By Matthew McKibben | May 27, 2016
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Bryan Singer
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Lucas Till, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, Lana Condor, and Olivia Munn
After some 40 years of comic book movies being an official genre unto itself, the list of directors who have made movies in this genre is long and extensive. But the list of directors who have become household names by putting their creative stamp on the material in ways that are pleasing to both fans and critics alike is a small and exclusive list. The ultimate in name recognition for directors is people knowing who you’re talking about based off the director’s last name alone. One thinks of Nolan’s Batman movies, Burton’s Batman movies, Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, and, certainly, Singer’s X-Men movies.
Richard Donner and Tim Burton basically got the ball rolling with their crowd pleasing Superman and Batman (respectively) movies, but it’d be a bit of a stretch to say that either fully changed the game, despite being credited with inventing the game itself. Despite having numerous (and embarrassing sequels), Superman: The Movie and Batman play more as unique visions, rather than as movies that went into the Hollywood cookie-cutter assembly line, easily replicated by other movie studios.
While 20th Century Fox’s first X-Men movie wasn’t a huge box office hit (it did okay), it did show everyone that this material, originally thought to be mostly for kids and pimply faced adolescents, could be pleasing to old and young alike. Singer’s X-Men movies were fun as Hell to watch, but they also had something to say on the human condition… or mutant condition, as it were. Just how much it said on broader topics is up to the viewer and up for debate, but there’s definitely some smoke there. These weren’t just movies about super-beings flying around saving people. These movies tackled everything from isolation to government overreach, and audiences ate it all up. In an era where the George W. Bush administration and Supreme Court were attempting to legislate morality and institutionalize discrimination, in particular to LGBT people, the X-Men movies kind of sort of made dumb sense of it all.
X-Men: Apocalypse is Bryan Singer’s fourth X-Men movie, and it’s safe to say Bryan Singer has making these movies down to a “gee whiz that’s awesome” science. While the big budget process seems to have worn down some of Bryan Singer’s more auteurist instincts, there are still a ton of great character moments in this movie. His skill at handling the big budget action set piece is second to none, but where his X-Men movies have always set themselves apart is how you relate to these characters. X-Men: Apocalypse shows what these characters can do on an epic level, but Singer is smart enough to pull back at times and give you a reason to root for these characters. Even when you’re actively rooting against Singer’s villains, he grounds and centers the villain’s story in ways that make it relatable, and sometimes justifiable, to the audience.
If there’s one element to the X-Men movies that’s always been criminally overlooked, it’s that each movie feels like its own unique thing, while simultaneously functioning and working as part of a larger story. Each X-Men movie can be taken individually, but it’s when you take them as a whole (with this movie, two consecutive trilogies) you see a rich depth of storytelling that sets the X-Men movies apart from the other superhero movies. The closest parallel would be what Marvel has done in their cinematic universe, but I’ve always found the connective tissue in the Marvel movies to be fairly weak. Marvel’s connective tissue (for their early movies, in particular) centers more on objects and characters (Tesseracts, Loki’s scepter, Howard Stark, etc.) But with Singer and company’s X-Men movies, they try to weave the same thematic elements from one movie to the next. You can draw a direct line from Singer’s first X-Men to this year’s Apocalypse and see similar story beats, themes, conflicts, and even dialogue carry over from movie to movie. The miracle, I’d say, is that the movies largely work more than they don’t and that the central conflicts never feel particularly played out. Not feeling comfortable in one’s own skin is something most of us can relate to; how we’d function if that same dynamic meant being able to shoot lasers out of our eyes is what makes these stories great.
X-Men: Apocalypse follows suit in working as a standalone movie, but you should definitely remember that this is the third part of the second X-Men trilogies (after X-Men: First Class and then X-Men: Days of Future Past). As such, it’s best to view this movie as the third part of a trilogy and watch this movie with the same set of eyes you’d watch the third part of any trilogy. There’s a funny gag in X-Men: Apocalypse where the characters are leaving a 1983 movie theater, having just watched Return of the Jedi. They joke that the third movie is always the weakest of the bunch. I can’t tell if they had that scene as a knowing joke that Apocalypse wasn’t up to par with the other two movies of the trilogy or if they’re being ironic and feel that X-Men: Apocalypse is the best of the bunch, but it did help me remember that this is the third part of a trilogy and that my expectations should be adjusted accordingly. Like 90% of trilogies, X-Men: Apocalypse is not as strong as the other two movies that preceded it, but it is the movie where the emotional set up of the previous two movies fully pays off. There’s a clunkiness in this movie that maybe didn’t exist in the first two movies, but the interactions between characters pays off in ways that can only happen when they’ve been established as well as they have in previous movies. But the movie works fine as a standalone piece, too, if you haven’t seen the previous movies.
