For the third time this summer, it is time to watch a superhero flick where some characters fight other characters for poorly-developed reasons. In this specific case, it’s the X-Men universe and the film is X-Men: Apocalypse, named after the all-power and ancient villain of the film. The eponymous character is central to not only the plot and theme of the film, but ultimately its problems as well. On a fundamental level, this film fails because it could not appropriately handle the character of Apocalypse, and you can almost feel it buckling under the weight of this Frankenstein’s Monster. There are lesser problems as well, including some poorly-used characters and a mismanaged tonal consistency, but you can trace nearly every negative back to the big-bad. Thus, despite introducing intriguing new versions of beloved characters, this is a poor end to the new X-Men trilogy.
The fundamental challenge of the Apocalypse character lay is finding a way to make him interesting in light of his overwhelming power. It is crucial that the storyteller manage this problem in three areas: his motivation, his limitations, and his weaknesses. Without an interesting motivation that we can understand, this uber-powerful being is nothing more than a monster-of-the-week. And, if we do not understand his powers and their potential limitations, it becomes hard for the audience to understand the rules of the world and how Apocalypse fits into them. Finally, if there is not some indicated weakness based in the logic of the film’s universe, the only potential for besting a being such as Apocalypse is to eclipse him in raw power, which risks being anticlimactic.
Screenwriter Simon Kinberg and Director Bryan Singer go 0-for-3. They give Apocalypse a rote, “destroy all humans” motivation which is incessantly bland and a re-tread of previous X-Men films. The villain’s powers are communicated poorly (if at all), resulting in the viewer wondering exactly what he can do and just why he is so powerful. Aside from a vague indication that he can imbue other mutants with greater power, we’re left mostly just watching and guessing. Further, it takes until late in the third act that we see his true power on display, as multiple other mutants attack him cooperatively and still fall short of damaging him. Rather than providing any nuance to the character and his powers, the creators simply go over-the-top of Apocalypse. This is inherently lazy and unsatisfying, and lacks cleverness.
These issues with Apocalypse unfortunately permeate through rest of the film. His unclear motivation bleeds over into the overall plot and leads to a completely unsatisfying and confusing third act. His powers involving his Four Horsemen lead to some laughable recruitment scenes and contribute to the thinness of all three new characters in his menagerie: Storm, Archangel, and Psylocke, who is particularly embarrassingly thin. Only Magneto’s arc is able to transcend the blandness of Apocalypse, and that is largely a function of having Fassbender portray the character for two full films already (so there is much more backstory to play with). Still, given the hardships that Magneto suffers in this film, one feels that much of his pathos is wasted by the overall sub-par story.
By far, the best part of the movie is Scott Summers, Nightcrawler, and Jean Grey (with an assist from the return of Quicksilver). This is actually the first portrayal of Cyclops on screen that I haven’t hated. The whiny and prickish version of the original trilogy is gone, and leadership burgeons from Scott in trying times, as though we are seeing him learn to be a leader in small steps. Jean is an outcast among outcasts, and they are playing up the Dark Pheonix Saga stuff already, which I do not particularly like, but Sophie Turner does a fine job with the psychic. And Nightcrawler at least equals the previous portrayal (though obviously is younger here). Like the rest of the film, though, the positive characteristics are underdeveloped and wasted when no one can understand exactly what to do with them. On the plus side, these three characters could form a powerful foundation for future films, so Apocalypse may serve well as a kind of origin story for them, at least.
The returning characters are hit-or-miss, depending on who you are talking about. Fassbender’s portrayal of Magneto is again wonderful, as is James McAvoy’s Professor X. Quicksilver may steal the film again in another slow-motion scene despite the tonal inconsistency of that sequence, and this film gives him more character than we saw in Days of Future Past. The less said about Jennifer Lawrence’s latest turn as Mystique the better – it will be good riddance if/when she finally decides to work exclusively with David O. Russell.
Thematically, don’t expect any innovation from Apocalypse: again, we’re force-fed the power of family, brotherhood, and teamwork for the heroes, which is set against a kind of atavistic survivalism by the villain. It is actually even worse than that, though. Oddly, where previous X-Men films were blunt and heavy with their social analogies (X-1,X-2, DoFP, First Class, and even X3), there is practically nothing like this in Apocalypse. For a series with such a history of social commentary, this really feels just like a CGI noise-romp for fun and profit (maybe).
X-Men: Apocalypse was doomed from the moment the titular villain was treated as a monster-of-the-week. Overall, it is a subpar X-Men film and only really succeeds in its introduction of the “new” versions of some beloved characters and as a campy schlock-fest. Ideally, this is the end of an inconsistent trilogy and the next iteration of this franchise can re-invent itself with more consistent story-telling and character development, especially with regards to the villains. A departure from the oft-rehashed themes of the previous films would also be welcome, but for now the X-Men franchise has hit a decided lull.
So there you have it. Deadpool will now officially be the best X-Men film of the year, and unless we get a surprise from Dr. Strange or Suicide Squad, it may just be the overall best comic book film too! Whoda thunk it? Anyway, did you see this latest X-Men film? Where does it stand in your heirarchy of the franchise? How would you solve the “Apocalypse” problem in an interesting way? Remember to like and share this piece with all your X-Men-loving friends so they can tell me why I am wrong in precise detail!