based on X-Menby Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
2016 • 144 minutes • 20th Century Fox
I’ve mentioned that seeing Batman V. Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark kind of broke my cinematic criticism—nowadays, if a movie doesn’t actively make me weep in exhaustion for humanity, it’s already streets ahead. A curse, true, but it’s also a blessing. I’m starting to think of it like being deathly afraid of something and then finally experiencing it. No film will ever be that bad again. I can take anything that cinema can throw at me, because I actively sought out and paid for the worst. Cinematically speaking, I am now invincible.
I already had a similar attitude to X-Men: Apocalypse even before Batman V. Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark broke me like Bane breaking Batman’s spine. After X-Men: Days of Future Past, it became obvious that the reason to go see an X-Men movie was to follow the continuing saga of Charles Xavier and the X-Men, see some great character moments, and have a giggle over some of the sillier aspects of the proceeding that are, nonetheless, endearing, like a deeply loose grasp of the concept of the passage of time.
You know, sort of reading X-Men comics.
Right, so where did we last leave Marvel’s merry mutants? In 1973, when the existence of mutants became well-known. Well, ten years later, in 1983, Charles Xavier (still not bald) is running the Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters, including new students Jean Grey and Scott Summers. Raven “Mystique” Darkholme is rescuing mutants from bad situations behind the Iron Curtain, like tiny New Wave circus performer Kurt Wagner. Erik Lensherr has rebuilt his life in a quiet village in Poland, trying to pass for human. But when X-Men ally Moira McTaggert discovers that a mutant-worshipping cult has awakened En Sabah Nur, the world’s oldest and most powerful mutant, life gets, uh, complicated for the X-Men. As En Sabah Nur—or Apocalypse—recruits followers and gains power, the X-Men try to stop him… and the military… and Erik… from, you know, destroying the world.
Look, trim, understandable plotting is not the X-Men franchise’s strong point. For the whole first act, every cut back to Mystique’s story line makes it increasingly clear that Mystique and Nightcrawler are lost in Berlin—either that, or the screenwriters forgot to put any momentum in her storyline at that point. There was also a point during the film where I tried to figure out how far away we were from the end and could not. Time is a flat circle in X-Men: Apocalypse, which can be not better expressed by Alex Summers having a teenage brother that he’s more than twenty years older than. As a coherent film, X-Men: Apocalypse does not, well, cohere.
But the X-Men franchise’s actual strong point is character. Because X-Men is, at its core, a story about teamwork and found family. And there’s plenty of good ideas to like here. Nightcrawler being eager to experience American culture. Jean telling Scott the reason she knows what his brother thinks of him is because she always knows what everybody’s thinking. Erik asking God if he is doomed to repeat this cycle of violence. (Focusing on Erik and his faith is a really good idea! Taking him back to Auschwitz to rewaken his power? TERRIBLE MOVE.)
Unfortunately, the film says a lot of good things that it never really delivers on, especially when it comes to female characters and characters of color. When we first meet Ororo Munroe, leader of a team of street urchins, she explains to Apocalypse that she keeps a magazine cover of Mystique in their hideout because Mystique is an aspirational figure for her. And that’s such a great and visceral character note, ripe for conflict and exploration. But once Ororo gets her Apocalypse makeover, she stops talking. The only pay-off to Ororo’s poster is Ororo being shocked when Mystique attacks Apocalypse during the climactic battle, which presumably triggers her about-face… but wouldn’t it have been great to focus on Ororo’s doubts and conflicts as a member of Team Apocalypse through that lens?
It’s, like X-Men: Days of Future Past before it, overstuffed, complete with a very long cameo that makes me continue to pray that one day that actor might yet again know the taste of carbs. At the very least, everyone is game—it’s appealingly cast from tip to tern, with Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey stealing the show. Quiet, dry, a little stand-offish, and goodhearted, this is a Jean to root for. Jean is often treated as a cipher of a character, but I’m delighted by how central she is to X-Men: Apocalypse. I hope she remains so going forward.
I saw this film in theaters.