X-Men: Apocalypse begins thousands of years before the events of the two X-Men movies, as En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the world’s first mutant, begins a religious ceremony in which he’s to become the all-powerful Apocalypse mutant, a being so strong he is basically a god on earth. Like 90 other superhero movies before it, his plans are to wipe out one world so that he can build a better one on top of it. When the ceremony is stopped by those who oppose him, and when the pyramid he’s in gets leveled on top of him, he’s basically out of pocket for the next few thousand years of human civilization. When he’s finally freed into a world where humans are the dominant species, but also where mutants are starting to make their presence known, he’s out to complete the task that was initially interrupted. Only Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his new school for “gifted youngsters” can stop him.
X-Men stories are always at their strongest when you get to see the Xavier school operating and humming to full capacity, and you certainly get an element of that here, but this is, yet again, another X-Men movie that centers on the same 4-6 mutants we’ve already seen in previous movies, and the movie suffers a bit because of it. Being set in the 1980s, it makes sense you’d see Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Cyclops’ (Tye Sheridan) origin stories, but I wish they had thrown in some other mutants in ways that weren’t just cameos. I mean, they have a school full of mutants and even have Jubilee be a featured player, yet you never really get to see her do much of anything. To add insult to injury, Singer and crew, albeit briefly and AWESOMELY, couldn’t resist going back to the Hugh Jackman as Wolverine well. I love me some snikt-snikt Wolverine berserker rage action as much as anyone else, but the extended cameo seemed a little out of place and weird. When you’re wanting new mutants, the last thing you really want to see is Hugh Jackman again. I mean, don’t get me wrong, his scene is pretty awesome filmed (and violent!) but I want new mutants doing new mutant-like things, darnit.
Evan Peters’s Quicksilver had a brief but scene stealing turn in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but this movie is his real coming out party. He’s the best addition to the X-Men and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the person rapidly becoming my favorite mutant. If you enjoyed his Jim Croce “Time in a Bottle” scene stealing turn in X-Men: Days of Future past, you’re probably going to flip your lid for what he does in this. Yet again, his scene is easily the most enjoyably awesome scene in the entire movie.
This is all on me, I’ll admit, but I hate it when I watch a movie knowing the behind the scenes maneuvering taking place between actors and their contracts. This is the last X-Men movie on Jennifer Lawrence’s contract and she seems to be completely phoning in this performance, both in how she’s out of her Mystique makeup for 90% of the movie and in how she acts the rest of the time. I guess when you’re an Academy Award winning actress who commands Hollywood’s best scripts and works with some of Hollywood’s best directors, you’re not as willing to sit through 6+ hours of makeup application on a daily basis. And yet, this movie very much builds her in to the future X-Men stories, so maybe it’s just the script that betrayed her considerable acting talents.
Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, on the other hand, were swinging for the fences with their performances. The script largely gave them whiffle balls to swing at, but they gave it their all in ways that were both admirable and maybe a touch over-the-top comical, particularly with Fassbender. This is a clenched fish, shout up to God “WHY?” kind of performance. In lesser hands, it’d be laugh out loud funny. Maybe considering the script he’s given and the fact that he does a credible job straddling the legit-hammy line, this might be his greatest performance ever. Okay, maybe not, but Michael Fassbender is in the peak of his acting career and this movie is below his acting talents.
These movies have always kind of revolved around Magneto’s, for lack of a better word, magnetism, and X-Men: Apocalypse is seemingly the final act in Erik Lehnsherr’s story arc. I’m sure there are creative ways they could pull him back into the fold, but going off where they had the character end in this, doing so would be controversial. I don’t want to say too much, but I look forward to reading fans’ take on what they do with Magneto in this.
X-Men: Apocalypse has a clunkiness and heavy-handedness that doesn’t exist in previous X-Men movies. As much as I liked this movie, I’m hoping this is Bryan Singer’s last foray into the world of mutants and that, for both his sake and ours, the franchise is given over to someone who can bring new energy and life into these characters. While the X-Men themes are always going to be the X-Men themes, I’d like to see someone else take a crack at these characters to see what new wrinkles they can give these stories. Beyond tackling Apocalypse, this movie sets up the younger crew perfectly, and I very much hope any future movies center in on them, while Charles, Magneto, Beast, et al take more of a backseat. This movie pays off their storylines well, but too much involvement going forward in future movies will make them feel stale. The X-Men movies have always been my favorite cinematic superhero stories, but it’s time to see what someone else can do with these stories.