Bryan Singer effectively kick-started the modern comic book movie era in 2000. Sure, Batman was being decimated by Joel Schumacher in the late 1990s and Wesley Snipes made his debut as Blade in 1998, but it was Singer’s X-Men that really launched the cinematic landscape that we know today. If X-Men was the prototype then the sequel, X2, was for a long time the zenith. How things have changed since then. Today, spectacle has become such a defining point of the genre that it’s now more important for these movies than story or characters – just look at Batman v Superman. It’s Zack Snyder’s recent trudge that probably serves as the closest point of comparison with X-Men: Apocalypse.
This isn’t to say that X-Men: Apocalypse is close to the scale of mess that Snyder’s film was, but both films rely on iconography over characterisation in their attempt to anchor overblown and undercooked pageantry. It’s also somewhat reminiscent of Brett Ratner’s closer to the original Singer-led trilogy, The Last Stand; a particularly painful point of reference given that Apocalypse features a gag entirely at that film’s expense. Presumably, the suggestion that third films in trilogies are always the worst wasn’t supposed to offer quite such a pointed self-critique. Apocalypse is easily the most incoherent and irrelevant of Singer’s X-Men movies, like the director has succumbed to all that made other superhero films seem cheap by comparison. His original forays into the genre combined silliness and wit with relatable and dynamically entwined themes, but we’re now a long way from the world in which Bobby Drake ‘came out’ to his astonished parents as a mutant.
The Dr. King/Malcolm X dynamic of the Professor (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has been utterly eroded; the franchise’s trademark social and psychological subtext jettisoned in favour of a blue god (an unrecognisable and wasted Oscar Isaac) hellbent on destroying the Earth for no discernible reason. When Mystique slid through a pair of swiftly closing doors and turned back to flip the bird between them in X2, the film had earned it. There was depth that sanctioned the swagger. People in this movie talk about key topics – discrimination, empowerment, self-acceptance – but it is all talk. Even Days of Future Past (which some would say is comparatively shallow) still balanced complex narrative time, impressive effects and the gargantuan cast with aplomb.
Like the Earth’s magnetic field going awry, all of those elements seem to be spiralling from the director’s control this time around – like the powers of the acolytes Apocalypse surrounds himself with, they’ve been amplified to the point that they’re destructive. There are lots of lovely moments dotted throughout: McAvoy impresses further as Charles Xavier and his relationships with Magneto, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Moira (Rose Byrne) all warm the heart. The new trio of Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan and Kodi Smit-McPhee all earn their spandex and a cameo from a cigar-smoking familiar face is as enjoyable as it is unnecessary. The problem is that Apocalypse’s highlights feel like moments of serenity amidst two-and-a-half-hours of lumbering, inconsequential chaos.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson