It’s 2016, year of the superhero movie! We’re not even half way through the year and four major superhero movies have already been released, and there are still more on the way. Following the roaring success of Fox’s Deadpool and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, and even the high-profile bummer-fest that surrounded WB’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (see: Sad Affleck), it has felt like X-Men: Apocalypse got a little lost in the shuffle. Some of that could be that, even before it’s official release, the movie started accumulating middling reviews. So even the modest excitement it had garnered a few months prior started to peter out. It’s gotten such unflattering reviews that the architect behind the vast majority of Fox’s X-franchise, Bryan Singer, has decided to step away from the series for a while. That news is likely making Fox executives nervous, as the franchise hasn’t done as well with non-Singer-directed X-titles, with only Tim Miller’s brilliant Deadpool and Matthew Vaughn’s under-rated X-Men: First Class earning a “Certified Fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.
On that note, RottenTomatoes gave Apocalypse a harsh 48%, making it the second-lowest rated splat in the franchise. Its box office success has been modest, but not stellar, especially when compared with February’s Deadpool phenomenon. Apocalypse is currently on pace to be right in the middle of the pack in box office earnings (6th of 9) within the X-franchise. What started as some shrugs and lackluster endorsements has gradually descended into more definitively negative remarks, notably calling out its cliches and recycling of past plot lines. The reviews appear to be a contributing factor to the movie’s limited success, but the release timing has overlapped with the tail end of Civil War and the release of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel, which seems to be doing surprisingly well.
So it was with all of this in mind that I sauntered into the theater for a Sunday afternoon showing, my expectations low and hoping only to glean some fun character moments from what I expected to be a slow-moving train wreck. Fortunately for all X-fans out there, the movie isn’t as bad as all that, and was really a pleasant surprise. There were a lot of things I liked, I laughed, and I was genuinely excited to see some of my favorite X-Men re-imagined in the X-Men Cinematic universe, take 2. That right there is probably enough of a reason for people to go see Apocalypse, and I’m not here to try and stop you. If you have enjoyed the past X-Men movies like me, it’s worth a trip to the theaters because it has enough positives to cover the price of admission, just don’t get your hopes up too much.
Don’t get me wrong, Apocalypse is seriously flawed. As the first entry in Singer’s “new timeline” following the events of Days of Future Past (DoFP), X-Men: Apocalypse has the important job of establishing a new normal for the mutant/human relationship. The film is acutely aware of this job and devotes a significant portion of its nearly 2.5 hours in length to set-up, but still manages to rush through how Apocalypse fits into the X-franchise’s relativistic timeline. I like sci-fi and time travel is really cool, but how old are these people? If Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique was around 20 in 1962 when the First Class took place, is she 40 now? This is especially confusing when you factor in Alex and Scott Summers as brothers (Havok and Cyclops for the uninitiated). If Alex was a teen in 1962, he’s at least got to be 35 now, so if Scott’s in high school he’s max 18. Even that age gap makes no sense, and that’s on the generous side… The “decade-themed” movie entries was a fun idea, but it does all sorts of problems to the concept of characters aging.
But even that sort of confusion is forgivable. As an audience, you’re still excited to see such iconic and lovable characters get a second chance at a first impression. I love the X-Men and really like four of the X-Men movies that have been released (5 if you count Deadpool, which shouldn’t really count), and the first 1.5 hours of The Wolverine was pretty good, so there was plenty of familiarity and past success in this franchise that could have led to a much bigger success for Apocalypse. This film also had an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and correct some poor characterizations in previous iterations. The sad, and honestly surprising, thing about X-Men: Apocalypse is that it often did not learn from those mistakes, which is probably one of the more damning critiques of the film. But without further ado, I’d likely to quickly enumerate some of my highlights and low lights of the film, and fair warning, there will be some *Spoilers* ahead.
- Nightcrawler: played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, was great. A good blend of thoughtful, funny, and inquisitive, Nightcrawler’s role at the core of a new crop of X-Men brings me hope for the future of the franchise.
- Cyclops: though not perfect, Tye Sheridan finally gave one of the greatest X-Men of all time some characterization. This film finally patched over some of the damage done to Cyclops by the first round of films, which was probably my largest complaint about Singer’s first two installments.
- Laughs: some much-needed humor seemed to finally make its way into the story, and not just from Quicksilver this time, Xavier and Havok have some good laughs early on during an awkward visit to Moira MagTaggert’s CIA(?!?) office.
- Jubliee: Though only a bit part and never called by that name, Jubliee is the catalyst for one of the most genuinely “X-Men” scenes in the film, when she, Scott, Jean, and Kurt go to the movies and see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. She even has a great line about the third movie in a trilogy always being the worst (a great meta joke by Singer)
- Cameos and Easter Eggs: a couple of fun cameos did some fan service to us comic nerds that appreciate them. Throwing Caliban, the Blob, and a nice Nathaniel Essex post-credits scene into the movie help to flesh out the expansiveness of the X-Universe.
- Storm’s modified origin: though never a horseman in the comics, this adaptation seemed to really honor some key elements of the character: starting as a thief in Cairo, giving her white hair, calling her “goddess.” Her relationship to Apocalypse was certainly better than any of the other horsemen, so her character development early on in the film was just enough to offset the completely flat second half.
- Team Dynamics: the developing relationship between Cyclops, Jean, and Nightcrawler worked very well and should serve as the emotional core to the future movies. It gives me hope for the future, especially once Storm is fully integrated. I also really like the idea of having Beast less as a team member and in a more supporting role as professor, scientist, and training instructor alongside Xavier.
- Repetition: Let’s make a movie where an evil mutant wants mutants to rule the world, we’ll have a funny scene where Quicksilver saves the day running around at super speed, and Magneto will waffle around between good and evil, making it really only up to him to face his inner demons and save the fate of the world. Maybe we can blow up the mansion. Sound familiar?
- Havok: a great X-man, and one of only a handful of legacy characters remaining from previous movies is unceremoniously dispatched in a moment of unnecessary stupidity, then instantly over-shadowed by Mystique’s return to blue skin. What?!? Even Hank (Beast), who is supposed to be Alex’s friend, basically forgets that Alex died until Scott comes running up for a short-lived and awkward grief sesh.
- Angel: Two swings and two misses. Why is Warren Worthington III the toughest nut to crack in the X-Men film franchise? Choosing him as a horseman made sense, there’s a lot of history there, but who was this Angel? The film never mentioned his real name, and aside from being a punk he didn’t seem evil. But nevertheless, he seemed pretty loyal to Apocalypse, and how did Apocalypse give him the metal wings? In the comics, he gets the metal wings and becomes Archangel after being injected with the blood of Apocalypse, a source of power as well as inner strife that made the character very compelling over the past three decades. But the movie skipped all of that, opting instead for a character-less zealot who dies without purpose or consequence. Like Havok’s, his death is immediately forgotten.
- Wolverine: Okay, so I understand why Singer did this. It was an opportunity to remind audiences of the aforementioned timestream hullabaloo and provide some an “Aha” moment in Wolverine’s complicated continuity. The problem is that it didn’t work. A nice idea, but come on! We don’t need Wolverine in every. single. X-men. movie. ever. Also, it provided a cheap way for the young X-Men (Cyclops, Jean, and Nightcrawler) to overcome the swarm of baddies that had captured Beast, Quicksilver, and Mystique (and Moira?). The grisly violence didn’t faze the kids one bit, which seemed implausible and disturbing, and a Jean/Logan dynamic with Jean supposedly still in High School is beyond creepy. Boo.
- The Horsemen: This is such a cool concept, why did the assembled horsemen end up just being super-powered props for Apocalypse? All they did was stand around and act menacing then kind of fight off the X-Men for a second during the final battle. There were high hopes here and almost zero execution. Psylocke was probably the most boring character in the history of X-films.
- Magneto: Okay, okay. Obviously, Michael Fassbender is a great actor. And I will give some props to the development of Magneto’s attempt at living Xavier’s way. After all of the criticisms of Magneto’s role, I found his opening arc to be surprisingly compelling. However, why is it always down to Magneto? Not every film can be about him waffling between good and evil. It’s just lazy.
- Sadly, Apocalypse: Oscar Isaac is also a great actor, just look at Star Wars and Ex Machina. But Isaac just didn’t have much to work with. The origins were a little messy and underdeveloped. We mostly saw the plot of his take down and witnessed the destruction of a pyramid, but it didn’t really show much character development. It also left a lot of questions about the technology he used and where his horsemen’s power came from (especially if he was the “first mutant”). In the present day, his motive seemed bland, just cookie-cutter “World Domination,” but any nuance about a Darwinist approach to survival of the fittest seemed left to those with some comic background. Apocalypse’s powers were unclear: he could heal, teleport, transmute matter, amplify other mutants’ abilities, transport his own consciousness to a new body, and defeat Xavier in psychological warfare? And how did he adapt to Quicksilver’s attack? He seemed to speed himself up. It was all pretty unclear. Then, his demise was pretty unglamorous, as the Magneto/Storm/Phoenix (I mean Jean Grey) team just obliterated him no problem…
- Scale: how did Magneto tear the world apart? Why did he have to? Can’t a movie be meaningful without destroying all of the world’s landmarks? It seemed like a gratuitous over-complication of the conflict’s scale. Let’s just have mutants fighting off some sentinels at a mall. That’s good, old-school fun.
- Dark Phoenix: Really? Already? Because that worked so well last time…. ahem X-Men: Last Stand… ahem…
The real truth of X-Men: Apocalypse is that it’s inconsistent. When people ask what I thought, I’ll sort of shrug and say, “ehhhh, yeah it was good. Not great, but good.” But I went in expecting the worse. Those poor saps who went on opening weekend were hot on the heels of Civil War and hadn’t had time to adjust their expectations. Sure, there are a whole bunch of problems, logical pitfalls, cheap story points, and some poor character development in places, but is the movie still fun to watch? Yeah, I’d say so. If you’re a life-long X-Men fan, you’ll find plenty of things to like and plenty to scoff at, but there are just enough light moments to keep you amused between dramatic scenes. The real thing to remember is that this movie is largely a setup for future films. It’s the forming of a new X-team that should inspire hope in audiences, because it sure did for me. Rating: 6 of 10