By Chaz Lipp
In what just might prove to be Summer 2016’s biggest disappointment, X-Men: Apocalypse fails to sustain the momentum of the ‘new’ X-Men cast that began so thrillingly in First Class (2011) and continued with the return of director Bryan Singer in Days of Future Past (2014). Singer is at the helm again for Apocalypse, but for some strange reason his inspiration appears to have withered and vanished. Days screenwriter Simon Kinberg has returned as well, but the result is closer to another, much-lamented X film he co-wrote: The Last Stand (2006).
It’s not that there aren’t moments of greatness laced throughout Apocalypse. The tragic family-life detour of Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto; Michael Fassbender), presently a factory worker in Poland, is so haunting that it almost seems to belong to a different, quieter film. Evan Peters is back to steal scenes as the perpetually-wired, supersonic Quicksilver. His rescue of young mutants at Professor X’s school is a set piece worthy of Days‘ celebrated kitchen sequence. Rose Byrne is another welcome returnee (from First Class; she missed out on Days). Her CIA agent Moira MacTaggert is the recipient (read: victim) of some rather egregious ‘memory wiping’ courtesy of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). And a cameo appearance by a certain adamantium-clawed character carries considerable bite.
But ultimately Apocalypse is undone by a staggeringly weak (and, as conceived, borderline silly) central villain. We meet En Sabah Nur (aka Apocalypse; Oscar Isaac) during a prologue set in ancient Egypt. The world’s first mutant (supposedly) is nearly all-powerful, but apparently if he’s buried deeply under enough solid rock he goes dormant. When tomb raiders inadvertently awaken the sleeping global threat, he resumes his quest to destroy all life on Earth. In an unwelcome throwback to comic book adaptions of yesteryear, this is a one-note villain who is given almost no motivation for his unstoppable power play. He’s just an evil dude for evil’s sake. Buried under layers of thick blue makeup appliances, Isaac is afforded no opportunity to make Apocalypse a full-bodied, fearsome, psychologically-interesting character. He’s just a guy on a heavy-duty power trip, prone to loud, grand, but ultimately hollow statements of purpose.
As is so often the case in comic book films involving seemingly unbeatable, omniscient foes, nukes come into play. But Apocalypse doesn’t want the help of such weapons – he wants to do his damage all by himself. The world’s nuclear disarmament at the hand’s of Apocalypse exemplifies the weakness of Singer’s film. If Apocalypse could be kept at bay by burying him under the ruins of a collapsed pyramid, surely we could nuke him into oblivion. In order to return the Earth to a pre-nuke state, our bad guy simply nullifies the world’s nuclear arsenal by flinging all warheads into space. We can’t nuke him, he can’t nuke us. This wouldn’t even really be a concern if Apocalypse hadn’t been conceived as such a tactile menace. For a guy who can pretty much do anything (including, disturbingly, embed living bodies within concrete walls), he always comes across as a ponderous, lumbering, and imminently defeatable human instead of a truly apocalyptic threat.
Ultimately, this X-Men outing is crowded with too many new characters (most of whom get little to do, especially Olivia Munn as villainous Psylocke). There’s also too much destruction. Both First Class and Days of Future Past managed to build to relatively contained climaxes – and still be exciting. Apocalypse succumbs to the same entire-city destruction that cluttered the climactic acts of other comic book movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron and even just disaster movies in general like this summer’s Independence Day: Resurgence.
Though not without flashes of the elements of great X-adventures, Apocalypse should’ve relied more on the type of thoughtful character-building that has characterized the series rather than F/X-driven destruction. If you’re a fan of the series, however, definitely see it for those flashes of greatness, the still-spirited cast (which also includes Jennifer Lawrence, returning as Raven), and the sense of maturity that director Bryan Singer manages to bring to this series (cartoonish villains aside). In spite of weaknesses, X-Men: Apocalypse manages to be entertaining – just not as entertaining as the series’ best entries.
X-Men: Apocalypse Images: 20th Century Fox