavier and Magneto and the performances continue to be high quality. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender both perfectly embody their roles and more importantly they each dig deep to bring the right emotions to the screen. The drama does not feel like the tangential aspect to a superhero film, but a crucial point, and that is largely a result of the fine performances. Another first rate actor more known for intimate drama than big budget blockbusters found here is Oscar Isaacs, and despite being stuck playing a somewhat bland villain, he still really makes it work. Isaacs carries himself with a certain sophistication and really does feel like a deified bidding. He also speaks in a calm and subdued manner rather than in aggressive and more typically evil bark. The new cast members also do good work and generally fit into the X-Men world very well.

I don’t want to overpraise Singer because he does make some missteps too. There are some scenes here, action and otherwise, which feel like repeats of elements from the previous films and there’s also some tonal issues here. To circle back to my initial pondering of those films negative reception, I suppose I do get it. While I don’t think the film descends into Batman v Superman levels of convolution, X-Men: Apocalypse is undeniably something of a mess. And yet the film is also made with such confidence, skill, and ambition that it’s still highly effective as drama and as a modern blockbuster. The worst aspects of the film are made better than they should be and the best moments here are pretty damn strong. The film is not among the best of the X-Men series and is in fact the weakest of this prequel trilogy, but all the same this is still a worthwhile film well above your average superhero fare in terms of ideas and execution.

B

Comments
  1. Keith says:

    I liked certain elements of this but still felt a little disappointed. I feel it tried to tackle too much early on but it did bring it altogether better than I expected. I am anxious to see it again though.

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