Long time readers of this blog will remember my thoughts on Days Of Future Past, genuinely one of the best comic-book films I have ever seen, and probably the best offering of the somewhat bloated X-Men franchise, which currently runs into 11 films, with several more in the pipeline. Yet, when Apocalypse came around, I found myself failing to get enthusiastic about it. Maybe it was the lackadaisical trailers, but it was mostly the critical reaction, a resounding “meh” which criticised a fallback to destruction porn and the boring villain. iTunes has finally given me the chance to catch a a look at Apocalypse. Was it as underwhelming as they said, or a more fitting continuation from Days Of Future Past than it was given credit for?
1983: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), with the help of Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) seeks to expand his school for the gifted, with recent arrivals including the telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and newly empowered Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan). Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) continues her work to help mutant outcasts around the globe, including the teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Eric Lehnscherr (Michael Fassbender) tries to move on from his past as “Magneto” with a new family. All of them find their lives brought crashing back together when the first mutant, En Sabur Nur (Oscar Isaac) re-awakens after a sleep of millennia, determined to take back the world he once ruled.
This is a strange one, in that many of the elements that kept Days Of Future Past from being a truly incoherent mess are still present – most of the cast, the director, (Bryan Singer, back again), etc – but where Days Of Future Past was able to keep its form and present a truly intriguing time skipping story, Apocalypse just flounders, unable to carry the weight of all of its characters and all that it wants to say, reverting back to what has been done before routinely.
One of the reasons that Days Of Future Past worked so well is that it was able to lock everything down by focusing primarily on the trio of Charles Xavier, Magneto and Mystique, and this very interesting triangular back and forth between the three. But here, that doesn’t exist. McAvoy’s Xavier is as charming and endearing as ever, but there was something great about the dark place that he was in during the last instalment, and seeming him pull himself out of it. Fassbender’s Magneto sees the reset button smashed down upon, living with a wife and child in Cold War Poland, ripe to see his disdain for humanity reawakened (and boy does it). And Mystique, well, she’s now some kind of mutant aiding vigilante, who just sort of stumbles into the plot: Jennifer Lawrence isn’t as bothered as she once was, as perhaps evidenced by the limited amount of time she was willing to be in make-up this time around.
Apocalypse has two ways in which it can save itself story and character wise then: with it’s new players, namely Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler, and with it’s villain, the titular Apocalypse. But the new generation are awfully dull: Scott Summers is a whiny teenager, Jean Grey isn’t played with any verve by Turner (trying to make the leap into films now that Westeros is winding down; one hopes she’ll get more chances) and Nightcrawler is just sort of there: unlike X-Men United, where Alan Cumming did so great with him, Smit-McPhee can’t grab the same level of interest. These three pop in and out of the narrative – in one crucial set-piece, their absence is explained away by them being at the mall seeing Return Of The Jedi (in a truly execrable bit of fan wankery, Jean Grey proclaims “The third one is always the worst”) – but never really grab you the way the characters should: the young mutants of First Class were much more interesting, maybe because they were new.
And then there is the villain. What is it with Marvel movies and the consistent failure to get this right? Peter Dinklage was the weakest part of Days Of Future Past, but he’s one-upped in mediocrity here by Oscar Isaac’s En Sabur Nur. Under lashings of make-up and with some serious voice modulation, the otherwise excellent Isaac can’t bring anything worth talking about to the part, a sort of blue demi-god who wants to take over the world because he wants to take over the world. His “horsemen” are presumably supposed to fill his void-like character out, but they ain’t up to much either: we have Storm, as token here as she often was when Halle Berry played the part, Angel, who barely gets to talk, and Psylocke, who gets to talk even less. Psylocke’s involvement here is apparently some kind of big deal, but with that ridiculous costume and lack of a character, she seems more like fan service than anything else. At least there is still Fassbender, but Apocalypse largely wastes him and his talent: Magneto is back to being a genocidal maniac this time around, but bizarrely a large amount of the good guys don’t seem to care at all.
The film basically trips along from underwhelming set-piece to underwhelming set-piece, with most of its best ideas evolved forms of what came before, most notably with the return of Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), with a new slow-motion rescue sequence, this time to the strains of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”. But so much else is just rather dour, exemplified best by a truly unnecessary sequence halfway through featuring Colonel Stryker and, guess who, Hugh Jackman in an uncredited extended cameo. Jackman has turned up in every X-Men film bar Deadpool now, but this is the most inane by far, little more than a gory re-introduction to the character that makes little sense given what we last saw of him in this timeline in Days Of Future Past. But, for some reason, he just had to be there, and so we get five excruciating minutes of him cutting up a set we all got used to back in X-Men United. The story trips along, before we get to a finale where X-Men throws some of its most important aspects completely out the window.
The X-Men franchise has never been one that I would have associated with destruction porn or the breaching of the carnage threshold. Looking back at the franchise, it’s always been one to emphasise “less is more”: therefore, Magneto’s moving of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Washington Stadium is especially impressive. But when you start getting city destruction on a global scale, as portrayed in Apocalypse, you start to remember the more negative parts of Man Of Steel rather than the more subtle and effective finales of X-Men or Days Of Future Past, or even The Wolverine.
Buildings and cities disintegrate at an alarming rate in Apocalypse. It works when it starts, when Magneto takes the opportunity to annihilate the remains of Auschwitz. But when every other city on the planet is taking a hit, it starts to become a little excessive. You tune out, you stop caring: when even X-Men is just showing bland CGI cities turning to dust as a sort of backdrop to the actual plot, you know that things are bad for this genre.
The cinematography aside from that is of an acceptable standard and little more, and the same can be said for the rest of the production as well: the script lacks the same verve previously shown by the same writing team, and the 1980’s aren’t as vividly or brilliantly depicted as the 70’s and 60’s were in other instalments: one wonders what exactly will occur for the 1990’s in the next one. And the score, too, is forgettable, unfortunately.
Apocalypse is thus a fairly major disappointment, especially considering the more illustrious and better made films that have come before it. The plot has all the hallmarks of a creative team that have run out of worthwhile ideas, and were reduced to slapping together ill-fitting segments with things that they had already tried in other films, sometimes to success, and sometimes not. The cast, most notably Isaac, is badly wasted, and the unexpected and entirely unwelcome resort to CGI destruction en masse is something we can only hope this franchise will only briefly dabble with. This is a bad, bad miss by Fox and Marvel: thankfully, Logan looks likely to correct the trend. Well, I hope. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).